The scene still gets to me.
Young men, teenaged boys strewn across a section of green turf with tear stained faces.
6-foot-4, 300-pound football players you wouldn’t want to meet alone in a dark alley, falling limp into the arms of coaches, some of who are half their height and size.
And the coaches. Grown men by every definition. Father figures. Authoritative. But in these moments, they’re pillow soft. Partially because they have to be to console their young warriors. Then partly, because they can’t help it.
Deep down, they need some consolation themselves.
Anyone who thinks the game of football is just a game, like checkers or tiddlywinks or even a pickup basketball game in the driveway, go visit one of these scenes on the gridiron, fresh after a season ending — and in some cases, career ending — loss, and then let’s argue.
I’ve been doing this in Georgia for nine years, and I’ve seen my fair share of these. Perhaps the one that sticks out most to me is back in 2012 when Lovejoy (Clayton County) lost the Class 6A (Georgia’s largest classification at the time) state title game in the last minutes of the game to a Norcross team that featured current New Orleans Saints running back, Alvin Kamara.
I can hear those cries. I can see those faces. I remember one particular Lovejoy player, 6-foot-6 dude, hugging me, weeping even while I had my voice recorder in hand. I guess he thought I was a coach. Maybe the team chaplain. Maybe he recognized me as the reporter who had covered them all season, but didn’t care.
He just needed to let out his sobs, the same way he unloaded everything he had in him as a football player and left it on the field.
I’m not gonna lie. Every time I see that kind of scene, I have to look away for a quick moment so as to not forget the professional capacity I’m in. Reporters aren’t supposed to cheer. Sportswriters aren’t supposed to root. But humans can’t help but empathize.
And, true to form, that’s what I had to do again Friday night as another one of those scenes played out before my eyes at Parkview High School, this time starring the Newton Rams.
Look, we’ve all watched football teams and players seemingly just go through the motions on every level. But you and I both know when they’re out there and it’s for real.
The passion. The drive. The want-to. The fight for survival of their playoff hopes, state championship dreams and even just the chance to extend their football careers with young men who have become their brothers for one more game. When it’s real, it exudes on every snap. There are no lulls in the action. No mundane moments.
It was all front and center, on display Friday night when Ryan Burton’s body hit the turf one last time, two yards shy of another overtime and another chance to play one more game. Newton lost 42-35 to Parkview Friday night in one of those games you wish could’ve ended in a tie and somehow both teams could’ve combined to play the next round of the playoffs. Had Newton pulled it out, the Rams would’ve gotten another home game, as No. 4 seed Mountain View upset top-seeded South Forsyth. Nevertheless, it was a game you didn’t want anyone to lose.
And in a way, no one lost Friday night.
I know. Moral victories stink. Coaches and players hate them. But sometimes they’re the ones that have the greatest life-lesson longevity.
At least that’s what Newton coach, Terrance Banks tried to tell himself after the loss last night.
He started off trying to wax “coachisophical” for a few moments. He tried to say the right thing in the right, civilized and professional way.
“You learn from losses like this, that in life, your response to things determines,” Banks started. And then his voice trailed off. From there, you could almost see him snatching off the coachspeak filter to allow himself a human moment.
“For the majority of my seniors, this is it,” Banks continued with a suddenly elevated voice. "And the way they lost sucks. It absolutely sucks.”
He said it with moisture gathering in his eyes. And then, just as quickly, he morphed back to coach mode, discussing how much his players stood to grow as men because of the loss.
But I’ve been around these moments enough to know that nobody was trying to hear that. Not at that moment. Heck, Coach didn’t even really want to say it. Because in that moment all you can think about is the amount of work you put in to get there, the amount of blood, sweat and tears shed. The sacrifices made physically as well as mentally and emotionally, only to have it all come to an end just like that.
Banks knows he has next year to think of with a good bit of skill players coming back. But he wasn’t trying to hear that either.
“I wish I didn’t have to start thinking about next year,” he said. “But when I do, I want these guys to know that these football seasons and their careers go by fast. I want them to realize every moment is precious and that they need to leave it all out there. It just sucks to lose in the first round. It’s almost better if you don’t make it (to the playoffs) than to get there and lose it like this.”
And the fact that it was an official’s questionable intentional grounding call against Newton sophomore quarterback Neal Howard that expedited the end didn’t help matters.
That makes at least two times this year where I’ve covered games that were seemingly decided by officials in a pressure moment. Of course the earlier one at the Eastside-Woodward game was a clearly egregious call. And I’m not saying those calls shouldn’t get made. Maybe they should — well, the one at Woodward definitely shouldn’t have.
It just sucks that those moments too often seem to come down to what the guys in striped shirts say rather than what the guys in helmets and pads do.
All that said, football season is officially over in the area. And you’ve got four area teams — particularly seniors — wishing they were still playing right now. All of these teams have their last-game stories. But the one I saw Friday night, featuring a bunch of warriors in blue, white and gray will join some of the others as my all-time memorable ones for many reasons.
Maybe it was because of the way a sophomore quarterback in Neal Howard literally grew up before our eyes, making big third down throws to keep crucial drives alive.
Or the way senior defensive tackle Darnell Jefferies played pretty much every snap in multiple positions on both sides of the ball. And the way he caught three passes from a tight end position, including the last Newton score — a diving grab in the end zone that made overtime necessary.
How about the way Adarius “DeeDee” Thomas put the team on his back with 31 carries and over 160 yards. He was dead-tired by the fourth quarter, but every time they called his number he delivered.
Then there’s the way Mike Mathison got drilled on the receiving end of a vicious hit that drew a targeting penalty from Parkview. I remember thinking he was done for the night, only to look up a couple of plays later and see him snagging one of Howard’s clutch third down passes.
But then on the heart-wrenching side, it was seeing Jefferies’ shoulders heaving from afar, and you knew he was shedding tears. Forget Clemson for just a moment. He still wanted another shot at another game with his brothers.
There’s Myron Middlebrooks who, despite injury, fought like hell to get a chance to play one more time. He even suited up, walked out as a team captain and was ready to go if Howard needed him.
Perhaps Banks summarized Middlebrooks’ heartbreak best: “We thought we’d have one more week to get Myron ready, but obviously we don’t.”
And then there was senior running back, Nuru Tinch. Dogged with injuries much of the year, when he was in the game and healthy, he was close to unstoppable. But those moments were too few and far between for his liking.
As I began to walk off the Parkview field, I saw Tinch standing alone, looking up toward the scoreboard with a blank expression. He’ll go on to a promising career at UAB and who knows what else if he stays healthy. But I could only imagine what was going through his mind in his last minutes as a Newton Ram football player.
Warriors, all of them.
For a guy paid to be a bit of a wordsmith and come up with various ways to speak on the same thing, my vocabulary, when thinking of how Newton played Friday night, is reduced to that one word — Warriors.
Forty-eight hours later, it probably still hurts. But one day, those warriors will look back on that moment and realize that, despite what the scoreboard said, what they were fighting for was not in vain.
Hopefully that moment comes sooner, rather than later.
Salute, Newton Rams.
Gabriel Stovall is the sports editor of The Covington News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can follow his work on Twitter: @GarielStovall1 or @CovNewsSports.