Tonight, Clover travels about nine miles south to play York for the 100th time in a storied rivalry in an area that lives and breathes high school football.
York’s team is great this year by all accounts, and has lost two close, heartbreaking games. York is two plays from being unbeaten.
Clover has not won a single game this year. The Blue Eagles’ record is 0-10. The team has been outscored 439-87.
Every game has been heartbreak in Clover – for more than a year.
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Clover has not won a game since a hazing scandal last year led to many players’ getting kicked off the team and out of school and a police investigation.
The school and community were embarrassed. The coach last year and early this year quit when the team lost its first three games after losing so many last year by huge margins.
But one thing is certain: Clover will win tonight.
Maybe not on the scoreboard. But Clover already has won something far more important than any football game.
Clover’s players have won the battle to not give up.
This team, smaller and fewer in number than every team it has faced, has not quit.
Shantarius Brown, No. 29, is a defensive end. Brown is 17, and his grade-point average is in the top 5 percent of his graduating class of almost 500 students. He will study accounting and finance in college.
Football is not his life.
But he is the captain of a team that has lost every game.
So he has done his best in football anyway, even when every game has been a loss. The losing season has been “very hard,” he said.
But quitting was never an option.
“I told the other guys all year to look at the next play – don’t worry about the past, don’t blame other people – always consider what you can do to make the team better,” Brown said. “Do your best.”
Junior Scott Jackson, No. 6, is Clover’s quarterback. The quarterback on a losing team takes more hits than a boxing gym punching bag.
Still, Jackson always gets up. He smiles, even if his face hurts.
“When you are the quarterback, you have to be a leader,” Jackson said. “You lead by example. You can’t let anybody worry about losing. You look ahead. You try your best.”
Looking ahead to tonight’s game, Jackson said with a grin: “We don’t like York.”
That’s what football rivalries are. Tough and honest. Doing your best even when, maybe, nobody expects you to try anymore – even against a rival.
Senior DeForrest McCombs, No. 5, is a linebacker. He wants to work for the FBI after college. McCombs is proud to say that through all of the troubles of the past two seasons, he has done one thing: his best.
“You realize in life you are going to get knocked down,” he said. “But, regardless, you gotta get up.”
McCombs was talking about football – and losing all these games after trying so hard – but he sure was talking about life, too.
There will be a pep rally at the school before the game today, and the school will cheer for these young men who did not quit.
Another senior, Trent Hartis, No. 44, is a linebacker and fullback. Hartis’ forehead looks like a topographical map, from all the scrapes and bruises of playing football.
He’s played since he was a tiny kid. Unless he plays in college, tonight will be his last game. The last two years have seen many losses.
Yet Hartis has never stopped trying.
“Anybody says anything about us, I ask ’em, ‘Why aren’t you out there playing, doing the best you can do?’ ” Hartis said. “It takes a lot of guts to be out there.”
This year in Clover – a school that won a state title just five years ago – playing football has not been measured by lopsided scores and losses.
The only number that matters is zero – as in, nobody quit.
This last game, Brown has thought about for months. He knows most of York’s players. He will lead his team onto the field in front of thousands of people. Almost all of those fans will expect Clover to get crushed, creamed, destroyed.
Still, Brown will lead his team. These players will not roll over.
Since summer, Brown has thought about this last game against rival York. The players all know each other. Many grew up together. And this year, nobody expects Clover to have a chance.
Brown said, plainly, “We are going to try our hardest, our best.”
Clover will play hard, and each of these kids expects to win every game. Including tonight’s.
If Brown could change anything, he said, it would be the win-loss record. Nobody likes to lose. These kids hate to lose.
But Brown would not change the trying.
“I’d do it all over again,” he said.
There are no regrets for doing your best.
When the final whistle blows tonight in York, the scoreboard will show a team that scored the most points. Fans of the winning team will scream and brag.
Clover’s team will get on the bus for the ride home, having won something a lot more important than any football game.