Football Finale — Finding It: Chapter 8

If everything went according to the initial plan, I would have had fewer concerns. I might have settled for it being no more complicated than Bart promised. But over the ensuing days, I lost sleep at night worrying about the numerous what-ifs. I never accepted it but maybe I grew more complacent, or perhaps I was reconciled to the inevitability. Lots of people were involved. Some were gifted students and star athletes — the movers and shakers of the senior class. Who was I — Brent Who? If anyone was caught, would the school expel all of us? I doubted that. Our only hope, though, was whether we maintained solidarity. I could only hope the others felt as I did about honor and commitment.

Yes, I was naïve. Obviously, I missed foreseeing the part where they might sacrifice one for the sake of many.

As game time approached a massive cold front moved through southwestern Ohio bringing a chilly mixture of rain and sleet that covered the field prior to kickoff. Late-season games in the Midwest were especially prone to inclement conditions. Often enough, it served to dampen the spirits of the crowds on both sidelines. But as I arrived at the field, a few hearty souls, most of them parents, had already arrived, including those who drove all the way from Cincinnati to cheer on their winless team as they played their final football game ever.

On our side of the field, besides the cheering block and the marching band decked out in their slick rain gear, the grandstand was mostly vacant. The league title was already decided. This was a meaningless game being played at the end of a dreary day that capped off a less than stellar season. Pride alone was involved. Besides those close friends and relatives of the participants, who else would brave such elements to suffer miserably in stalwart defiance of the wet, cold conditions?

Despite the opposing team’s record, they took the kickoff and after only a few plays they reached the Countryside thirty-yard line. Our defense held them, forcing a field goal attempt that the kicker botched as he lost his footing and slid into his holder.

On our sideline players were complaining not only about the sloppy, slippery field and unsure footing but also how quick the other team was.

“You boys better wake up and make it a game or they’re gonna run over you,” Coach Blue reiterated what he’d preached every practice session during the week.

We took over on the thirty and drove to the Cincinnati forty-five before fumbling the ball away. Two plays later, on our forty the ball slipped out of their running back’s hands, and we recovered. Countryside drove fifteen yards but received a five-yard penalty. After a five-yard gain on the next play, we dropped the ball and our opponents recovered.

With the ever-worsening field conditions, the game dragged on, somewhere between a comedy of errors and laughably poor execution until just before halftime. Cincinnati attempted a pass that we intercepted and ran — or should I say slipped and slid — across the goal line. After missing the extra point conversion, we went to the fieldhouse with a six-point lead, which seemed formidable considering the gross lack of execution throughout the first half.

After a sloppy halftime during which the band performed from their seats in the stands, we received the kickoff for the second half and drove straight down the field and put it in the end zone, tacking on the extra point for a thirteen to nothing lead. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief and felt confident that the defense would do as they had all season long, protect our two-possession lead.

Rain and sleet continued to plague both teams, turning the field into a mucky, partially frozen but universally slick, muddy mess. Play on both sides of the ball was awful. We fumbled early in the fourth quarter but immediately recovered it. Then on the next play, we fumbled again but this time lost it. Cincinnati faked a run up the gut where our defense was stacked and flipped a short pass out into the flat. No one was there to prevent the score. With a little over nine minutes remaining, it was thirteen to six. Their kicker partially redeemed himself tacking on the extra point, so it became a thirteen to seven-game.

Our defense played tough, but the opposition was relentless. As if they were determined to make their last football game ever a come-from-behind, upset victory, they had the heart and desire. Players were staying in the game and gritting against the pain of injuries and the biting cold. Having few players in reserve to substitute, their trainers taped them up and they went back on the field. Many were ‘ironmen’ for that game: having dual roles for both offense and defense. Wherever they were finding the strength to do it, they were flat-out executing better and taking advantage of our mistakes. They were a step quicker, more focused, and had the greater desire. The way we were playing, it was only by luck that we clung to a lead.

Following a late-game drive down the field, they fumbled on our forty, giving us an opportunity to put the game away. Regardless of what we tried, we could not advance the ball. It was fourth down and we had lost a yard in three attempts. We punted, but the ball slipped off the side of the kicker’s foot. We gave them a golden opportunity at their thirty-eight-yard line.

They passed to the right flat for a quick ten. On the next play, they flung the ball out to the left for eight more. On second down and two, they ran up the middle for one hard-fought, messy yard.

Our defense stacked in with only the safeties protecting the sides. They faked a run inside and passed out into the right flat where our safety anticipated the ball and intercepted. He ran it back to the Cincinnati thirty-seven-yard line before losing his footing more so than the defense forcing him out of bounds. We were back in business and in control of our destiny. All we needed to do was play the clock and avoid mistakes for three and a half minutes while avoiding mistakes.

As our defense came off the field, they were exhausted. “They aren’t playing like a winless team,” one of the guys complained to no one in particular. It was clear that victory for the other team meant more than it did to us. It was not about mere bragging rights. This was it — the end. On our side of the ball, it was the last game for seniors. Certainly, I’d never play again, except for some silly pick-up game or perhaps playing on an intramural flag football team at college. Realistically, my future enjoyment of football would be as a spectator. One of the other guys on the team would go on to play at college. Others would be like me, playing pick-up games of touch among friends or whatever. This was the last official game ever, the chance to go out on a positive note.

On the other side, this was an opportunity to win against a supposedly superior team.

In three plays, we advanced the ball to the thirty. It was fourth down and a long, tough three. The coach decided to play it safe, to put the game out of reach with a field goal, even if it was a long kick. The snap and the set were perfect. The kick was straight but not far enough. Cincinnati took over with a little more than two minutes left.

Cincinnati used a quick huddle. Because of that, they caught our defense off guard and were able to pick up a quick fifteen. Next, a pass incompletion stopped the clock. On the third play, their tailback broke two tackles up the middle for ten yards. Coming off two first downs they hurried their count and drew our defense offside for a five-yard penalty.

From just inside the Countryside forty, they ran a quarterback option play pitching out to the tailback for a gain of seven. With about a minute left to play, the defense stopped them at the line of scrimmage, and they took a time-out stopping the clock with forty-five seconds remaining.

On the next play, our opponents dropped back for a pass, but our coverage was perfect, forcing the quarterback to roll left where he was dropped for a six-yard loss. With third down coming they used another time-out stopping the clock at twenty-eight seconds. With their next play, an option the opposite way for a small gain, they still came up short of the first down.

Obviously, they had to go for it on fourth down. They had sixteen seconds left and no time-outs. They lined up without a huddle having called the play in advance. Our defense was stacked in, gambling that they would go for the first and the automatic stop of the clock to move the chains and then go for a short pass. It was what we would have done. It was what everyone on our sideline expected. But that was not what they did.

Their quarterback dropped straight back and had four receivers out in the same area against five defenders. He tossed a perfect lob to the only one who had a chance of catching a pass. With eight seconds left on the clock, feet in bounds, their wide receiver caught the touchdown. The score was tied at thirteen.

We did what we could, stacking in tight to try to block the point-after-kick attempt. Into the game went our fastest guys on either side of the line as well as our tallest and highest leapers in the middle of the defensive backfield.

The ball was snapped, the pressure was heavy, almost overwhelming but somehow the ball squeezed through all the raised hands and split the uprights for the extra point. It was fourteen to thirteen with us receiving the kickoff, a squib that we fell on with only six seconds left on the clock as Coach Blue immediately called a time out.

We did the only thing we could do. We had our best players in the game. We didn’t want to suffer the embarrassment of being the only win of Cincinnati’s season. Despite that they played with a lot of heart and character and surely deserves to win because, on that night, they were the better team, we would not yield so easily. There was still a chance.

From the snap, our running back saw daylight, running toward it until the defense was drawn toward him. Then he turned and shuffle-passed it to Jim, the quarterback who was trailing the play. He ran for the sideline and stepped out of bounds at the forty-seven-yard line, stopping the clock with one second remaining. We knew what we needed for the win. So did Cincinnati. They dropped back to wait for our desperation pass.

When the ball was snapped, they barely even rushed our quarterback. The time on the clock had long since expired as somehow, despite the conditions, Jim launched a wobbly floater to the corner. I wished I could toss some magic out there to ensure everything worked out perfectly, but I wasn’t quite there yet with controlling the world around me. Anyway, it looked like we were going to make it. Four Countryside receivers were there against only three defenders. We had a good chance, maybe not the best, but still…

At the last possible instant, a single hand swatted at the ball. Deflected away from anyone, the ball descended until it splashed and splatted where it landed, unable to even bounce for all the mud as it plunked down in the end zone.

Where there had been cheering, hopeful for yet another heroic conclusion, an eerie, acquiescent silence settled over the faithful few who remained in the grandstands. It was the other sideline that erupted in cheers, as was their right. They earned it. Their last game would not be another in a long succession of defeats. It was a victory, real victory, after a hard-fought battle that had become personal as no one on either side would concede a thing.

It could be said we gave them the game. In a way, we did because we took them lightly and underestimated their desire. Simply put, they out hustled us. We fought them to the end. They knew they’d been in a battle. Nothing was given. Whether they won it — or we lost it — didn’t matter. The score said it all.



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ElgonWilliams Author

Professional Author & Publicist @Pandamoonpub #FriedWindows #BecomingThuperman #TheWolfcatChronicles