His team crushed 53-0, Coach Mack Carminer ordered his Kennedy Eagles back to their bus even before the McClymonds Warriors had cleared the field.
“Back to the bus,” he yelled, “Back to the bus!”
“Let’s get out of here,” an assistant coach added.
The players shuffled toward the bus.
An hour earlier, the same players now dragging their feet had strode from the locker room looking determined, ready to close the gap and win for the second week in a row.
Just 15 minutes before that, they’d moped in, eyes down, some throwing off their helmets in frustration.
It had been a rough first half. McClymonds scored a touchdown in the first minutes of the first quarter. The Warriors’ quarterback punched holes in the Eagles’ defense, repeatedly making it 20, 25 and 30 yards down the field in single plays. By half the score was 35-0.
The dejected Eagles lined the walls of the locker room, some sitting on benches, some posted on top of lockers. Before he began his speech, Carminer waited till all his players were seated.
Standing in the center of the room, arms crossed on his chest, Carminer scowled, but his voice was soft. “We got to learn how to play football during a football game,” he said. The Eagles could have led the half, could still beat the Warriors he told them, if only they hadn’t given up.
He continued, louder, now pacing the room. “We told ya’ll they was coming to embarrass ya’ll,” he said. Louder. “This ain’t no surprise!” The Eagles examined their hands, the floor. Then, crescendo. “What are ya’ll gonna do about it?” Carminer screamed, storming from the locker room.
Assistant coach Tim Logan took the stage. “Everybody wake up,” he said gently. “Ya’ll talk at school, how you’re gonna whup their ass, but ya’ll playing scared.” Parents crowded into the locker room, peering over players for a look. The team water-girls stood behind a locker near the entrance, listening, faces somber.
“Hey fellas,” Logan said, speeding up, getting louder. “I don’t know what cloth ya’ll was cut from, but I was cut from some football-playing cloth!”
Metal crashes came from around the corner; it was Carminer punching a locker, punctuating Logan’s speech.
“We can put up 40!” Logan yelled, face contorted. “They put up 35, we’ll put up 40!”
Players, parents, water-girls, assistant coaches, watched, all silent. Logan stepped back as Carminer re-emerged.
“You all gotta take a breath,” Carminer said, quiet again. “And ya’ll play some Eagles football.” Players, heads down, looked sideways at him, avoiding his eyes as he gathered momentum. Start hitting harder, be present, be mentally and physically strong, get even, he told them, fire and brimstone. “Why don’t we go whup they ass and quit playin’!” he shouted.
A referee entered the room—time to play, he said.
The second half, though, was much the same as the first. The coaches and the Eagles on the bench cussed and yelled their incredulity at fumbles, at missed opportunities, at calls by the referees.
Across the field, the benched Warriors joked and laughed as their teammates scored twice more. “What’s goin’ on? What’s goin’ on?” yelled a Warriors assistant coach, his voice so low the words barely cleared his lips.
With two minutes left, the Warriors bleachers were still full of raucous supporters, while the Eagles’ side had dwindled to less than 25 fans, down from roughly 40 during the second half. The Eagles cheerleaders, who had rattled off peppy slogans throughout most of the game, had lost interest and were gathered in giggly circles.
When the game ended though, 53-0, they gave one last cheer. “We are proud, we are proud, I say we are proud of you!”
After shooing his players to their bus, Carminer looked tired. “With this team, you have to take the good with the bad,” he said. McClymonds played a good game, he said; the Eagles didn’t. “But we’re not giving up,” he said. “We’re looking forward to league.”
He followed his players, shoulders hunched like a fighter, preparing himself to give one more speech.