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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.


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