The bus pulled up next to the field, the grass brown and dead for the season. Down the steps of the bus came the team that would not die.
Big and small, skinny and stout, the Fort Mill Middle School eighth-grade football players clomped off in their football cleats carrying a record of zero wins and seven losses around their necks. This was the playoffs in the middle school league, the last game of the year. An away game in Rock Hill against Castle Heights Middle School.
In this league, all the teams make the playoffs. Castle Heights had lost every game this year, too.
But Fort Mill’s Yellow Jackets had not scored a single point all season.
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Penalties negated three touchdowns. At least eight players were lost to injuries big and small. The season that started with hope under brutal summer sun turned into an October avalanche with these 13- and 14-year-old kids underneath it. School became brutal. Middle school taunts can be worse than the names politicians call each other.
The coach even gave the season without scoring a nickname: “The Goose-Egg Curse.”
The last game was played the day before Halloween. The day before the day of curses.
“It’s been hard at school, when everybody knows and reminds you that your team never scored,” said Jaylen Henderson, on crutches with a broken knee. Still, he wore his jersey to the last game because he did not quit.
For almost three months, this team practiced, sweated and fought – and never once had a chance to cheer.
The team marched toward the field Wednesday to a chorus of encouragement from a short young coach named Frank Dickerson, and a big young coach named Matt Maurer. The words caromed around the field that had a few dozen fans – all parents and grandparents or other family members.
“This is your day,” shouted Dickerson.
“Be great today,” yelled Maurer. “You can do it. You will do it.”
Across the field warming up stood the Castle Heights team. They also had endured a season without a win and had still hung on to keep trying. But Castle Heights had scored, come so close to winning. Fort Mill Middle never had even one end zone dance.
Dickerson and Maurer gathered the team before kickoff. The faces of the kids looked through the facemasks of the helmets.
The faces wondered. The faces had questions.
The two adults told them the answers.
“You never gave up, you did your best this year, you are champions,” Dickerson said. “I have never been prouder of any team, anywhere. Nobody has. I have never met kids or adults who have the heart that you have.
“Go out there today and show everybody what it is to be great. Show that heart.”
Mauer gathered the team for a cheer. He looked like he belonged in Lilliput, crowded by the tiny.
“One, two, three – all in!” the team screamed.
The faces that had questions changed to faces of grit, even through braces on teeth.
The team ran toward the sideline.
There was a coin toss to determine who got the ball first. Team Captain Micah Campbell, No. 82, called it. He stood about 5-foot-1 and maybe 100 pounds, if you include the helmet, pads, socks and mouthguard. The Castle Heights captain was almost 6 feet tall.
Campbell’s voice squeaked from his helmet after he won the toss: “We’ll take the ball.”
As he and the other Fort Mill captains ran off the field, one shouted, “And we are gonna score this time, too!”
Fort Mill took possession, and the trickle of a spring turned into a torrent of raging river in just four plays. A run went for a first down. A bootleg keeper went for 25 yards. The tailback, whippet-thin Carter Richardson, snaked his way around defenders on a long run to the Castle Heights 20-yard line.
The few dozen parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts in the stands sensed that something was up. The polite applause of the first play turned into screams of “Go Jackets!” Feet pounded metal stands. Mommas yelled while daddies jumped up and down. One guy threw a tiny child into the air over and over – and caught her over and over.
Another run took the ball to the Castle Heights 8-yard line.
Fort Mill quarterback Alex Roscoe, Number 2, took the snap. He faked to a runner and handed the ball on a misdirection play to No. 88 Brian Russell. This big, tough kid was the player above almost all, his teammates said, who had led his squad through this trying year. He practiced hard and played hard and led by example.
A Castle Heights giant slammed into Russell. He did not fall.
He veered left and bounced off two tacklers. He cut right. Two Castle Heights defenders jumped on his back, another wrapped around his legs.
Somehow, Russell kept moving forward. His running turned to slow motion. His legs churned. The pile moved.
When the pile finally collapsed, it fell forward. The tip of the football lay about three inches over the goal line.
The coaches, Dickerson and Maurer, jumped up and down while cautiously looking for penalty flags that had denied these kids so many times. The players did not know whether to cheer or drop to their knees and pray.
The sideline official, a retired Rock Hill cop named Terry Taylor who knows what it is to try hard and keep trying, threw up both his arms.
“Touchdown!” the whole stadium screamed. The stands shook with bouncing parents. There were hugs and tears.
The players on the field and on the sideline hugged and slapped backs.
“First touchdown!” they screamed to each other. “We scored!”
The two coaches looked at each other and said, at the same time: “Lotta football left.”
The scoreboard read: Visitors 6, Home 0, 6:20 left in the first quarter.
More than three quarters left to play.
Those 25 minutes and 40 seconds would seem to take exactly a thousand years to finish.
At halftime, still with the lead, Dickerson and Maurer told these kids, whose faces had changed after the thrill of scoring, to finish the job. Dickerson sure sounded like Vince Lombardi. Maurer looked like Mike Ditka, seeming to have grown to 12 feet tall. His voice was just about gone from screaming encouragement.
The players stormed back to the sideline in a tidal wave.
Across the field, Castle Heights players ran back, too. Their principal, Kelly Kane, had said before the game how proud the school was of this team that never gave up throughout a winless season.
“Every one of our kids is a winner,” said Kane, who in 42 years of teaching has dried a million tears and taught thousands of kids that it takes guts to not be a quitter.
In the third quarter, the teams traded tackles and hits and short drives that ended without scores. So many Fort Mill players made touchdown-saving tackles on taller, faster Castle Heights players. As the game stretched to the fourth quarter, the stands rocked and the players’ faces were streaming with sweat and dirt and, yes, snot.
Castle Heights runners carried the ball or caught the ball, and so many times there was tiny No. 60 from Fort Mill holding on to him for dear life.
Josiah “Joe” Waldo, No. 60, is 4 feet, 11 inches tall. He weighs about 93 pounds. He might be the smallest defensive tackle/nose guard in the history of football.
One time the Castle Heights quarterback ran for a gain of five yards after zig-zagging around the backfield. For all of those yards, Waldo hung onto that quarterback’s legs.
He still hung on.
His teammates and coaches on the sideline called out over and over, “Joe is playing the game of his life!”
Turns out the whole team was playing the game of their lives.
The fourth quarter changed from football game to steel-cage wrestling match. Players snorted and spit and tackled and blocked. Arms were bent and legs wrenched, but all got up and played on.
Tim Kelso, No. 35, and Dakota Proctor, No. 70, made touchdown-saving tackles. So many players dove and blocked, tackled and scrapped, making plays that none had ever been able to make before with the same bodies.
Fort Mill got the ball back late but was forced to punt with 1:38 left on the clock. The Jackets were stuck on their own 7-yard line. The parents prayed aloud in the stands.
Coach Dickerson called a special play.
The snapper hiked the ball over the punter’s head by a mile, out of the end zone.
The sun was setting and a whole team of players and supporters thought the sun had just set on any chance to win, too.
Everybody was heartbroken.
“Oh, no! We were so close!” came the screams from parents.
But Dickerson had ordered that snap out of the end zone on purpose. He gave Castle Heights a safety worth two points, and Castle Heights would get the ball after a kickoff. But Castle Heights would get the ball near the middle of the 100-yard field and still have to score a touchdown to win, instead of from close in, down by the end zone. There was just a minute left.
“Best coaching move I ever saw on any level,” said the guy working the down markers on the sidelines – a Castle Heights player’s father. “Fort Mill’s coach just won the game for his team.”
Dickerson winked on the sideline and yelled to his team, “If you have a minute left in you, you are champions!”
Fort Mill’s defense rumbled back onto the field for the last gasp. There was a play – and a fumble! A Fort Mill player pounced on the ball.
The offense took over. The quarterback took a snap. He knelt down.
The scoreboard clock showed: 0:00.
The scoreboard showed: Visitor 6, Home 2.
“We won!” screamed the players.
Then both teams lined up to walk across the field to shake hands. It is a line of sportsmanship as old as sports. Good sports shake hands. Bad sports throw helmets and fight.
The two sides of this greatest game ever played, every player on both teams, said repeatedly to his foes: “Good game.”
Every hand was shaken.
The Fort Mill team then sprinted toward the end zone where the adults, the coaches, fought back tears. School administrators and parents and others rushed toward the players who had not given up, ever.
Maurer, trying not to cry, told the kids to smell.
“Smell?” they asked.
“That is the smell of victory!” Maurer shouted.
The kids sniffed. They smelled victory, too.
Dickerson – the little coach whose big heart was broken repeatedly for his players, who used the “Goose-Egg Curse” as motivation not to succumb – told these kids that what they did on this day was not about football. It was not about sports. It was about the day in 20 or 30 years when they are lawyers and doctors and teachers and parents.
“You guys just showed what life is all about,” Dickerson said. “You never gave up.”
Dickerson singled out no stars. He told the players that every one of them was important and vital, and that without all of them, there would not have been any touchdown or broken curse or win in the very last game of football that many of them will ever play.
The whole team cheered.
Carter Richardson, No. 10, called the game the greatest moment of his young life.
Alex Roscoe, No. 2, said, “I never was prouder of my team than right now.” Winning, and not quitting, he said, feels “amazing.”
Brian Russell, No. 88, who scored that only touchdown of the whole season after leading a team that had endured taunts of “losers” for so long, said he scored the touchdown, but his whole team won the game and never quit.
And there in the middle stood Joe Waldo, No. 60. He stood next to the other players as about the smallest guy on the whole team. His arms and legs were scratched and his hair was stuck up all over, drenched with sweat. His face had dirt on it from the field.
Waldo didn’t want to, because he is the toughest of all tough guys, but he did something then.
“Don’t give up!” Waldo said as his shoulders shook, because kids’ shoulders shake when they cry.
But the tears lasted just a moment. Then he and his buddies ran away to the waiting bus.
The bus would take them home and into the rest of their lives, where winners are the ones who do not give up.