Clinton, South Carolina, Saturday, October 18, 2014, 9:02 a.m.
Here’s a lesson I learned from the Great Game of Football.
If one fails to execute his block, do not turn around, with one’s hands on one’s hips, to watch the man one was supposed to have blocked clobber the quarterback. One could not look more shameful were he staring into the cage of a starved bunny rabbit he was supposed to have kept fed.
Dive at him! Hit somebody! By all means, be on the ground. Do not draw undue attention to one’s failures.
With good reason, I often poke fun at myself and my less-than-spectacular career as an athlete, but the Clinton Red Devils of thirty-nine autumns ago were greater than the sum of my parts. Thirteen wins, one loss, state champions of Class AAA, fourteen to six over Myrtle Beach in the finals, on the road, back before titles were decided in large, mostly vacant college stadiums and teams wore white at home.
This town still remembers, though it’s never seemed so long ago. This year the Red Devils are one and seven, and after all these years, it still seems like my team. It’s not a big city, where a father who played for Westside had a father who played for Eastside, and he’s at a game watching his son play for Northside while he wonders if the younger one will play for Southside.
The Clinton Red Devils don’t just play for a school. They play for a town, and as a friend told me after one of the games, “When that team ain’t no count, this whole town goes into a funk.”
Clinton High School won its eighth state championship five years ago. It now seems as distant as mine, the third, or my brother’s, the fifth. A year ago, the lads lost their first six games, this year the first seven.
Yet, even in this decade of our discontent, miracles can happen.
It’s not like Vince Lombardi was on the opposition sideline. Union County was two and five when they hit the Wilder Stadium field, but so gaudy was the huge seven in the Clinton loss column that every prognosticator I spied rated the Yellow Jackets as somewhere in the neighborhood of a two-touchdown favorite. They were markedly larger in the lines, fleeter on the perimeter and sturdier in the backfield. The first time it assumed possession of the ball, Union County marched down the field but fumbled deep in Clinton territory. Then the Red Devils punted, and the Yellow Jackets fumbled it. Halftime arrived to home hosannas, the Red Devils leading fourteen to nothing.
The optimism was guarded. Second halves haven’t been kind to the lads this year. They’d been ahead before. At halftime.
Union County onsides-kicked successfully to open the second half and then proceeded to shred the Red Devil defense via the run, unusual for the Yellow Jackets. Fourteen to seven. Then fourteen to thirteen by the grace of a missed extra point. Early in the fourth quarter, the Yellow Jackets took the lead, nineteen to fourteen. The visiting side cheered. The home side sighed.
It’s a strange sound, a thousand or so, sighing at once. Ayyyyyyyyyy. Ooooooooooh. Ahhhhhhhhh. With just the edge of a shriek, like an off-key voice in a choir that carries over everyone else’s.
Somehow, though, against all odds, Clinton had one more chance. Alternating an I-formation with a wishbone, sophomore Charlie Craven, who looks exactly like a Charlie Craven, under center, down the field they moved, the adjective “inexorable” in play for the first time all year. Craven hit the tight end, Daniel Moore, for thirty-two yards. Shakeam Dowdy, who spent most of the second half looking wounded, rose to the occasion.
Boom, boom, boom. It had been pop, pop, pop, and thud, thud, thud.
There they were, the sad-sack Red Devils, circa Year of Our Lord two thousand and fourteen, five yards away from the goal and also Paradise, Shangri-La, and Nirvana. On third down, Clinton devised a perfect play. Craven pitched the ball to Dee Jennings and crept away unnoticed to an area of the end zone left unpatrolled by the Union swarm. The Red Devils devised the play but didn’t run it. Jennings didn’t throw it. He tried to run it in. He got tripped at the line.
Fourth down. Twenty-one seconds blazing on the scoreboard. The moment of destiny seemed to have passed.
No. Not for the quintessential Charlie Craven. He stepped back and calmly hit that tight end, Moore, again. Dowdy had a two-point conversion in the tank. Twenty-two to nineteen. Seventeen clicks.
Incredibly, Union County had one more sting, but a long pass play died at the twenty or thereabouts, and the Yellow Jackets were out of timeouts, and when the receiver fell and the chain crew caught up, and the ref wound the clock, it showed not two seconds, but two tenths of one second, and a team consisting of the entire Justice League of America couldn’t have gotten that game-tying kick off.
As Willie Nelson sang, “Miracles appear in the strangest of places. Fancy meeting you here.”
This non-fiction is a bit embellished. If you’d like to see full-blown fiction, check out www.wellpilgrim.wordpress.com from time to time, and if you still like high school football, even after reading my accounts, you might well enjoy my novel, The Intangibles, about which you can learn more here: http://www.amazon.com/The-Intangibles-Monte-Dutton/dp/0988829088.