When the game ended and they had lost, the football players for the Kennedy High School Eagles stood in a circle together for one last time. The players were joined on the 30-yard-line by their coaches. It was the first time that anyone had the opportunity to exhale all afternoon.
When the head coach entered the huddle, he asked everyone to come in tight. “Let me tell you something. I cannot be more proud of what you guys have done,” Mack Carminer said. “The days of Kennedy High School being sorry are over.”
Coach Carminer asked for his coaches to enter the circle and address the team. He took a step away from the huddle, tilted his head back and looked up to the sky. For a split second he closed his eyes.
The warmth of the sun cut through the cool breeze swirling throughout the field and reflected off the plastic blades of grass on the artificial field at Salesian High School. On a pleasant Saturday afternoon, the only clouds in the sky were off in the distance.
The meeting was the second of the season between the Kennedy Eagles and the Salesian Pride, and the Pride had won the first matchup 42-0. But the stakes of this game were different. It was a first round game of the North Coast Section playoffs and it was an opportunity for the Eagles’ coaches and players to play one more game for their fallen teammate Ulises Grijalva.
During the national anthem, tears streamed down Sharif Wally’s face. “I wanted to get that win for Ulises,” he said. “Cause he passed away and he was like my brother. I just wanted to get a win for him. So I was praying up to him to tell him to help us and stay by us.”
The Kennedy sideline was charged up at the start of the game, as the Eagles began on defense, and that continued throughout the first quarter. The players on the Salesian sideline were quiet and stationary. The players on the Kennedy sideline used every tackle on defense, or every first down on offense, to yell, to pump their fist, and to urge the 11 players on the field to keep going.
The Pride scored first on a short touchdown pass late in the second quarter. But the Eagles responded immediately with a scoring drive, capped off by a touchdown run with 15 seconds remaining. The Eagles converted a two-point conversion and after 24 minutes of football, held an 8-7 lead.
At the half Coach Carminer led his players to the end zone, where they had just scored the touchdown, slapping the laminated card of plays that he carried the entire game. “This game is won and lost in what you do upfront,” Carminer said, pointing to his offensive and defensive lineman. “You got to keep fighting.”
Lineman Sonatane “Sonny” Fonua was suffering from an illness, with a fever that would not subside. The junior labored up and down the field during the first half, and tried to cool down whenever possible on the sidelines. Coach Joe Alvarez held an ice pack on Fonua’s forehead at halftime and squirted water on the back of his neck while he was on the sideline.
As the shadows of the players grew longer, and the air grew colder, the Eagles were still hanging tough.
Salesian took a 9-8 lead right away in the second half when Kennedy quarterback Roman Espinoza fumbled the ball out of his own end zone for a safety. The play ended any momentum that the Eagles had coming out of the break.
Midway through the third quarter, Sonny still sick with a fever, Coach Alvarez got a packet of Tylenol, opened it, and held the pills in his hand, waiting for the right moment, when Fonua was able to get off the field. As Fonua finally made his way to the sideline, Alvarez put the pills on his tongue and gave him a squirt of water in his mouth and on the back of his neck.
He then looked up at Fonua and said, “You suck it up for this game and I got you with a meatball sandwich.”
Fonua returned to the field.
“I wasn’t going to miss it for the world,” Fonua said afterward. “Besides, I got to play with my brothers.”
In the fourth quarter, with four minutes remaining, the Pride had a fourth and goal at the Eagles’ 15-yard-line. With the game in the balance, Coach Carminer screamed to his defensive players on the field, “Hey. Everything you want, right here.”
But the Pride converted a slant pass to a receiver who caught it and dove into the end zone for the touchdown. The Pride converted the extra point for a 16-8 lead, which was the final score.
The loss brought the Eagles’ 2012 record to 5-6.
After the game, after his fellow coaches had spoken, Coach Carminer re-entered the huddle. His players formed a semi-circle around him, the smell of sweat wafting into the fresh air, their jerseys drenched, the golden glow of the afternoon sun behind them.
“You would have made your brother proud,” Carminer said. “Make sure he hears you up there.”
The players and coaches extended their arms, and for the final time this season, screamed in unison, “Ulises on three, 1… 2… 3… Ulises.”