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Someone at the front of the crowd decides that it is time, and the door swings open. The players rush out into the cool mountain air, to the sounds of cheerleaders and the sweet aroma of a dozen different
perfumes blending into one. One by one the players pass through into the night, pausing only to tap the sign that hangs over the door: PUSH DOWN THE WALL TODAY!
The first thing you notice about the locker room is the smell. It hits you on your second step into the room, an odor strong enough to deter the casual onlooker and keep the place sacred. It isn’t a dirty smell, not exactly, but one of shoes and sweat and hormones.
The Patriots sit, lining the edges of the room. New navy helmets glisten under the light bulbs. The younger ones, the ones who won’t play much tonight, are casual and easy. The others, upon whom much will ride, look much more serious. Mark Honeycutt is seated on a bench with the rest of the offensive line. The senior looks completely at peace. Josh Wilson is in the center of things, edgy and loose, with black paint drawn carefully under his eyes.
Kickoff is minutes away. The offensive coordinator stands in the middle of the room, giving final instructions. The coaches have seen the film. They have held the meetings, debated the strategy and scripted the plans. Now the hour is upon them. The offensive coordinator is bouncing like a pinball across the room. He questions first one player and then another, demanding they shout out the answer.
“Easter!” the coach barks. The eyes in the room shift.
Michael Easter, a smart-looking kid with strawberry blond hair, is dialed in. The tight end calls out his blocking assignments with certainty.
Tonight’s opponents are the Curry Yellow Jackets. Before the season began this game was circled as one of the contests that Brewer could reasonably expect to win. The Patriots have beaten Curry in each of the past three seasons. However, the Yellow Jackets have arrived at tonight’s game 2-0. Their two wins have not been against elite teams, though, and no one seems to have a handle on how good Curry might be.
The game starts at an uneasy pace, like two experienced boxers pawing at each other in an opening round. Josh Wilson has been moved from quarterback to running back, in favor of junior Westin Pritchett. There have been several such changes as the Patriots struggle to spread their talent over all the positions. Two seniors have quit the team in recent days, and the Brewer armor was already running threadbare in spots.
Finally Brewer gains some traction and moves into Curry territory. The Patriots push down to the 2 yard line and send in their jumbo set. The handoff goes to fullback Jalen Chatman, who leans on the pile until it gives way and he tumbles into the end zone.
A surge of relief sweeps across the home bleachers. Parents stand and pound their hands together, awash in a sort of indignant pride. The Brewer cannon, a tradition after touchdowns, sends a boom echoing back and forth across the valley. Even the teenagers who spend the entire game walking around the track stop and gawk at the scoreboard.
A few minutes later Curry is able to tie the score 7-7, but the home fans remain upbeat. The Patriots are once again moving the ball, and for the first time all season it feels like Brewer is the better team.
Brewer is at midfield and Curry is back on their heels. Pritchett takes the snap and bootlegs out to his left, looking upfield. As he does this, a Curry player blitzes off the opposite edge, but no one picks up the defender. Pritchett slows to a trot, waiting for the receivers to come out of their cuts. The defender closes in from behind at full speed. I am sitting with the Patriot families and it is a horrible, sickening moment in the bleachers. Everyone in the stadium can see the hit coming except for Westin.
The Curry defender slams into Pritchett and the quarterback crumples like an empty aluminum can. Their bodies sprawl across the grass, leveled by the force of the collision. And then there is the ball, rolling on the ground, unclaimed. Curry players are everywhere, swarming into the backfield like a pack of wolves. Pritchett is dazed. He rolls onto his stomach as the wave of defenders crests over him. He absentmindedly reaches for the loose ball, but it is gone. Curry has recovered the fumble, and the momentum has abandoned the Patriots.
The second and third quarters play out like a nightmare for Brewer. Not even halftime can break the string of big plays that Curry is manufacturing. Curry scores on the ground, through the air, with a safety, and on a kickoff return. All the while Brewer cannot return fire: The wheels of the Patriot offense have come off, and drive after drive sputters under the bright lights. The JROTC students manning the Brewer cannon loiter aimlessly along the edge of the field.
Late in the 4th quarter the Patriots trail 37-7. The Yellow Jackets run the ball deep into Brewer territory and the Curry coach promptly orders the offense into the shotgun. A 30 point margin is evidently not enough. The Patriots seem almost in disbelief as they fan out, scrambling to line up against all the receivers.
The sons of the hills are beaten and broken. This was a game they thought they could win, and somehow it all went wrong. Somehow it turned out like all the others. And now they are standing in their own end zone against a team intent on rubbing six points of salt into the wound. The Patriots lean over the line of scrimmage, waiting for the snap of the ball and the crush of bodies.
Inside the Brewer locker room all is still. Decorations spill out of some of the lockers, where mothers have braved the smell long enough to tape team photos and inspirational notes where the boys will see them. An algebra book lies on the floor where it was hastily discarded so its owner could change into pads. Next to the training tables a row of Gatorade coolers sits on a counter. One of the coolers has a leak, and a baking foil has been laid on the floor to collect the drips. The pitter of the falling Gatorade is the only sound in the room.
A handwritten sign, scribbled lightly in pencil, is hung on the wall above the coolers. It is nothing but a torn sheet of notebook paper fastened with athletic tape. Its words are simple:
“If you quit on the practice field you will quit in the game.
If you quit in the game you will quit in life.
I’ll not have it!”
In the last several minutes of the game, Curry was twice inside the Brewer 10 for 1st and goal. On both possessions, the Brewer defense forced a turnover and kept the Yellow Jackets from scoring.
Read the Mountain Boys series here: