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I am in Marshall County, about 15 miles east of the Brewer campus. I am walking across the stadium parking lot of the Arab High School Knights, and a buzz is rippling through the Indian summer air. The high rise lights are already turned on. Off to the side, sandy-haired teens recline in a pickup truck with rebel flags hanging off the sides. Hundreds of fans wearing blue are surging through the parking lot to get to the gate. Here and there a Brewer family stands out, conspicuous because of their red garments and tense faces. Opening kickoff is minutes away.
A screened-in barbecue pit sits just off the field. Inside, a group of fathers toils over the coals, slinging ribs and chicken onto the hot grills. The wind is blowing the smoke out across the end zone. The smell of cooking meat wafts all the way to the bleachers, a most effective advertisement.
The Arab Knights are not traditionally thought of as a football power, but they have recently been a good team. Last year’s squad went 8-4, including a 25-7 victory on Brewer’s home field. My best objective guess would be that Arab is about a two touchdown favorite tonight.
Brewer begins the game on offense. The first play of the game is a pass, and a Knight defender cuts inside the route and intercepts the throw. The Arab player then angles to the sideline and races, untouched, down the field for a touchdown.
After this first blood is drawn, the Patriots seem oddly relieved. They settle into their offense and are able to control long stretches of the first half, eating up clock and yardage. The one facet where Brewer seems to have an advantage is their offensive line, and the front five are pushing the Knights back one yard at a time. However, each time Brewer creeps into Arab territory, the Patriots undo themselves with a turnover.
The critical play of the game occurs at the end of the first half. Arab is leading 14-0 and has just intercepted another Brewer pass. On 4th and 7 from the Brewer 42 the Knights elect not to punt but to run one more play. In their haste to snuff out the option attack, the Patriots leave a seam on the outside. The Arab tailback takes the pitch and breaks containment, fleeing free all the way to the end zone as time expires. It is a crushing, deflating play, one which the Patriots cannot rouse themselves from.
The game quickly slips away in the second half. With the score 41-0, a long kickoff return sets the Patriots up at the Arab 15. The Brewer crowd comes alive, cheering hard, trying to coax their boys 15 yards to a score. It isn’t to be. On first down, Josh Wilson’s pass falls into the hands of two Arab defenders at the same time. There is a brief tug-of-war before one of the Knights gives the ball up and lets his associate carry it while he escorts. There are no Patriots in front of them and the Knights take off towards the opposite end zone. This produces an iconic image: one of Brewer’s players gives hopeless pursuit the entire length of the field. He is Nick Humphries, a tall, rail-thin freshman receiver. The convoy of blue jerseys glides across the goal line to the adulation of the home crowd. The freshman was never going to catch them, but he sprinted for 90 yards, and sometimes effort stands on its own.
In the waning moments of the game there is a scene quietly unfolding on the Patriot sideline. Senior offensive lineman Mark Honeycutt is seated on one of the benches and is crying. Honeycutt is one of the captains, a leader whom many of the players look to as an older brother. The younger players move around him now, unsure of how to respond to his outpouring of emotion. Finally two fellow seniors, John Steffen and Desmon Pegues, seek him out and get in his ears. As they console Honeycutt, one of the student managers walks over and silently loops his arm around the lineman’s neck.
Meanwhile, The Patriots have backed themselves into a 4th and 33 and are lining up to punt. The Brewer band stirs and begins a rendition of the Katy Perry song “Firework”. The Brewer punt is away, spinning end over end in the night air. The gunners cut down the sidelines, and “Firework” has never sounded quite so sad.
After the game some of the parents are gathered around the Brewer school buses, waiting to feed the players. The buses are lined next to a building, creating a tight alleyway where no light can reach. One by one the Patriots emerge and walk down the dark corridor to pick up peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and bottles of water before boarding the buses. The players look like straggling survivors of a Civil War battle. Some appear dazed. Others simply stare at the ground. Devin Crowe brushes past, his wet blond hair falling in sheets over a cherry red face. Josh Wilson is sporting a gash up the side of his arm as he stops to talk with his parents.
And then there is Mark Honeycutt, limping through the shadows. I catch him before he climbs on the bus.
I ask him about the game, and more tears well up in his eyes. He is back in July, on one of those 6am practices running wind sprints across the Brewer campus.
“We were working so hard…” he chokes on the words before composing himself and finishing.
“This is not how we wanted to begin the year.”
As this series of articles has begun to circulate, an awareness has seeped through the team that they are being watched. I ask Mark if there is anything that he would like to say to the readers from all over the country who have followed Brewer up to this point.
Mark looks up at me in the darkness. His plea is earnest, almost desperate:
“Still believe in us.”
The senior pulls himself up the steps and vanishes inside the bus. Above us, the parking lot lights are shining down on the yellow tops of the buses, bouncing the light up and attracting swarms of bugs. A half-dozen bats are corkscrewing through the soft glow, catching bugs as they go.
Empty roads will take these boys home, over county lines and through the sleeping hills. Tonight’s battle is lost, but football is the strangest of wars. Redemption awaits in the Indian summer, never farther than seven days away.
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