Sometimes I think back to the summer in the brutally hot sun. Back then, I wondered why I was even out there, how fatigued I was just trying to get in shape. But as I walked into my team’s inflatable helmet ready to sprint onto the football field for the first time, I realized why I was doing it.
“Let’s go!” the team captain yelled to the team.
“Who are we?!”
“Wildcats!” the team yelled back.
“Who are we?!”
The team then sprinted on the field after the face mask was opened by two of the cheerleaders.
As we ran to the sidelines, I could feel the special nature of what was happening. It was great to be on the field instead of in the stands for the first varsity game of the year. I looked up to the crowd and saw all my friends cheering us on–it was indescribable. The Friday night lights were just as amazing as I imagined.
After the band played the national anthem, it was time for kickoff. We were playing our local rival San Jose High School, who was in the classification above us. Despite being smaller than them, we knew we could beat them.
On the opening kickoff, my best friend Marc Johnson took the kickoff all the way back for a touchdown, spiking the ball of the AstroPlay turf as he arrived in the end zone.
“Yo, good shit Marc,” I told him as we greeted each other on the sideline. He was somewhat out of breath, so I took his handshake/high five as a “thanks.”
But that was the last highlight for us as San Jose went on to score three touchdowns and a field goal over the next twenty minutes or so of game time. Even though they missed the final extra point after their touchdown with about a minute and a half to go in the half, they still took a 23-7 lead into halftime.
The team looked somewhat dejected going into the locker room but Coach Jim Vaughn, or “Coach Jimmy” as we called him, refused to let us down.
“Look, we’re only down two or three scores, stop acting like the game is over,” Coach Jimmy stressed to us.
“Starr, just relax and try not to force anything,” he told our starting quarterback.
“Johnson, get out there and use that footwork you learned in Spring drills. Their cornerback can’t contain your speed or athleticism and you’re taller than him”
He finished his speech by letting us know it was anyone’s game.
“They came and hit us in the mouth but if wildcats are known for one thing, they are known for scrapping and clawing till the end. 2 quarters–24 minutes gentlemen.”
Coach started the chant.
“Who are we?!”
“Who are we?!”
“Who are we?!
“Now get out there, and show them who’s the best.”
It was a great and inspiring speech. Unfortunately, as we came back out and kicked off to start the second half, they returned the kick for a touchdown. The extra point was good and San Jose took a 30-7 lead.
“Cot dammit! Why didn’t they contain him on the right side of the field like I told them!” Coach Jimmy thought to himself, stopping himself from throwing his headset.
It was a tough blow, especially since we were so fired up after the halftime speech. But it paled in comparison to a bigger blow that was about to come. On our first play from scrimmage, John Starr, our team’s starting all-district quarterback, was hit, fell down awkwardly on his injured throwing arm and from the way he reacted, it didn’t look good.
“Hey son,” Coach Jimmy yelled to me. “Start warming up your arm.”
While I hardly felt good about getting in because John was hurt, it was somewhat overwhelming to be getting my first action so soon and abruptly. After all I was was only a sophomore and was just expected to come in if the team was involved in a blowout. As I ran out and met the team in the huddle after having been told what play to run from Coach Jimmy, butterflies circled my stomach.
“Okay, we’re gonna run Shotgun slant right,” I said to the team in the huddle.
“Ready?! Break!” we all clapped after yelling the latter.
At the line of scrimmage, I looked over the defense and saw a match up between Marc and the corner covering him that I liked. I kicked up my leg, the center on the offensive line raised his head and snapped the ball.
I saw Marc and fired across the middle. What I didn’t realize was that the middle linebacker on the San Jose defense knew what I was going to do and I threw it right to him. Luckily, he tried to run before actually catching the ball and dropped a sure interception. My confidence was shaky and it was 3rd and 16, which wasn’t the best time to feel that way.
“Alright, time to regroup and relax,” I told myself.
On third down, we ran Shotgun slant left, and after a pump fake I found Marc all alone by himself beyond the secondary and I launched it to him. Marc was home free and scored his second touchdown of the night. After the extra point, our deficit fell to 16, 30-14.
“Alright, good throw!” My mother yelled at me from the crowd. I blew a kiss back to her.
San Jose threatened to score, going on a drive that lasted more than six minutes of game clock but we blocked the field goal and recovered the ball at our own 23, setting off an eruption from our crowd and from the team.
“Let’s gooooo!” I yelled as we ran back onto the field.
With draws and short passing plays, we managed to drive 77 yards in just over four minutes of game time to cut the lead to nine points, 30-21. On the touchdown, I thought about scrambling but was scared from doing so by a few defenders, forcing me to throw a 7 yard pass to Marc high in the air just out of the reach of the cornerback who could not reach where I threw it due to his short height.
“Hey, good job man you’re doing a great job,” a teammate told me.
After stopping them at our own 47 yard line with 10:17 remaining in the fourth quarter, they punted and pinned us at our own 12 yard line after a fair catch. Coach Jimmy gave me the play as I returned to the field.
“Playaction fake out of the Trips formation.
I passed the ball 38 yards to our tight end for a first down at the 50 yard line. We drove all the way to the 16 yard line, but the drive stalled there and we had to kick a field goal with 4:45 remaining. The kick made the score 30-24.
We didn’t even feel we were necessarily outplaying San Jose but we were sensing victory, smelling blood like a shark near it’s prey in the water.
But our kickoff coverage let us down again, this time allowing them to start at our 20 yard line. After an incompletion by their quarterback on first down, they played conservative with two runs up the middle, trying to run some clock. San Jose did just that but an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after the third down run forced them all the way back to the 35 yard line, out of field goal range for their kicker. San Jose tried to “pooch punt” the ball inside the 10 yard line but it bounced into the end zone for a touchback, allowing us one last drive with 3:15 remaining in the game.
I had waited my entire life for this. My dream of playing in a high school game was already fulfilled but now I had the chance to lead a game winning drive. It was special but wouldn’t be as much of a mind blowing moment if we failed.
We started by staying in the shotgun formation. I passed to my receivers along the sidelines to stop the clock. After two passes for 7 and 9 yards respectively, coach had me take a risk and called a draw. Our runningback was up to the challenge and surprised the defense with a 29 yard gain to the left side and was stopped at their 45 yard line with 2:37 remaining. The clock stopped as the officials moved the first down markers. The crowd was on it’s feet, the drama was was intense.
Unfortunately, San Jose ran a blitz on the next play, limiting my options and sacking me back at our own 49. With about 2:00 remaining on the clock, I rallied the team back to the line of scrimmage and had to create something from scratch. I used my scrambling ability to buy time and found my favorite receiver, Marc, pointed him in the direction of the sideline and threw a 20 yard pass to him as he ran out of bounds at the 31 yard line.
The crowd was still on it’s feet and now with the sweat dripping profusely from my body, especially my helmet, I almost thought I didn’t have enough to go on. We next ran a draw from the shotgun formation for three yards. The idea was to catch them by surprise but they weren’t biting and it left the clock ticking.
“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!” I urged on the team, spiking the ball with 1:28 remaining at the 28 yard line.
On the next play I threw an 8 yard pass to Marc on a slant route and he picked up another first down at the 19 yard line, stopping the clock with 1:19 remaining. I felt we were in great shape but the next play was a “dump off” pass good for only 6 yards, getting us to the 13 but the reciever did not get out of bounds to stop the clock. By the time I threw an incompletion to the tight end, there was only 50 seconds remaining.
Coach Jimmy had me throw to Marc on a stop route, good for 5 yards and a first down, stopping the clock at 43 seconds on the 8 yard line. Coach Jimmy called a timeout.
“This is it gentlemen, this is what you play for,” he told the team.
“Look…don’t do anything irrational, don’t force anything and scramble if you need to because we have two timeouts,” he told me.
One more time he started the chant.
“Who are we?!”
“Who are we?!”
“Who are we?!”
The first play back was in shotgun. Heeding his advice not to force anything, I scrambled instead of throwing and reached the 3 yard line. Coach Jimmy couldn’t get the timeout he wanted fast enough and as we ran back to the line of scrimmage to spike he finally got his timeout with 25 seconds left, rendering my spike of the ball irrelevant.
On the next play, I handed off to our running back in the goalline formation but he was stuffed at the 5 yard line, as they charged up the middle and stuffed our attempt. Once again, Coach Jimmy couldn’t get his timeout quickly and he finally got his timeout with 17 seconds remaining. On the 3rd down after the timeout, we ran a pass from the shotgun formation but after scrambling to the right and not seeing anyone open, I was left with no choice but to throw the ball out of bounds , which stopped the clock with 8 seconds left.
This was it-out of all the special moments that had happened that night, none was more meaningful and dramatic than this. I could have only dreamed of this in the summer, doing those exhausting two-a-days. Now was my moment to make or break my first game as a high school football player.
Both me and Coach Jimmy thought alike. We wanted Marc to line up to left and I would throw to him on a fade route. It was the best play we could think of on this fourth down scenario. I got under center
“Set! Hut! Hut!” I yelled as the center snapped the ball.
But the play didn’t go as planned, as a tall safety quickly came over to cover Marc. With no other receiver open, I did what I had to do-I ran for the goaline. A cornerback and linebacker saw me run to the right and tried to get to me. The linebacker stood no shot, so it was the cornerback, who charged hard at the 2 yard line. Combined with the alignment of the linebacker, they both made it hard to get in. That’s when I took flight, jumping into the tackle of the cornerback, who could only knock me to the side. With me reaching out, the ball crossed the plane of the end zone with no time left, I scored the touchdown and the team celebrated as if we’d just won the Super Bowl. The crowd roared and screamed as if they saw us win one.
We were lucky not to get an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty but we didn’t. My teammates had to virtually carry me off the field-I was that tired.
“Good job, we won baby,” a teammate greeted me with on the sideline.
“Starr who? You played like a seasoned vet, a star in your own right,” another teammate told me.
The whole team was giddy but what was to ensue next would be the most stunning moment in all my years of playing sports. The extra point was blocked and the safety who blocked it picked it up and was off to the races.
“Oh my God…are you serious?” as the San Jose fans cheered loudly.
He ran all the way back to the other end zone to score a two point safety and San Jose won the game 32-30. After all the dramatic plays, after I rallied the team back in my first game on varsity, and after we celebrated a win, they won it after all. It was the emptiest feeling of my life and I collapsed on the ground in tears, my hands on my head as I lay face first on the turf.
As we all regrouped from the shock, it was time to shake hands with the other team, there was nothing but some of the most encouraging comments coming from the San Jose players.
“Keep your head up man, you were awesome,” one player told me.
“No one deserved to lose this game,” another told me.
There were even more, all of them making me feel somewhat better. My performance allowed me to replace Starr as the starter, since he was lost for the season after that game as I later found out.
But in the grand scheme of it all, it was just another fall Friday night in Texas, where people gather and mass together to take part in a religion unlike anything else anywhere in the world: football.