Oh and 10. No wins, 10 losses. No ties. That was my high school football team's record last fall when I was a junior. Shocking? Not really. We were 0-10 the year before that and also the year before that. If we don't win a game again this year and keep it up in '86, we'll set the North Carolina record for the longest losing streak by a high school. But we're hoping that won't happen.
Yes, losing in football is a tradition at Harnett Central High School in Angier, N.C. Our lopsided scores make the Trojans a popular choice to appear at other people's homecomings. How bad were we last year? We're talking about a team that not only lost every game it played but one that scored just once all season. You would think that no matter how bad a team is, it could score more than one touchdown in 10 games. Now and then it might recover a fumbled kickoff in the end zone, or maybe the other team's safety would slip and fall while defending against a long pass, but things like that never seemed to happen. I guess you make your own breaks.
Still, there was that touchdown, the touchdown. I can remember every detail, probably because I watched the game film about 50 times along with the rest of the team. Because it was homecoming—our homecoming this time—there were a respectable number of fans in the stands. We were playing South Johnston, eventual conference co-champions. The score was 30-0 midway through the second half—not unusual for this stage of a Trojans' game—when we took over the ball near our own 30. South Johnston was playing its third or fourth team, the real scrubs. Of course that didn't matter much to us because all of their players appeared equally huge. Nevertheless, we began one of our few sustained drives of the year. One first down followed another and, after a South Johnston penalty, we found ourselves with a first-and-10 on the 20-yard line. On the few other occasions we'd made it this far—honestly this territory was almost as foreign to us as the end zone—we had inevitably choked and given the ball away. To complicate matters, the South Johnston coach decided that now would be a good time to put his first team back in the game. Who could blame him? After all, he didn't want his team to be the one to relinquish a touchdown to the hapless Trojans. Meanwhile, the fans saw what was happening on the field and actually stopped talking and started watching the game. The newcomers among them probably felt we were knocking on the door; the Trojan regulars expected the inevitable collapse. They'd seen it all before.
Randy Lewis, our coach, called a pass play, with the quarterback rolling out to the right. We always had the quarterback roll out—standing in the pocket was like standing in a trash compactor. The ball was snapped, and seven or eight South Johnston defenders streamed through our porous offensive line. Our quarterback, David McKinnon, scrambled for time and then spotted Trojan tight end Mark Kramer open in the end zone. The ball was right there, and Kramer made a reasonably good catch using his hands, not his body.
Pandemonium broke loose. The fans, so long muzzled, erupted with shrieks of joy. The cheerleaders had been yelling don't-give-up cheers for so long it's amazing they knew what to do after a touchdown—they jumped up and down and screamed with the rest of the crowd. The offensive team descended on Kramer like a pack of wolves. He staggered off the field, dizzy from head slaps, only to be mobbed by the cheerleaders and the rest of the team, none of which I think he minded. While all of this was going on, the South Johnston players walked around in a daze and hung their heads in disgrace, which was funny, actually, because they were still leading 30 to 6. The only thing missing from that magic moment was the sound of music. The band had left shortly after halftime and the members were now in the school building eating pizza. It was really a shame, too. They had been practicing On Wisconsin all season just in case we scored, and they missed their only chance of the season.
The Trojans went for two on the conversion and came darn close to making it. I guess when you're hot, you're hot. Final score: South Johnston 48, HCHS 6.
After the game, Kramer told me that he had meant to spike the ball but was mobbed by the team so quickly that he couldn't pull it off. This revelation didn't surprise me. I also have a plan of action if I ever scoop up a fumble or pick off a pass and carry it the length of the field. I have perfected a double windmill action, full twisting spike with backward rotation, as well as a reverse dunk over the crossbar followed by a moonwalk and high fives all around. My scoring opportunities are pretty limited, though, because I'm essentially a defensive lineman, last year having played tackle, guard (we sometimes go to a six-man line), noseguard, end and linebacker, have also played three positions on the offensive line and on all the special teams except the kickoff team; this wasn't much of a breather though, because we usually only kick off once each game.
Why did I play so many positions? Was I some kind of super-athlete? No, quite a few Trojans shuffled around. Playing for HCHS last year was a tiring experience. In fact, if you had zeroed in on any weary member of the punting team loping down-field to cover one of our numerous punts. I imagine you would have gotten a pretty good idea of what a marathon runner looks like just before he drops out of a race. But that sort of thing happens when team membership fluctuates between 15 and 25 players and five of those are the human practice dummies that we need for a scrimmage.
But speaking of punting teams, I forgot to mention that I also punted for one game. After our regular punter was injured during a game. Coach Lewis had everyone try out for the job at the next practice. The winner would be proclaimed starting punter for the next game. I won the competition on the basis of the length of my punts and was advised to work on my steps and to try to shorten my release time before the next game. Punting on our team is an important job. an extremely important job, and the first few times I punted during the game that night I was pretty nervous. After about the eighth punt, however, I started to get into the groove, aiming for the coffin corner and all that stuff. The choice of ball placement was not left to me entirely, though, as I received specific instructions to punt the ball out of bounds after my first two kicks were returned for touchdowns. I consider myself blameless in those unfortunate incidents because both punts were impressively long, if not very high. I was under pressure, anyway.
Now you might think that all this football futility would have poisoned the players' personal lives, making us a pretty glum bunch. It's a common football belief that after a humiliating defeat, or after any defeat at all, you are supposed to feel crushed, subdued, embarrassed and generally not worth a damn. And if you don't feel like that for the rest of the night, then you didn't really have the will to win in the first place. Coach Lewis has subscribed to this theory, and I can understand it under normal circumstances. But most members of the team felt that it would be unreasonable if on 10 successive Friday nights we were utterly and completely ruined by a loss—especially if there was a school dance to follow.
Instead, the field house was usually a pretty lighthearted place. Jokes about how bad we were flowed freely in the locker room. Someone would usually give an imitation of the opposing coach talking to his team before going out to play the Trojans, trying to get his guys psyched up with phrases like "I know this is Central we're playing, but anything could happen out there" and "We don't want to be their first victim, do we?" It could be pretty amusing.
It was perfectly acceptable and funny for someone on the team to make jokes about our pitiful performances. But when one of your classmates made a joke about it. it wasn't so funny. Not funny at all, actually. Of course, you had to laugh it off. There was no sense being defensive about it, saying something like "At least I'm out there trying," although we all said that to someone at sometime or another.
Coach Lewis was not always a popular person last year. I guess that's because, when it comes to discussing your faults, Lewis always tells it like it is and sometimes more than it is. In his view, a healthy, physically fit male who doesn't participate in some sport has no right to be in high school. The coach also refers to the crowd that regularly congregates in the smoking area at school as the scum bunch, although last year he went through a pack and a half of cigarettes every day himself.
He is a cynic, and he was at his cynical best last fall while the team was watching game films. "Hold it! Run that back again! I want you to see this. This is Clark blocking. Notice how he has his head to the inside, how he's pumping those feet. Now notice who he's blocking. It's our own Jay Brown! Can't wait till you test that out on the opposition, Clark.
"O.K., run this in slow motion. Here we are covering the punt. Here the punt-coverage team has moved into the picture. Except James! Let's see how long it will be before James gets down there! One, two, three, four. Aha! Now we see him come into the picture." The films provided endless examples of this type. But to his and the other coaches' credit they never stopped trying to win. Lewis came up with new formations and trick plays designed to get us on the scoreboard in one quick strike. The object was always to go out and win, not to go out and merely score or to go out and avoid humiliation.
The guys who stuck it out last year were a pretty good bunch. It takes a lot to go to practice all week, get killed, and sometimes overkilled, on Friday night, go to practice the next week and keep this up for 10 weeks. And there sure wasn't a lot of glory for us. Some of the seniors who graduated last year played four years and won one lousy game—a J.V. game.
This year things could be different. Coach Lewis thinks—he knows—we've turned the corner. Heck, by the time we were 0-3 we'd already scored four touchdowns—two against Wake Forest-Rolesville, which needed an overtime to beat us.
We just can't get that excited about a touchdown anymore. We seek new thrills. With apologies to tradition, this really could be the season we chalk one up in the win column.
Todd Taylor lives in Buies Creek, N.C. This is his first published article.