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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Memories of my first prep football game ... and Kris

For the better part of the first two weeks of September 1984, my life was filled with two basic responsibilities: Be a college student and a professional journalist.

Kind of hard to balance that when you're 17 years old. You want to do things all 17 year olds want to do ... have a good time at college and party party party. But that wasn't my responsibility. And with a 1973 Chevy Chevelle that I took off the hands of my next-door neighbor who had just moved with his family from Missouri, now I had to pay for the insurance that would allow me to drive my "new" car to the events I would cover.

No more borrowing my folks' cars to go all over New Jersey to cover games. I had my own car and I didn't care if it was 12 years old ... it was pretty freakin' new to me!

Anyway, I had to figure out how to balance this thing called "life." The morning and afternoon was spent five days a week going to nearby Ocean County College trying to attain my journalism degree, while six nights a week, working at the Observer as a correspondent having to do the "dirty work," which contained being an agate clerk, typing in recreational sports scores, John Haas' handwritten outdoors columns and doing previews for the upcoming seasons in ... field hockey and gymnastics, though another correspondent was covering field hockey. I was just helping him with previews.

That left me by process of elimination the gymnastics beat. It's a good thing I actually understood the sport or it would have been a very, very long fall season.

I got my previews finished for the field hockey teams at Pinelands Regional, Lacey, Toms River North and Lakewood, which is funny because looking at the preview I did for it 27 years later, I can't believe how enthusiastic new Lakewood head coach Julie Clark was about her team by saying in the preview, "We're out to be No. 1 this year."

It's been an ongoing fight for over a generation to just get out of the cellar for that program.

I had just wrapped up writing the preview for the upcoming gymnastics season on that Saturday afternoon, September 15, 1984, and had just finished proofreading it when Tom, our assistant sports editor, points at me and hits me with this line.

"You're going to East Brunswick tomorrow."

OK, I assume something big is happening?

The official opening of high school football season wasn't until September 21, but both East Brunswick and Brick Township had officially gotten the go-ahead to start the Sunday before. And, of course, since I was working on Sunday nights, that left me to be the guinea pig to make the trip to East Brunswick.

Technically, I got to cover Ocean County's first football game of the 1984 season. So in that regard, I was excited to have the honor. I had done some high school football correspondence work for Clear Cable Channel 8 for Jerry Ascolese the fall before as a Toms River High School East senior. I can still remember my mom having to schlep me to Lakewood High to do a game there. My poor mother.

But now it wasn't just keeping stats and calling them in for a Saturday night cable TV show. This was an actual high school football game I was about to report on and use actual words to describe.

So at 10:30 a.m., Sunday, September 16, I left to go to East Brunswick High for the 1 p.m. game between a Brick High team that was the three-time defending South Jersey Group IV champions against a very talented East Brunswick team. Yeah, you'd be excited about covering this game, too.

This trip had a dual purpose to it. More on that later.

Finding East Brunswick was hardly a problem. It's a straight ride up Route 9 into Old Bridge, then another trip straight up Route 18 into town.

Finding the high school was the problem. This is a school that isn't very clear off any major road there. I surrounded it nicely until I finally got it pinpointed and found the turn into the parking lot.

Showing my press pass and going into the stadium at East Brunswick High, I can see both sides of the stadium bleachers were packed. Compared to now where you have to literally pull teeth to get the fans to show up to games, it saddens me to think about how wildly popular the sport was back in the day.

This game had a playoff atmosphere to it, yet it was the opening game of the season. Longtime Brick coach Warren Wolf, looking the role of the spry Silver Fox at 57 years old, was going for career win No. 199 in this one.

East Brunswick had a standout quarterback named Steve Hughes and he was picking apart coach Ron Signorino's defensive unit on the opening drive of the game. Hughes hit Chris Celeberti on an out pattern for a 37-yard score, but the extra point was missed, leaving East Brunswick ahead 6-0.

However, like the champion Brick was, the Green Dragons came right back with a nine-play, 78-yard drive that culminated with quarterback Bob Kroning hitting John Green with a 44-yard pass after they had nickel and dimed the Bears' defense on the first eight plays with runs. Tom Iannarone's extra-point kick gave the Green Dragons a 7-6 lead.

Already an exciting start to the game, but I knew deep inside there was a lot of game left. And I was trying to get to the end where I'd interview the legendary Warren Wolf and head somewhere else before heading back to Toms River.

And I was right on my gut feeling. Deric Rowe scored on a 3-yard run -- set up by a Hughes 12-yard sneak -- to give East Brunswick the lead. Then the Bears increased the lead to 20-7 when Hughes hit receiver Anthony Piloto with a 26-yard score and Hughes added the 2-point conversion run.

After the game, Wolf took blame for that last touchdown, which occurred before halftime because he called "non-plays" for the defense. I never quite understood what it was he was talking about. I took him at his word.

One thing I did not do during halftime -- it is now a staple of mine to do at high school games -- is to tally up the stats so at least I had a head start on doing the statistics after the game. That would factor in later when I got back to the Observer building to do the game story.

As far as the game went, Brick got back into it on the first drive of the second half when Kroning hit Bret Colf with a 10-yard score to finish out a nine-play, 68-yard drive.

But these Bears were hungry. And they were unfazed by the opening Brick drive of the half. They simply took the ball down the field with Rowe going 42 yards on one run and Hughes going 19 yards on a keeper. Hughes capped the drive with a plunge for the score to make it 26-14.

This turned into back-and-forth football, an offensive display that excited fans but wasn't exactly making a defensive maven like Signorino all that happy.

Brick made it 26-21 when Green scored on a 4-yard run to end a 12-play, 83-yard drive.

All Brick needed was one stop and things could change in its direction. But once again, Hughes and the Bears offense was too much. They got to the Brick 25 and I can still see Rowe getting the pitch and sprinting to the outside against a much-slower Green Dragon defense. Once he beat defenders to the outside, he was gone down the sidelines for the score that should have put the game away with 2:34 left. The two-point conversion pass from receiver Celeberti to Barry Flannigan made it 34-21.

Game over, right?

Not necessarily.

Pete Morris, Brick's other quarterback (they went with this ridiculous two-man quarterbacking system that never quite worked that year), took the Green Dragons back against the tiring Bears defense and he found Scott Walker for a touchdown with 62 seconds left. Though Iannarone missed the point-after kick, they were within one score at 34-27.

They get the onsides kick, anything goes. And as Iannarone squib-kicked the ball, bodies clad in green and white uniforms flew toward the pigskin. Under the pile, though, was East Brunswick's Marc D'Arienzo with the ball.

The Green Dragons had fought the good fight, but came up a touchdown short.

And outside of a last-second score, I could not have asked for a better football game to make my professional debut. I interviewed both the legendary Wolf and Signorino after the game. Both kept positive outlooks for the rest of the season, which would have the Green Dragons go back to the playoffs, but lose in the first round of the SJ IV tournament, ending their three-year run as champions.

It was close to 4 p.m. when I got out of there. I still had one thing left to do while I was in town.

It was to head toward Dutch Road and a visit with a young lady I had met just 15 months earlier on a cruise to Bermuda. Her name was Kris. For 15, she was very, very pretty with great blue eyes. She looked like Kim Wilde. She was fantastic to have conversation with like we did on the boat. The time on the ship was brief since my uncle passed away and his wife -- my grandmother -- was accompanying my sister and I on the ship. We had to fly back from Hamilton to Newark.

I had kept the address in case I would eventually find myself up there. Since this game came to me at the last moment, this was going to be a surprise to her when I showed up at her front door.

And it was to her mom as I knocked on her door.

"Hello?" she answered.

"Is Kris here?" I asked.

"Who are you?"

"Tell Kris it's Mark from the ship. I had a game to cover at her high school."

Moments later, this smiling, pretty young strawberry-blonde lady of 16 came to the door, we hugged and spent the next three-plus hours together. She showed me the horses she tended to in the back of the house on the farm. Technically, Kris was the first "farm girl" I ever met. Picking up our conversation from 15 months ago was natural. We enjoyed the time. Her mom and stepfather were asking me questions about who I was since they didn't accompany her on the ship that time in June of '83.

I certainly didn't mind. I was in a place I wanted to be at that moment: In this beautiful young lady's presence, continuing what we sorta kinda started. The worst part about the time we spent was when I had to head back to Toms River.

Kris and I would meet for dinner at the Denny's off of Route 18 in East Brunswick three years later while I was in the area to cover a July Little League tournament game on a Friday night. She, now 19, broke the news to me that she had been seeing someone and I was happy for her. I was seeing someone, too, at the time, but that relationship was close to coming to an end, whether I knew it or not.

Seven years later in 1994, I was back up that way at the East Brunswick Vo-Tech School to cover Monsignor Donovan High's Parochial A state title game against Don Bosco Prep. After covering the game, I went back to the country farm and house and saw her mom who I had not seen in 10 years. She told me Kris had gotten married -- probably to the guy she was seeing -- and she had two kids now. I smiled, but it was an awkward smile.

It was just a part of the pattern of losing women I had some sort of interest in, women that would simply come in and out of my life.

But back to September 16, 1984. If this was an era in which computers were prevalent and I could just simply type my story on my laptop and send it to the Observer, I'd have jumped on it and spent more time with Kris. Instead, I had to make the trip back to Toms River, where by 8:45 p.m., I had Tom, the assistant, asking me where the hell I was.

Oops. So right to work I went to write the story. To do the story, though, I needed the statistics, and because I had not tallied up the numbers at halftime, it meant I had to go through every single play on my scoresheet. It's a good thing I'm fantastic when it comes to math.

Needless to say, the stats took over an hour to do and the story was done sometime before 11 p.m.

I think I also used the side trip to see Kris as a way of not sitting in the office to do any extra work for Tom. It worked -- I got out of there after 11 p.m.

I think back to the circumstances of covering my first high school football game. I saw two very, very good teams go back and forth in front of a packed crowd. And I got to see a pretty girl who now is a distant memory and maybe even a grandmother at this point as her 44th birthday approaches in February. Who knows?

Yes, that first high school football assignment still makes me smile.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Remembering that September morning in 2001

Most anyone will tell you where they were on September 11, 2001.

They know where they were the day our country came under attack from terrorists who caught our airport security off guard and ran two airplanes into the World Trade Center towers, ran another plane into the side of the Pentagon and a fourth plane headed for the Capitol building that got sidetracked and crashed in lower Pennsylvania.

We've seen the film. We remember the horror.

For me, I slept through most of it. I was still recovering from the buzz I got the night before in downtown Key West while off from work.

By early September 2001, I was beginning my slow burn at the Key West Citizen. I had come back from a long vacation (which was owed to me for working seven-day weeks to start the year, then down to six-day weeks until a third person was hired for our sports department).

On August 23, 2001 -- my two-year anniversary as the Citizen's sports editor -- I was called into my managing editor's office and she told me that I was getting a raise for the work I had done, mostly above and beyond the call of duty while we were short-handed. So I appreciated that.

But then she handed me bad news.

"We had to deep-six the recreational sports tab," she said of our Saturday 16-page section devoted to youth and non-prep sports news. We went from having a bunch of ads in the tab to having maybe three in it by the end. Someone in advertising dropped the ball, but that's another story, another time.

So she continued. With no more section to put together, it meant the man in charge of the weekly tab was without something to do. And, of course, me being on vacation, I was the last person to know anything. Then she hit me with the news.

"They decided to make him the executive sports editor," she said.

For about a minute I let what she said sink in. Then I hit her with, "So I'm not really running this department anymore? You just gave me a raise, but yet, I'm not running the department anymore?"

I can see the frustration on my immediate boss' face at that particular point. She agreed with me, but she had no leverage or pull on this horrible decision. And I can read the writing on the wall, too, that she couldn't wait to get the hell out of this soon-to-be insane asylum at the Citizen.

That's what this place was turning into -- a glorified hellhole. It became a clique in which being buddy-buddy with the publisher was a bigger deal than putting out a quality product and working hard.

I've always explained it like this: "I'm sorry. I don't own a pair of knee pads."

To put this man -- who once was the sports editor at this paper -- in a position to just sit behind a desk, do nothing more than read stories, go out for lunch, then come back, go to meetings and work maybe a seven-hour shift if you were lucky was freakin' absurd.

Trust me ... executive sports editor at the Key West Citizen was a great gig if you could get it and owned a great pair of knee pads.

Let's just say the publisher and I had a rocky relationship for the better part of the last 20 months I was at the Citizen and leave it at that.

The real work was being done by myself, my design guy and my writer. We put a lot of good stuff out there for the time we had together ... which was pretty short since the writer was heading over to a teaching gig in town in late September and my design guy was leaving to head back to Chicago in early October.

With that hanging over my head and knowing I was not going to get much design help from the clueless executive sports editor, I spent a lot of my off-nights drinking. Not heavily enough, though. Looking back, I should've been drinking more.

Our paper, in cooperation with a Duval Street bar called Durty Harry's and Rick's, sponsored a Monday Night football deal and it gave me a place to hang out during the season. The fine people at Rick's fed me well. Trust me. And the beer was constantly being poured. The only thing I had to worry about was finding my car at the end of the night and getting from the Old Town side back to my apartment on Duck Avenue.

On Monday night, September 10, 2001, I was there for the opening Monday night game at Rick's between the defending NFC champion New York Giants and Denver Broncos. I remember the Broncos won the game and that Broncos tight end Ed McCaffrey broke his leg and was done for the year.

That's about all I can remember. I remember getting back to my apartment by 2:15 a.m. and falling asleep around 2:45, leaving my radio on the Middle Keys country music station. I know, I know -- country music station? I was listening to quite a bit of country at that point. Not saying my life was turning into those tales of woe they sing about, but it was getting closer each day.

Went into la-la land. By almost 10 a.m., I was waking up from the fog I was still in the night before. The alcohol was slowly wearing off. This was not unusual for me on the morning after a day/night off from work at this point. I hated the situation at the Citizen and it was festering like a cancer.

Laid my head back on the pillow to get a little more sleep. And just as I was ready to fall asleep again, this announcement came over the radio station I still had on:

"A reminder that Marathon Airport (in the Middle Keys) is closed due to the attacks on the World Trade Center."

Huh?! What? He didn't just say what I think he just said?

My mind roamed back to that February day in 1993 when a terrorist group attacked the parking garage under the World Trade Center, blowing it up and killing a handful of people. For all I know, this was what happened again.

Nonetheless, I turned on my television and there was the drama playing out on it -- the Twin Towers literally on fire. But why? What happened? Then I heard a plane flew into one of the towers and thought maybe it was just a small plane that lost direction or control and flew into the side.

As the minutes passed by, I started realizing that wasn't the case. And suddenly the video became more and more real. It was a large airplane, a 747 actually, that flew into the tower.

Wow! And if I wasn't sure if we were under attack from some terrorist organization that hated us and our ways of life, there was a second airplane flying straight into the other Twin Tower on film.

As I had turned on the television, the one tower was crumbling to the ground. Bedlam was going on everywhere, yet where I was at that particular point in the Florida Keys in my apartment, it was eerily quiet.

Ten minutes later, the phone rang. Figured it may be my family.

Nope. This phone call had a 352 area code to it.

"Hello," I said.

"Is this Mark Blumenthal?" the young man on the other line asked.

"Yes," I said.

"It's Ran Carthon."

"Hey, how are you doing, Ran?"

For those who don't remember or didn't know, Carthon was one of Steve Spurrier's running backs on the University of Florida's football team in 2001. He had been recruited by one of Spurrier's assistant coaches out of Key West High School. And yes, if the last name sounded familiar, he's the son of former New York Giants fullback and Super Bowl ring holder Maurice Carthon.

I had called the university's sports information director to ask him if he could get Carthon available for an interview two weeks earlier. Now Carthon was calling me as chaos was breaking out in the northeastern part of the country.

So we start talking and I'm doing my best to keep my focus on what young Ran is saying to me, while keeping an eye on the television with the events and chaos taking place. He was doing his end of the interview in the sports information director's office in Gainesville and I'm here in Key West trying to hold the phone under my ear at one end, while trying to write everything he's saying and peaking in on the action.

By the time he was at UF, his mom, who he was close to, had already moved from the Southernmost City to Georgia, so if he were to come back to the Keys, it was mainly to visit friends at this point.

Then as we finished up the interview, I asked him if he was watching what was happening on television and he said he was.

"It's must be eerie to know a city's skyline well and watch a big part of it disappear," I said to him.

"I don't remember much of growing up in the New York area," he said. It dawned on me that he didn't spend a lot of time with his father, who was divorced from Ran's mother.

We said our goodbyes and I had enough to do a feature story on him.

By noon, I was in the office at the Citizen. At this point, I was boycotting being in that office before 4 p.m., but on an important day like this in our history, I had to be there to do a feature story on the impact this day had on the Keys.

Got in touch with Island Christian School volleyball coach Sheryl Yost. She was near tears, explaining that there were no words to describe what was happening. It was frightening to her and the kids she was around that day.

But the one thing I got out of the conversation with all the athletic directors was the show was going to go on as soon as possible. And high school football would be played on Friday night.

I remember talking to Marathon High football coach Jerry Jones. "Unless a plane hits our tallest building (which was about two stories tall), we're going Friday night," he said.

It was during a break outside that I was with my editor in chief and the executive sports editor. I was doing everything by then to hide my disdain of him and the position he was holding, but we wound up comparing tragedies -- this day compared to the afternoon Kennedy was assassinated and the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was there that I got my inspiration to write my Sunday column a few days later.

My lead read like this: "My grandparents had Pearl Harbor. My parents had JFK's assassination. Now my generation has something infamous to remember."

All professional sports in this country were postponed until the next week. Prep sports continued the very next day after the tragedies of 9/11, but were soon shut down when Hurricane Gabrielle threatened the Keys. People outside the Keys thought 9/11 shut high school football down that weekend.

No, a hurricane did, and that hurricane never got close to us. That left everything in chaos and forced Key West High to play three district football games in an eight-day period in October, all losses, that cost the Conchs a chance to go back to the state playoffs and ultimately led to the football coach resigning after three seasons.

By Monday, September 17, things were back to normal. And I was back to Rick's and drinking somewhat heavily and eating again, just like I had the week before.

I hope no one ever has to go through a day like that in their lives again. It was as surreal a day as we will ever remember. And on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I think of all the innocent lives lost and feel sad for all the families who had to move on after such a heinous crime was committed.

Never again would we see the world the way we had before.

Alan Jackson would ask in his song, "Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day?" Everyone has a story they tell of where they were and what they were doing.

Like everyone else, I watched the events play out on television in shock.

And having to do my job interviewing a University of Florida running back from the area, the son of a former NFL fullback.

It's all vivid ... even if I was coming out of that buzzed fog.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Flag-fest ... a story of my first Putnam County-area prep football game

I had missed high school football. Well, actually I wasn't far away from it during the fall of 2002 when I didn't have a job and was living back home with my parents. I got to see football games at all 16 Ocean County, New Jersey high schools -- even at little New Egypt High School -- that fall.

It kept me from going stir crazy while I was out of work and trying to find a job.

That ended when I got the phone call to come to Palatka to work at the Daily News in August 2003. So I packed up basic things that I needed and headed down I-95 to Putnam County. And when I got here, I was the entire show -- my boss was still recovering from his heart attack and quadruple bypass surgery. He was having to help put out the football tab instead of being in charge. I just had to write whatever stories he needed me to write and one of our former layout guys at the paper who was now working on the other side of the building put the tab together.

My first regular-season game was to be Friday, September 5, 2003, at Keystone Heights High School where the Indians -- an out-of-area team that we did a preview on (don't ask me why we did a preview on a football team from outside Putnam County because it would hurt certain people's feelings) -- were hosting one of our county teams, Crescent City.

Both teams I had done previews on, so I knew the personnel and I was really psyched to cover my first regular-season football game since November 2001 when I watched Marathon lose to Gulliver Prep in the final game of the season, a contest marred by a deplorable inadvertent whistle that brought a fumble recovery for a touchdown back that caused the Marathon coach to go stir crazy and get kicked out of what would be his last game as the team's coach.

This game had to be better, right?

I made my first-ever trip up State Road-100 north to Keystone Heights, a 26-mile trip one way. I found the high school and parked on the side of the football field. However, that gate was closed and I had to walk aaaaaaall the way around the field to the other side to one of the two entrances there.

This was just an omen of things to come.

As I made my way up to the open press box on what was a comfortable night, I saw the stands fill up below me with Indians supporters. Thought nothing strange about what was happening.

Oh, but they had not kicked off yet.

And there was Crescent City, a team with a good amount of talent dressing out just 20 kids. I knew this might be a challenge on this night ... actually the whole season.

Keystone won the toss and elected to receive. They took the ball down to the Crescent City 12, where Chad Hapner finished the drive with a 29-yard field goal. The drive took nearly seven minutes off the clock.

The Raiders got a break on the second Keystone possession when the Indians fumbled and Crescent City got the ball deep in Indian territory. Quarterback Phillip Thompson, maybe the most talented senior on this team, dashed left off a play that was designed to go right and scored 24 yards later. Thompson added the extra point and the Raiders had a 7-3 lead with six seconds left before the first quarter ended.

Still nothing strange at this point. That was all about to change.

Keystone took the ball on the next possession down the field. On the eighth play of the drive, Tyler Davis dropped back and his pass went off a Crescent City defender's hands and into the hands of Ryan Rossano, Johnny on the Spot, making it 9-7.

Once again, the Raiders waited until the end of a period to make something happen. They went from their 37 and marched 10 plays with Thompson gaining 27 and 17 yards on runs and Thompson hitting standout receiver Chris Robinson with a 16-yard pass.

Thompson hit Robinson with a 10-yard pass to finish the drive with 27 second left before the break to make it a 13-9 lead.

Nothing different yet. But soon, the guys in the hats and zebra suits were about to take over this one.

A speedy first half was about to be balanced out by a marathon second half that seemingly wouldn't end.

No matter what the play was, a yellow flag was being thrown. Over and over and over again.

I can see the frustration building with Keystone coach Chuck Dickerson below me on the sidelines. I couldn't see how Crescent City coach Gordon Roberts was reacting, but I had to believe it was some kind of disbelief.

Simple encroachment and holding calls are a part of football games. And as I learned from watching this game, you have to be very, very patient with the first game of any football regular season, something I had never totally realized until watching these two teams make mistakes in the eyes of the officials.

But these were penalties that seemed to border on the ridiculous. The referees were whistling everything. As one spotter said upstairs, "It's the Jacksonville (officials) chapter. They're by the book unfortunately."

"Unfortunately" was the key word here. You have to give these kids some kind of slack in the first regular-season game. These officials figured the preseason games that the teams played would straighten out all the mistakes they made. If that were the case, then these officials were only fooling themselves.

The flags were flying ad nauseum and any momentum that was there was ruined instantaneously.

In the middle of this flag-fest was a football game. Keystone Heights marched 75 yards on six plays to begin the second half. And along the way, the officials got flag-happy. One 15-yard penalty against Crescent City was a blow to the head as a play was whistled over and the other -- also a 15-yarder -- came because Keystone running back Connor Middleton had appeared to have stepped out of bounds on a run, but came back in thinking he was still in. That gave a Raiders defender -- or he thought it gave him -- a free shot to lay the wood on him. The referees were not fast enough to wave their arms to call the play dead fast enough and now penalized the Crescent City player 15 yards for this action.

Davis ultimately hit Wil Breton with a 10-yard score to take the lead back at 16-13.

It would stay this way -- while more penalties were being whistled -- going into the fourth quarter. It was there that the Raiders would receive a punt from Lans Hardin. Robinson fielded the punt at the 25, avoided one would-be tackler on the right sideline and broke Hardin's attempt to take him down to go 75 yards for the score.

And at the end of the play, Robinson, feeling as if he were still being chased, dove head first into the end zone. It wasn't a dive that you would score style points on. Robinson thought he needed that extra dive to score.

The officials didn't see it that way. They threw a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct against Robinson, then to make matters worse, they threw another flag, this one for Crescent City arguing the first 15-yard penalty call.

This game was slowly getting out of hand. Now the referees were in full control of it and had no right to be. It was a downright embarrassment. So now, Crescent City had to attempt a 2-point conversion from its own 32-yard line! Thompson's pass for the end zone was knocked away and it remained 19-16.

Of all the memories of my first high school football game with the Daily News, the back-to-back 15-yarders is no doubt the highlight for all the wrong reasons.

NFL fans remember Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy's famous shouting out to referees of "you over-officious jerk" when he was a Kansas City Chiefs coach in the 1980s? I was starting to truly understand Levy's frustration ... and maybe Gordon Roberts' frustration.

The Raiders had the lead, but that extra-point miss meant that if the Indians scored and kicked the extra point, they'd have a four-point lead and a field goal would be out of the equation.

So the Indians took over at their own 20 after the score. Davis mixed the runs and the passes well on the 13-play drive and he capped it by handing off to Middleton, who finished with 134 yards rushing, for the 4-yard score with 5:46 left to play.

One key play in the drive were a 20-yard pass form Davis to Hapner after Breton, his teammate, missed getting a finger on the ball to maybe knock it away thinking the ball was going to him. And Crescent City -- well, maybe the refs -- helped out, too, with two personal fouls, one for roughing-the-passer on a play that was bang-bang when Davis threw the ball and the Raiders defender hit him, the other for pass interference when both receiver and defender were going for the ball.

Nonetheless, the Raiders were down 23-19 and had to make something happen. But how could you do that when you were playing two opponents that night?

They could not get anything going, one holding call ending one drive in a big way, the other stopped on downs at the Keystone 47.

And after it was over, it got ugly. Roberts did everything he could from giving the officials a tongue-lashing and a little extra than a piece of his mind. Somehow he managed and he had a kindred spirit in Dickerson, who wasn't at all appreciative of the officials turning his victory into a joke.

Crescent City was flagged 15 times for 166 yards, including nine 15-yard penalties. Keystone was flagged 11 times, but for a more conservative 70 yards of infractions. All totaled, 26 penalties for 236 yards.

Yeah, that's my memory of the first football game I covered for the Daily News.

And while Dickerson was a little-less critical of the refs because of the victory, Roberts wasn't holding back.

"That's the worst officiated game I have ever been involved in during my coaching career," said Roberts, whose coaching days could be traced back to the mid-1980s. "They called everything. There were a few times where the penalties were justified, but they called a penalty on us for illegal substitution when twice they had players run out on the field illegally and nothing got called."

Yes, Crescent City played a sloppy opener to begin the 2003 season. There's no doubt that this was an indicator of things to come for the Raiders in what would turn out to be Roberts' last year as coach. But that team didn't deserve almost half of its penalties that night. And neither in some small way did Keystone Heights.

The officials just weren't being loose enough to allow the kids to play. It hurt the quality of the game.

But "the worst officiated game I have ever been involved in" was still in my mind as I made the trek back to Palatka to write the story. That quote would have emphasized the overzealous nature of the officiating that night. I knew if I used that line right there and it shows up in print the very next morning, the phones would be lighting up.

Not just my phone at work, but Roberts' phone at home and in the office of Crescent City principal Joe Warren, too. So I ended up leaving the quote out -- saving fines and people's bacons as well -- and emphasized in the story the horrible nature of the calls in this contest.

The next Tuesday arrived, the story had been printed and done and I had to do a preview of the Raiders' next game at home with Jacksonville University Christian. I got Roberts and I asked how he's feeling since it had been last Friday when I had talked to him.

"I am fine, much, much better," he started. "And thank you for not putting those things in about my feelings of the referees."

I told him he was welcome and that for the better common sense reasons, I had no right to publish something that was said in the heat of that moment. If you never met Gordon Roberts, just know he's one of the best people I have ever come across in my career. That year, the team had lost all control of things and after a 3-7 season, Warren relieved Roberts of his duties. It was unfortunate for the quality of man he is.

He retired from teaching after the 2010-11 school year and each conversation before he made that decision to retire was like two men who had known each other for at least 30 years. We could talk about anything and everything.

But he was as mad as a hornet that September 5, 2003 night. And it took a lot for this kind man to get upset like that.

Then again, if you witnessed the flag-fest I did that evening, you, too, would have been a tad bit upset.