Read an Excerpt
REMEMBER WHY YOU PLAYFaith, Football, and a Season to Believe
By DAVID THOMAS
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2010 David Thomas
All right reserved.
Chapter OneChange of Seasons
2006 SEASON: STATE SEMIFINALS
There really was no off-season. The Faith Christian Lions' football season did not begin on the final Friday of August. In reality, it began months before the first scrimmage game two weeks earlier. Before the first two-a-day practices in Texas's midsummer heat. Before even those ten days of after-school practice the previous May.
You could say that the 2007 season, with the Lions a favorite to win the school's first football state championship, actually began December 2, 2006, following Faith's loss in the semifinals of Texas's private-school playoffs. Somewhere between the opposing quarterback's kneeling to expire the clock and the end of the 150-mile trek back home to Grapevine, each player mentally stepped into the next season.
There was no distinct start-finish line between those seasons. No clean break or clear transition point. Not considering the way the 2006 season had ended-with a 27-19 loss to The Regents School of Austin, in a game Faith had led in the second half. And especially not considering when it had ended-one weekend before the state championship game, in which the Lions had expected to play.
That loss, in manner and timing, would become a nine-month-long hornet sting. Only the new season could push back the old season's closing scene that still plays out through the players' mental TiVos ...
Faith Christian has the ball near midfield, the game clock inside its final thirty seconds, and the Lions need a touchdown and two-point conversion to send the game into overtime. It is possible-seemingly anything is possible-with Faith's collection of exciting playmakers. But it is fourth down and a half yard to go for a first down.
One-half of a yard.
Football is funny that way. For almost three hours, two teams cover the expanse of a proving ground measuring 120 yards long by 53 1/3 yards wide. And then both teams' futures-one dream will be extended, one extinguished-are decided by less than a step. Half a yard does not seem like much, but oh, the stories squeezed into that half yard.
* * *
As a running back growing up, Chance Cochran never thought in terms of half yards. He thought in much bigger numbers. Football had always been easy for him. Laughingly easy. In youth games, he broke free for long run after long run. Opposing teams could not stop him, so his coaches did-taking him out of games, often before the second half, to prevent running up the score and embarrassing opponents. When Cochran reached Faith's varsity, he became the first freshman ever to start for coach Kris Hogan. The first five times Cochran touched the ball, he scored touchdowns. And he scored in five different fashions-a running play, a pass reception, an interception return, a kickoff return, and a punt return. After one score, he came off the field laughing, arms outspread. "I love football," he told his coaches, and laughed some more.
But then came the night he experienced every player's nightmare. It was the first scrimmage of his sophomore season, and Cochran was picking up where he had left off as a freshman. He carried the ball left and had one defender to juke for another clear path to the end zone. He planted his left foot to cut back to the right. But the cut never came. His left knee buckled, and he collapsed to the ground. "Like a sniper got him from the bleachers," his coach recalls. Just like that, with one bad step, before it really began, his sophomore season ended.
Problems lingered into this, his junior season. He had hoped to be back at full speed by now, but he was not. Cochran had always had an innate ability to move laterally to create space, and then when the defense ahead of him yielded the slightest opening, the play became a straight-ahead dash to the end zone, and the fastest player-Cochran-won. The knee injury, however, had relegated Cochran from fastest player on the field to also-ran. He was only about 60 percent, at best, in lateral movements. He could see the openings in the defenses, like he always had. But by the time he could make the cut to start his dash to the end zone, too often a defender had beaten him to the spot and slammed shut that opening. Late in the season, the pain in his repaired knee began to increase. His doctor discovered a Baker's cyst-a collection of fluid on the back of the knee-that required arthroscopic surgery. Cochran missed the final game of the regular season and the first playoff game.
Now he was back on the field-just not all the way back. This play call on third down and five yards for the first down was for Cochran, a screen play that would allow him to catch a short pass in an isolated part of the field and use his speed to gain the first down and temporarily stop the clock, allowing Faith's offense to reorganize.
Cochran left his running back spot to line up at receiver, on the far left side of the formation. He took a step downfield, then retreated behind the line of scrimmage and back toward the quarterback. It was a "jailbreak screen," with Faith's linemen allowing Regents' defenders to rush the quarterback in jailbreak fashion. Before the defenders could reach the quarterback, Cochran caught a soft pass and turned upfield. The play was working as designed: Cochran had the ball beyond the first wave of attacking defenders with a wall of blockers ahead of him. But one Regents player got a hand on Cochran's right foot. Cochran hit the ground one-half yard short of the first-down marker.
Cochran pounded the ball into the turf. It was more than a half-yard's worth of frustration. This was frustration of a season lost, of a second season greatly limited, and of God-only-knows what will happen in future seasons. Two years ago, everyone who saw Cochran play called him a can't-miss college prospect. He was completely healthy then. A different player. And, he admits, a different person. The happiness, the love of playing football, had been replaced by doubt about his ability to recover and uncertainty about his future. He felt it. His coaches and teammates saw it. He no longer came off the field laughing. A fully healthy Chance Cochran would have eluded that one defender. He would have gained that half yard and more, possibly much more. But that Chance Cochran was not on the field, and Faith did not have its first down.
There was confusion. As the official marked where Cochran was tackled, it appeared from the Faith sideline that Cochran had gained the first down. "Spike the ball! Spike the ball!" coaches instructed quarterback Landon Anderson. Once the sideline markers were set to reflect the first down the coaches believed Cochran had attained, the referee would signal for the clock to restart. Because the Lions had no timeouts remaining, the coaches wanted Anderson to spike the ball into the ground to stop the clock so the Lions could set up the one big play the players felt they had been on the verge of making all day.
But it was not first down. It was fourth down. If Anderson spiked the ball, Faith would lose possession of the ball and the game, and its season, would be over. Senior offensive lineman Brian Gibson turned to the junior quarterback and told him, "It's fourth down! Go for it!" From the sideline, Hogan saw the officials spot the ball short of the first down and shouted for Anderson to run Option Left, a run play around the left side of the offensive line in which Anderson would have the option of keeping the ball if he saw an opening or pitching to Cochran at running back. Option Left had produced big yards all season. Now the Lions needed only a half yard from the play.
Having the ball in Anderson's hands always was an outstanding option. In addition to passing for 1,883 yards on the season, he had rushed for 585 yards, averaging 8.5 yards each time he ran the ball. Half a yard? Easy. Except on this play.
Anderson called for the snap. Faith's linemen had become set in their positions so as to avoid a penalty, but the snap came before they were ready to block. Anderson sprinted left as his linemen scrambled to catch up to the play and block their assigned defenders. He reached the point where Option Left's opening had been all season. But this time, when Faith needed that opening most, a Regents player was there. He brought down Anderson, short of the first down. Half a yard short. It might as well have been the length of the field.
Faith's defensive unit entered the field to stand helplessly as Regents' quarterback executed football's most mistake-proof play, from what is known at all levels of football as the "Victory" formation-the kneel-down. Just like that, void of drama, the comeback and the season were over. Dream denied.
As the final seconds counted down, Anderson looked to the team's seniors. He would have another chance to win that first football championship, but the five seniors would not. "Seeing their high school careers just tick away," Anderson would later recall, "it was like five, four, three, two, one ... Taylor Hazlewood's never going to step on the field for Faith again. Brian Gibson's never going to step on the field. Austin Huffman's never going to play defensive end, ever again. We're not going to have Johnny Juliano on the practice field. We're not going to have Elijah Hall stuffing those A-gaps anymore. It's really a sobering feeling." Teammate Clayton Messinger, looking back along with Anderson, nodded and added: "It's the kind of feeling like you've let them down."
No one experienced that feeling more than Alex Nerney. He was the defensive back who had allowed a long touchdown pass in the third quarter with his team protecting a 19-14 lead, and another in the fourth quarter that pushed Faith's deficit to its final margin of eight points. As far as he was concerned, his team had lost because of him.
It seemed unfair that football fate would pick on Nerney, too. Less than three months earlier, he had suffered a hip subluxation-a complete dislocation of his right hip-during a game. As he lay on the field, told by the team trainer to remain motionless, and with the pop still echoing inside his head, he considered for the first time that, only seventeen years old, he might never play football again.
Looking at his six-foot-three, 190-pound frame you wouldn't think it possible, but Nerney had been an offensive lineman in eighth grade. By his sophomore season, dedicated workouts had helped him make the unusual conversion from lineman to skilled-position player-a receiver on offense and a cornerback on defense. His first season at receiver, opposing coaches selected him all-district by unanimous vote. But then something happened. More precisely, a lot began to not happen-those dedicated workouts that had taken him to his peak.
Nerney enjoyed his success. He took it easy a day here, a day there. Gradually, the taking-it-easy days grew closer together. Then consecutive. The coaches could see a difference, even if early in his junior season his statistics still ranked him among the area's top receivers. And he was on his way to another long touchdown down the far sideline when the injury occurred. He cried on the field as he waited for the cart that would take him to an ambulance. That night he lay in his hospital bed, asking God, "Why me? Why would You do that to me?" He later recalled, "I was distraught because I felt like everything had worked out and God had just slammed me back to reality. I guess I had been getting too big of a head. God tends to do that."
He expected that his season was over. He hoped to be able to return for his senior year. Doctors, however, told him he had gotten a pass. The bone had a small crack, but no chip. If it had chipped, he would never have played again. In eight weeks, he was told, he would probably be back on the field. Nerney rededicated himself to working out to make sure he would be back for the playoffs. Three weeks after the injury, he was cleared to play.
But now he suffered from a different kind of pain-the pain of believing he had lost the game. So amid the players embracing each other on the field, amid the tears of sorrow, Nerney's embraces and tears packed the most emotion. Next season would be different, he already had determined. He would give it his best again for the whole season.
There were five seniors, however, who would not be around to enjoy the benefits of the old Alex Nerney's return. He embraced each one. "I'm sorry," he said through his tears.
* * *
Three consecutive season-ending losses for Kris Hogan as a head coach.
Actually, most football coaches would take that. There are only two ways to end the season with a victory. One is by winning the state championship. The other-and this is the case for thousands of teams in high school football-is by winning your final game, but not being good enough in your overall season to qualify for the playoffs.
Hogan's teams make the playoffs. He has been a head coach for eight seasons. Six of the last seven have been playoff seasons. That means six seasons that would end with either a loss or a state championship. Not to say that being eliminated from the playoffs ever becomes easy to accept, but coaches understand that only one team in each classification can have that movie-type ending.
For the rest, there are car rides home like this one. Quiet.
Amy Hogan occupied the passenger seat. Kris and Amy's three children-at ages eight, five, and one-were in the backseat. For fifteen, maybe twenty minutes, the only words were Amy's. "I'm sorry," she said several times. Eventually, Amy began to say more. "Just trying to ease the pain of the situation, that's what she was trying to do," Hogan recalled. "Trying to help me through the situation, comfort me."
They talked about the game, interrupted by consoling cell phone calls from fellow coaches who know the feeling all too well. They read text messages from players thanking Hogan for being their coach, their mentor, their friend. They considered some of the what-ifs of football, they discussed the highlights of another playoff season, and they allowed themselves to imagine aloud-together, as coach and fan, as husband and wife-what could have happened the following week if only they had won this game. Then the ride ended, and suddenly this season-ending loss no longer felt like the others. "It just hit him when we got home," Amy remembered.
Unlike previous years when it was disappointment that dominated Hogan's face, this Saturday night it was sadness. He played with the kids, helped get them ready for bed and for church the next morning, but in the quiet moments, the sadness was there. "He looked like he wanted to cry," Amy said. And at one point, she saw her husband go into their bedroom, sit on his knees, and, alone for the first time since the season had ended, softly cry. Amy had never seen her husband so hurt by a loss.
Before each season, Hogan gives each assistant coach a manual that outlines the football program's goals, rules, expectations, and offensive and defensive schemes. Not once in those fifty-six pages does the head coach who has taken four teams to the state semifinals list "win" as a goal. The front page of the manual asks each coach to consider what kind of Christian he is. What kind of husband and father he is. What kind of son he is. What kind of friend and teammate. But nowhere does it mention winning games.
Yet the creator of that manual, the coach behind that philosophy, shed tears now because his team had not won. This was a state championship-caliber team, he thought, and even after replaying the game in his mind, he could not find one reason why his team was not playing for the state championship. Other than the fact that, somehow, it had lost.
This was Hogan's fourth team to reach the state semifinals. Teams at his previous school possessed better chances to win state and did not. But he had never had a team that he wanted to win state more than this one.
Faith Christian opened its doors in 1999. When Hogan arrived in 2003, the Lions had not won a playoff game. Yet they did so in his second season. Then in 2005 and again in 2006 they reached the semifinals round, one step from playing for the state title. His previous school was accustomed to such success. Sportswriters label those programs "perennial powerhouses." Faith Christian is becoming one. "Here, the success is what's happening right now," Hogan says. "The records are being set right now, and these kids know that."
Excerpted from REMEMBER WHY YOU PLAY by DAVID THOMAS Copyright © 2010 by David Thomas. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.