At halftime, the numbers on the scoreboard read 28-10, a margin that would have been more than acceptable…if he had been in charge on the other sideline. Coach White glowered at the task before him, slowly jogging down the stadium tunnel and into the locker room, muttering angrily under his breath.
It was true that his team had exceeded every projection and expectation simply by playing in the 5A State Championship Game. Some of their play so far, he was sure, was simply due to the stage they were on. For his team, this was by far the biggest game of their lives, and for his seniors, the last time they would ever wear the deep blue of a Phoenix uniform. That was especially true for his four captains, who, as freshman, declared themselves to be the “Fabtastic Four” and promised a state championship for the campus.
Coach White had almost laughed then, passing it off as teenage bluster. The Phoenix football program had only just been restored. A Championship Game could not have been further off, and stayed that way after they won only one game in their debut season. Yet, that didn’t discourage the “Fabtastic Four”, even though it would have driven away most kids. They seethed with each defeat, but drove themselves harder after each one, leading the rest of the team by example. He could still remember the first time he saw them conducting 6AM workouts at the team fieldhouse…on the first day of the offseason. How could he not match their efforts?
Slowly, but surely, though, their work — both the coaching staff’s and team’s — began to pay off. One win became six, and nine, the season after that.
Then came this year, when the Phoenix had run the table, somehow finding their way to State. It had not been easy, of course – they had to win several games with last minute, come from behind drives, including last week’s semi-final — but it had been the culmination of everything they had been building.
They had come so far, so fast. He was so proud of them just for being here, and had reminded them of that before kickoff. Still, this game was winnable – they had had their chances in the first half, which made it all the more frustrating for Coach White. An ill-timed fumble ruined their chance to cut it to two scores, as had some poor penalties.
Finally, he opened the door to the locker room, causing all the furious preparation to come to a standstill. His assistants, who just a minute ago were screaming out adjustments in manic, adrenaline-fueled fury, fell silent — he preferred not to micromanage them. Every eye immediately fell on Coach White.
He meant to yell. To curse for lack of execution in those first two quarters, to berate them for their sloppiness, to demand more effort.
When he actually took survey of the sullen faces around him, though, Coach White knew that this was not the way to go. A tirade was not the last thing he wanted his seniors to hear, and it certainly wouldn’t help them get back into it. He cleared his throat, buying a little more time to collect his thoughts.
Then, he spoke.
“Right now, I see you bruised. Blooded,” he hoarsely began, noticing the fresh stains and cuts each player had acquired. Coach White spoke slowly and with great measure, letting each word hang delicately in the stillness of the locker room. “You got your asses kicked in the first half, against a good, a damn good football team. There’s no shame in that. If this is the way we go out, I don’t want anyone hanging their heads about what happened.”
He paced back and forth around the room as he spoke, his 52 year old frame still spry as ever.
“But I’ll tell you what — for the last four years, we have been writing a story together. Each win, each loss, each practice, each offseason, those have been the twists and turns leading to this. Our 3OT game over Cranbrook, when Toyofuku rushed for what was it, 250 yards? That’s a part of it. I-Dub’s miracle catch last weekend..Ethan’s four sacks that brought us back against the Cards…the first time we took home the Birdcage…those are all in there too. No one can rewrite those parts, and no one can take them away from us.”
“There are two quarters left at State.” Coach White swallowed again, trying not to succumb to a growing lump in his throat. “For some of you guys, this’ll be the final chapter.”
“There’s only the ending left to write.”
“Now, I want you — each of you, not just the guys playing their final game for us — to look deep inside yourselves and ask what you want this last chapter to say. Seniors, what will this book read like in the last few pages? How does State end?”
“Because this is not just about winning or losing. This is about legend – about what you leave behind while wearing these colors. What it is you want to be remembered for. Do we go down swinging, against the best team in the state? Do we roll over and die? Or do we claw our way into the pantheon of greats, never to be forgotten on campus?”
“Legend,” he repeated. “Decide yours.”
“And then go out and take it..”Coach White saw his assistant Bennett Jackson trying to get his attention from the back of the huddle, signaling that it was almost time to re-take the field. Perfect, he thought. He was just about finished himself.
“What are we, gentlemen?” he asked, his voice dropping into quiet intensity. This question demanded an answer, and the team knew it.
“PHOENIX.” 70 voices called out in unison.
“And what do we do?”
The chant echoed off the walls of the room, reverberating against the metal lockers and swelling in intensity, until every player dressed in deep blue had been revitalized and was on his feet, sufficiently amped up for the comeback attempt that awaited. Coach White smiled at the sight of his captains leading the calls and slapping helmets, knowing they were ready.
“You’re goddamn right.” He opened the doors again, this time to head back out to the field.
Moving as one, his players followed, fearless into the story’s end.