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Thursday, November 22, 2012

A bitter cold but memorable (Mariner) weekend

I had been warned a day or two in advance. All I hoped for was that I wasn't going to be out in the bitter cold of late November New Jersey on two consecutive weekend days.

The weather reports I had heard on the radio and saw on television were a bit mind-numbing ... and toe-numbing and finger-numbing and lips-numbing. The temperatures were expected to be unusually cold that particular weekend ... highs (at best) being 11 degrees on Saturday, November 21, 1987, but "warming up" to about 20 degrees the next day.

Well, I was already planning to be at Trenton State College that late Sunday afternoon while the sun was still shining for the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association South Jersey Group IV field hockey championship game between Toms River North and Morristown. That had already been confirmed just a couple of days earlier when North's Mariners made Notre Dame look absolutely foolish on a slippery, muddy Bordentown High field in a 4-0 romp in the Group IV semifinal matchup.

To anyone who has never had to cover a sporting event in 20-degree weather or less, it's something you don't put on a Christmas wish list. And usually, the temperatures in mid-to-late November in the Garden State are in the mid-to-upper 40s, still somewhat comfortable.

Twenty degrees and less than that was not making me feel any better. And so I knew my fate on Sunday. After all, I'm going to take 20 degrees over 11 any day. Mama didn't raise no fool.

The problem, though, was I may still have to cover a high school state tournament football game, which, thankfully, had both games involving our local teams, Point Pleasant Boro in SJ Group II and Toms River South in SJ IV, at home. And my boss was double-staffing both games. Somewhere in the middle of his thinking, I did my best to persuade him from sending me out into the cold both days by just reminding him gently that I was the one going out there alone to Ewing Township on that Sunday to watch North's field hockey team go after a state title.

I was also keeping an eye out on the state girls gymnastics championship that day and one of our young ladies, Toms River North senior Janice Rogers, was going after a state title. So if I could reason to my boss' sane side, I could talk my way out of doing a football game and freezing my ass off a second day.

Wouldn't you know it -- it worked!! I talked my way into not covering either football state tournament games. Instead, I did offer my services to come into the office on that Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m. to start doing the little things and get that state tournament gymnastics meet over the phone.

So I left for the office just before 3 in the afternoon and headed to one of my favorite places to eat on a Saturday at that particular time -- the Poor Boys sub shop in the strip mall on Route 166 just past the entrance going south on the Garden State Parkway. I got to know both Richie and Rob, the store owners, over the course of the last couple of years and one of them owned the store in Toms River, while the other owned another store in their hometown of Howell. Not only were they very friendly guys, but the help was very friendly, too, especially Karen Schuler, who was working at the store on this particular Saturday afternoon. Karen was a senior at Toms River South and a very good three-sport athlete in tennis, basketball and soccer, so I knew her and her younger siblings Linda and Doug.

"I'll gladly take being in, thanks," she deadpanned. "You couldn't catch me outside for a football game in that (weather)." I agreed with her considering she knew I was going to be out in this cold the next day covering the field hockey state final.

I did reach my destination before 4 p.m. and did my normal routine of collecting agate and sending it out for paste-up at the end of the night (this was loooooooong before the days of computer layout when we basically did everything by dummy sheets, pica poles and proportion wheels).

Once I believed I had enough out there to work with, I just waited to hear from North coach Laura Meszaros, who had taken over the program just the year before. Janice Rogers was a tremendous talent as a freshman in the 1984 season, but she decided to not come back and compete with North the next two years, concentrating on her club gymnastics, which I never really got a straight answer as to why she did so. But she was back as a senior and dominant.

And she was part of a quintet of dynamite Shore area gymnasts that I called the Fab Five, an amazing collection of talent that would not only dominate at the Shore Conference meet, but would do well in sectional and state meet competition. There was Rogers. Then there was Amy Woomer of Ocean Township. There was Jan Dalziel of Neptune. There was Jen Levie of Holmdel High. And the other senior in that quintet other than Rogers was a Howell High School hotshot talent named Bonnie Bernstein.

Yes, thaaaaaaat Bonnie Bernstein, who was about to take her talents to the University of Maryland.

At the Shore meet, Rogers and Levie tied for first place in the all-around, but Levie won on a tiebreaker.

It was 6:30 p.m. and our writers had come back from Point Boro and Toms River South, one each writing a main story, the other writing a sidebar. Both South's Indians and Boro's Panthers had won and advanced to the state sectional final in two Saturdays. I sure was hoping it wasn't going to be as cold as it was that day.

Then I get a phone call transferred to where I was sitting. It was Laura Meszaros calling. Coach Meszaros, whose mother, Jean Garretson, I knew as a Spanish teacher at my alma mater, Toms River East, and whose brother Ricky I had known as a good baseball and basketball player at Toms River Little League and then again at Toms River North, was very good about getting details to me on what was going on. So I was hoping for the best for her prized senior.

"How did it go today?"

"It went very well."

"Oh? How so?"

"She won the state title."

There was a pregnant pause on the phone. I had to collect myself for the moment. I was about to write this amazing story about "the comeback kid" who literally walked back into her school's gymnastics program, dominated during the regular season and finally came out on top in the biggest meet in the end. She won her state title by .05 points over Levie, getting her revenge from the Shore Conference meet.

A state title involving a North female athlete. This doesn't happen everyday. And now, this young lady could possibly be the opening act for what would be an amazing finale. Could this be the weekend of two North state championships, one an individual all-around state title and one a team title, and both involving female athletes?

Yeah, this doesn't happen too often anywhere. And it was halfway home in happening. I wasn't there at Somerville High School when Janice Rogers made history that afternoon by winning that all-around state championship. I would've done anything to see the look of satisfaction and maybe surprise on her face. It would've been definitely worth it.

But I bargained to get out of a state sectional football game on a day when temperatures hit 12 degrees and the wind-child was about minus-10. A witch's teat had nothing on this very brutally cold day. But I was about to endure a day like this, maybe a little warmer, the next day.

The trip in my 1977 Dodge Aspen to western New Jersey to a college I had never been to before on Sunday, November 22, 1987, was an hour long and I remember just cranking the heat up as much as I could. It had been just a year earlier that I was at nearby Rider University to watch Central Regional lose to Northern Highlands in the NJSIAA Group III field hockey championship in temperatures that were close to 60 degrees.

And surprisingly, the sun was strong enough to make the brutal cold not feel so brutal. But I came into the stadium wearing a T-shirt, a sweatshirt over that and a heavy jacket that had a hood on it and was wearing gloves, which would make note-taking a challenge. I had to pick my points to write when I could.

I arrived moments after our photographer, Tom Spader, got to Trenton State. If you thought I was dressed warmly, you should've taken a look at him. He looked like he was bundled up for an expedition to the upper Northwest Territories in mid-January. He was going to be there for the whole game like I was, getting either a celebratory state championship shot or a kids-breaking-down-in-tears-in-defeat shot.

The Mariners came into the game with a 20-0-3 record. They were dominant in their matches for most of the season and the close ones they found a way to win -- like superstar Kim Bush's overtime rocket shot of a penalty corner at the top of the circle to beat Shawnee for the South Jersey Group IV title that slammed into the back of the net behind the goalie so hard that the sound of the ball hitting the supporting wood of the cage could be heard all over Toms River North. Bush, Katie Vignevic, Christy Emmert and Dawn Ostrowski led the offense, while the defense was guided by Mary Bendel, Sue Gerbino, Krista Saponara, Kerri Gallipoli and goalkeeper Linda Kurtyka.

And I knew Morristown, who came in with a 16-4 record, was very good. But I walked in believing North was going to win this game regardless. You just have a feeling about a team or someone and you ride it a long way like I did with this special group of Mariner ladies.

There were two things that I felt could keep North from their anointed place in history. One was complacency and believing too much they could just show up to that TSC field and throw their sticks down and Morristown would just roll over for them. That didn't happen. The second one, though, was how long North's players would have to wait in the sub-freezing temperatures to play. The first two games of the day both went into overtime, including Shore Regional's overtime tie with Delaware Valley that meant the two teams would share the state Group II championship. It was at the Shore Conference Tournament that both Shore and North played to a 1-1 tie and shared that title.

So what was slated for a 4:30 p.m. start was agonizingly dragging on. And even though temperatures hit 30 degrees, that still wasn't making me feel any warmer. I wound up going back out to the car to keep warm until I knew there was little time left in the next game before North played. At least those girls were going to be out there running around. I wasn't going to be so fortunate.

The next state final got done, I got out of my car and, by then, the sun had disappeared. Now the temperature was 25 degrees and it was complete darkness at 6 p.m. for the final championship of the day. My plan was to watch the first half upstairs in the open press box, then do the second half on the field. Going to the bathroom beforehand was going to be a key factor. So as I'm upstairs standing in the press box feeling like a Popsicle, the game got underway.

North put immediate pressure on Morristown's defense and on goalie Chris Giviskos. One of the two greatest talents I've ever seen on a field hockey field (the other being the great Christie Pearce Rampone at Point Boro in the early 1990s), Bush weaved her way into the Morristown circle and took a shot that Giviskos made a save on. But the ball wasn't cleared out and Ostrowski put a 10-yarder in past the goalie off the rebound to give North a 1-0 lead and send the North faithful in the press box off in a fairly loud cheer just 3:38 into the game.

So much for non-partisanship in the press box. By the way, across the field on the other side, the school was building a bigger and more comfortable press box for the next season. It wasn't available to us media types yet, so this open-air press box was the best anyone could do.

The Colonials were staying in this game as best as they could, but the defense of Gerbino, Gallipoli, Bendel and Saponara, all seniors playing their final game, was making things very difficult for any offensive surges. Exactly 14 minutes after Ostrowski's goal, the Mariners added on to the lead.

Bush took a feed from fellow senior teammate Vicki Trotman and put an 8-yarder past Giviskos to make it 2-0. It was textbook pass-and-shoot for the pair who looked like they had done it all season long. It was Bush's 35th goal of the season and the Ohio State-bound star broke the county record for goals in a season first set by Toms River South's Chris Forrester in 1984.

But the celebration of the second goal was short-lived. Just two minutes after Bush scored, Morristown answered back when Sherry Smith delivered a penalty corner pass and Julie Jacobus rocketed a shot past Kurtyka at the 19:19 mark.

North made it out of the rest of the first half alive holding a 2-1 lead. Suddenly, this state championship that I had them winning in my head going into TSC hours earlier wasn't going to be as easy to grasp as I thought.

I left the comforts (whatever comforts there were) of that press box and headed down to the field. I covered dozens of field hockey matches over the years at ground level, so this was nothing different other than the turf was pure carpet, something I had never experienced before. The balls took off like jet propellers with one good solid hit. I wasn't sure how much more offense North had in it on this cold night, so it was up to that stellar defense to protect the lead.

North's defense had given up just eight goals in 24 games. I believe the defense had it in them for one more solid, 30-minute effort. And with 10 minutes left, Morristown was starting to feel a bit frisky, getting closer and closer to Kurtyka. But each time it looked like the Colonials were going to have something, a stick from either Gerbino or Gallipoli or Bendel or Saponara or, in the end, Ostrowski, was there to knock that chance away. And it was dicey back there -- one small mistake like a stick obstruction in the circle would constitute a penalty corner chance and the Colonials had gotten their goal on a penalty corner on this cold night.

Morristown could never get a good shot the rest of the night. Whatever threats it did have would go over the end line and give North the ball. The clock stopped on the scoreboard as usual with two minutes left, meaning the timekeeper had to get up from her spot at the table to follow the head official up and down the field counting down every 15 seconds how much time there was left. Then it got to 10. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.

The whistle sounded. The screaming began.

The North second state title of the weekend was official.

Coach Becky Miller had been the Mariners' mentor for 18 years and was stopped from a state title in 1980 in the Group IV final. Now she, assistant coach Debbie Dietrich and the Mariner players were enjoying this once-in-a-lifetime moment. The smiles were wider than a river as they got a chance to collect that state title. And at that point, all I cared about was making sure my tape recorder was working. Thankfully, it did. I talked with coach Miller, Bush and Saponara. They talked about that "dream of getting to the mountain top," the same way Martin Luther King Jr. did a generation earlier. I ended up using that as the lead to the story I was about to write a couple of hours later.

Saponara, who I would do a feature story on 10 1/2 years later when she worked at ESPN as a football producer, was just elated beyond all elation.

"Everyone is friends," Saponara started. "Of course, we all have our conflicts here and there, but we all pull together and we did it."

Yes they did. They did do it.

I turned the tape recorder off and headed back to the car. It wasn't until I got to the Great Adventure exit on I-195 when I finally and completely thawed out. Tom had gotten back to the office, developed his pictures, dropped those black-and-white bad boys off on our assistant sports editor, Greg, and had left.

I got in about 35 minutes after Tom had gotten back and banged out the story in less than an hour (it's harder to type a story when you're relying on a tape recorder giving you that exact quote you are looking for and you're hitting the 'forward' and 'rewind' buttons a lot). I can still see the picture of North's winning moment on the very front page of the newspaper as Kurtyka and coach Miller held up the state championship trophy. It still is emblazoned in my mind.

That whole weekend is still emblazoned in my mind. And here's the coincidence of all coincidences. My two top athletes in their respective sports -- Ms. Rogers and Ms. Bush -- shared another thing in common that I found out weeks later when I had to interview them individually.

The same exact birthday! Both young ladies were born on February 25, 1970.

Two state championships. The same school. Two female programs. The two top female athletes in their team's sports who win state titles have the same exact birthday.

Amazing. Suddenly, I forgot it was that brutally cold that weekend.

OK, maybe not so much the latter. I think a chill just went through me again.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

When your first time on a golf course is far memorable

Growing up, golf was a fascination of mine. The problem, though, was that I am left-handed. And if you ever saw me swing a golf club right-handed, you thought I really had a handicap.

But affording a set of clubs was a whole different subject. They are fairly expensive and when you're out on your own for the most part and you are paying bills far before indulging in things you want to buy and enjoy, you just grin and bear it knowing that someday, you might have enough money to get your own clubs.

And so through the 1990s, I simply was biding my time, first living in my native New Jersey, then in the Florida Keys. It was in the summer of 2000 when I drove up to New Jersey on vacation to see my folks. The girlfriend I was living with had just started with her new job and she didn't want to just jump into a vacation, so she stayed back while I visited. In early August, I drove up that way and spent nearly two weeks in Jersey, but I found out from my cousin Robin that my uncle Sam's golf clubs were just sitting in a closet and she was looking to get rid of them. She had heard I was looking for clubs.

The catch -- they were left-handed! My uncle had passed away in 1996, so they hadn't really seen the light of day since. I made a vow on the Friday before I came back into work in August 2000 that I would stop by her house in Jupiter on my way home and pick the clubs up. Now keep in mind, these were much older clubs. If you put these bad boys up against the current crop of clubs, they'd be choked to death. I didn't care if they were a few decades old -- these were now my clubs. And I gladly accepted the gift from Robin.

The problem, though, was this: Outside of the Key West Golf Club, there weren't many golf clubs to play on and KWGC was a bit on the expensive side. So again, even though I had these clubs, I had to wait my turn.

During the fall of 2000, I got to escape to the mainland a few times for high school football games involving all three of our county teams, Key West, Marathon and Coral Shores. But none of those trips were going to involve playing golf at all. It was a matter of time logistics.

So when November 2000 came around, I knew we had two schools going into the state tournament with Key West and Marathon qualifying in the 3A and 1A classifications, respectively. Marathon was hosting Miami Country Day school in the first round, so I knew the guy working at the Marathon bureau of the weekly paper that was part of our company at the Key West Citizen was going to do the game. That was a given. Unlike Marathon, though, Key West did not win its district title, which meant in its region, the Conchs were going to be a wild card. They were 7-3 for the season and finished third in District 16-3A behind state power Glades Central of Belle Glade and Cardinal Gibbons of Fort Lauderdale. And so I was expecting the inevitable to take place.

And it did -- the Conchs were going to open up the state 3A tournament in the beautiful town of Rockledge against the mighty Raiders, who would be the threat to Glades Central's dynasty in this particular year's playoffs.

This particular week was about preparation. I had done a preview of Key West's team and talking to coach Greg Kremer, who was proud of his guys and was looking for a long run in the state tournament. Then I wound up talking with Rockledge coach Chuck Wood, who was building a pretty darned good football team in the middle of Brevard County. And to culminate all the previews, I had made a deal with my assistant at the time. I told him I would give him Saturday off if he would work for me on Thursday night.

The game was Friday night, November 17, 2000, and I didn't want to just take a seven-hour trip to Brevard County, only to turn around and come home that night. That would be beyond ridiculous. He agreed to work for me on that Thursday and was actually pretty relieved he didn't have to work Friday and Saturday.

So after taking care of some odds and ends at both work and around the apartment, I kissed my girlfriend goodbye in the late afternoon after she got home from work and I grabbed my golf clubs. I think I had found a time to actually play. To get from Key West to Florida City takes two hours and 50 minutes. If you're getting there a lot quicker, people will suspect that the cops are not out on the Overseas Highway. It was 8 p.m. and I jumped on Florida's Parkway until I got into Fort Lauderdale, where I switched up on an exit there, drove down a bit, and got on the entrance way onto I-95 on Commercial Boulevard. By the time I finally reached Exit 191 for Wickham Road. It was about 11:45 p.m. and believe me, I was already tired from the nearly seven hours of driving I had done. So the only thing left to do was drive to the hotel I was staying at -- the Days Inn on Satellite Beach on A1A, located across the street from the ocean.

I arrived at my hotel room at around 12:10 in the morning. I finally checked in and put my stuff down and five minutes later, I was back in the car and heading back toward McLarty Stadium where the game that night would be played. I had gotten good directions so off I went until I got to the stadium. It was a nice-looking stadium and the lights were very much on. Why? Because the "guests" were having a two-hour practice that night before they headed to their hotel rooms to sleep and get ready for the big matchup.

I had told coach Kremer that I would try to make the practice and watch the team work out. Well I did get there and they were going at it ... yes, even at midnight. Kremer then calls me over to him and says, "You want to see the best part of being here?" "OK."

"They went out of their way to make our quarterback feel special."

On the lower parts of the field, the words "The Rock," as in the nickname for Rockledge, were drawn out beautifully. Kremer's quarterback was James Osborne -- whose nickname was "Rock." I can still remember chuckling over that reference. I can still remember Kremer and defensive coordinator (and school athletic director) Pat Freeman confident about how they felt the team would do later that night. I left McLarty Stadium around 1:15 in the morning and headed back to the hotel room to retire for the night.

By 11:15 a.m., I had checked out of the room and had a lot of time on my hands. That's when I knew I was going to finally have that time to take up a sport I so wanted to, but waited just after my 34th birthday to do.

This was a good day to go golfing. It was bright sunshine and temperatures were in the upper 70s. I headed toward the local K-Mart to buy some golf clubs since I had none. Then somehow managed to find my way to the golf course that I was intrigued about playing. It was Baytree National in Viera, a suburb of Melbourne and not far from where my game was that night. It was just after 1 p.m. and to be honest, I had no idea how long it would take me to play this "fascination."

I paid the $40 to go out for the afternoon, they gave me a cart and I was on my way.

No, I will not go ad nauseum on each and every hole of this golf course. Let's just say for a first-time player, every hole was a challenge. I'd hit a good shot, then follow it up with a bad one, then another bad one. And let's just say almost every hole ended in a "snowman." Except that's not how I score. I literally count every last shot.

Good thing this was a Friday and no one was really behind me. I nearly lost all my golf balls that day. I compensated by finding some lost ones while searching out my ball in the woods of this course. To most people, this round would be a nightmare. To me, I didn't really care -- it was my first time playing and I wasn't holding anyone up and no one was certainly holding me up. I went out alone and came in alone.

It took me over 4 hours to play all 18 holes on the approximately 7,250-yard course. Some holes took longer than others, I do admit, but ultimately, I finished the course before it got completely dark by about 5:30. I got back into the clubhouse and showered and got out before 6 p.m.

For the record, I shot a 183. That was my first-ever time on a golf course and I survived it ... with my uncle's older clubs. But I had fun. I didn't lose that perspective. I knew at the end of the day that I wanted to play again. It would just take me some more time to find the right occasion to do it.

I jumped back into my car and headed over to the Perkins Restaurant located on Wickham Road near Murrell Road, where I was about to go back north on again to get to McLarty Stadium. I remember having breakfast for dinner that night and getting out of there by 6:45 p.m. for the 7:30 start.

The parking lot was already packed. I found my way into the stadium as easily as I did the night before when there was nobody there except the Key West High football team practicing. I weaved my way through the crowd to get to my normal perch for the game in the press box on the Rockledge side of the field. And there was quite a bit stirring for the game with lots of Rockledge supporters and the one writer who was there from Florida Today. 

I can still remember Rockledge coming out onto the field for the game against the Conchs. If coaches Kremer and Freeman were feeling confident the night before, I was not so sure they would feel that way before game time. Rockledge center Adam Wallace, a senior, was 6-foot-4 and 278 pounds. And Clifton Nichols, a junior two-way lineman, was 6-3, 307 pounds. Another lineman, senior Chris Stone, was 6-3 and 278 pounds.

Key West had a lineman named Aaron Barker, a sophomore who was 6-7 and 285, and senior Chaz Jimenez was 6-1 and 285, but that was it. I was hoping speed may rule the day in the Conchs' favor.

That wasn't going to be the case, though. Not by a longshot. Rockledge had too many stud skill players and were slowly and methodically whipping up on the Conchs. By the time halftime came, it was 31-0. The competitive phase of this state tournament matchup was over. And once Rockledge scored two more touchdowns, the rest of the game was played with a running clock.

Rockledge won the game handily, 45-0. I had seen Rockledge play and just a month before, I had seen Glades Central beat up on Key West in Belle Glade, 33-0. I was convinced Rockledge was the better team and it was only inevitable the two teams would hook up for the region championship in two weeks from then (they did and in the final, it was Glades Central which won the game, 20-17).

I got my interviews and was on my way back when I ran into Osborne, who had gone through the wringer in this one. He and some other players were more concerned about getting home and getting to basketball practice for coach Bill Butler the next morning.

Yes, the next morning. The Conchs were soon to open up their basketball season and some of the football players were missing out on practice. Key West was not going to get home from this game until 5:30 in the morning, but yet, their players were going to make it to an 8 a.m. practice. That, I thought, was the ultimate in devotion for a program.

Since I had made a commitment to my assistant to work by my lonesome on Saturday and give him the day off, I started heading back to the Keys around 10:30 that night. Then on some high school scoreboard show on the radio, I heard the score of the Rockledge-Key West game and the one announcer replying, "I'm pretty sure that wasn't worth the long ride."


I stopped in Fort Pierce off of I-95 and made a phone call to Marathon High coach Jerry Jones. I told him I would do so, and so it was at about 11:40 p.m. I reached him to find out his team had beaten Miami Country Day and was moving on to the next round of the playoffs.

I had something to look forward to the next couple of weeks.

I got back onto I-95 to an exit that would ultimately hook me up with Florida's Turnpike into Florida City, through the 18-mile stretch below that and into the Keys. By the time I got back into Key West and my apartment, it was close to 6 in the morning.

Good thing I didn't have coach Butler's basketball practice in a few hours. I woke up in an empty bed by around noon since my girlfriend woke up early and had some errands to run. I ultimately showed up at the office by 2:30 p.m. and wrote my game story and put the sports section out by my lonesome that day and night.

On the 10th anniversary of my first time playing golf, November 17, 2010, I took that Wednesday off from work and headed south from my home base now in Palatka. And yes, I played that same challenging course at Baytree, a much more "seasoned" golfer than I was that day 10 years earlier. I caught a deal in which I played the course for only $27 that day. And it was still challenging as hell and yes, I lost balls left and right, but it only took me three-plus hours to play this time and I improve by a whole 34 strokes ... I shot a 149.

That was like a celebration to me. And I did by meeting my ex-girlfriend, who I dated between 2008-10 and had broken up with only four months earlier, and her little boy that evening for dinner at Sonny's in Titusville. We had a good time -- little did I know it would be the very last time I would ever see her in person since she passed away in June 2011.

Baytree National, a course designed by the great Gary Player, will always have a place in my heart, even as difficult a course as it is. It was so enjoyable that I even forgot I had a football game to cover that night for a few hours.

Come to think of it, the golf game was far more memorable than the details of that blowout of a playoff game.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The misquote that almost ended my career

'Twas the third month of covering high school football in my first fall at the Ocean County Observer and the assignments, let's just say, were sometimes good (I got to see Brick High School three times) and sometimes bad (I saw Manchester enough to want to commit myself to therapy they were so bad).

In other words, I couldn't complain, even if the assignments sent me far away from Ocean County at times (East Brunswick, Edison, Rumson, Manalapan, West Long Branch, Holmdel). And if it wasn't to those exotic places up north from where I resided, it was to the southern end of Ocean County I would go ... Exit 58 on the Garden State Parkway, aka Tuckerton.

And so on Saturday, November 10, 1984, that's exactly where my boss sent me to cover my next football game. It was nearing the end of the season. As a matter of fact, it was the next-to-last game of the year with only the "traditional" Thanksgiving Day games left. Pinelands Regional High aka the school located off of Exit 58 on the GSP, seemed like a trip to upper Monmouth County or lower Middlesex County. You just kept driving and driving until you finally got to your destination.

I left just after 11:30 in the morning to head to the Parkway, down to Exit 58, then onto Route 539 and  Nugentown Road until getting to Pinelands Regional High School. The first thing that struck me in the first-ever visit I made to the school was that the parking lot was pretty big -- and the school looked pretty new, opened for business in 1981 for the first time. But then I looked in the distance ... the football field seemed like an eternal walk away.

But it was there and once I got to the gate and showed my press pass and got a program (oh how I miss going to high school football games and collecting a program with a copy of both teams' rosters in them), I made my way to the Pinelands side of the field, up into the stands and toward a pretty spacious and open press box. It was not being occupied by any adults on this sunny afternoon.

Yes, this space was run by the students, one was doing the scoreboard, one was doing the public address system. Now I don't know if the principal or athletic director Dick Lawrence had this in mind, but the kids who were doing the work were very efficient. And the P.A. kid, whose name I never asked but he was certainly friendly enough and maybe a year or two younger than I was, was helpful. And he was good at his craft.

Pinelands, dressed in mostly green and some gold, came out onto the field with head coach Bob Gillece. At the other end was Manchester in their light blue uniforms. By now, this was about the third time I had seen the Hawks play football for first-year coach Tom Faulkner and by now, I was pretty convinced they might not win another game this year as they came in with a 1-6 record, one win less than Pinelands at 2-5.

If two teams were ever meant to be on the same football field with one another, it would be these two. In the case of Manchester, the Hawks' biggest problem was scoring, plain and simple. For four stright games, they had been shut out. If they had a free pass to go to the end zone, they still wouldn't find it. It was that bad.

And the two teams were moving the ball with neither team having any luck against the other. Then Pinelands got the break it needed when a Phil Patricco punt was short and the Wildcats started at the Hawks' 30. A procedure call pushed them back to the 35, but from there, it was a 13-yard Lester Peschko run, followed by a 9-yard bootleg by quarterback Todd Lawrence, the athletic director's son, for a first down at the 13, then two plays later, Lawrence hit receiver Pat Anthony with a bullet right between the numbers. Zing! Right in there. And just like that, Pinelands had a 6-0 lead. But Patricco blocked the extra-point kick.

This would prove to be pretty important in the end, though with the inept offense the Hawks were running for nearly half a season, a 6-0 lead seemed safe for the Wildcats.

I can never forget the efficiency of how well the two younger kids were running the scoreboard and the PA while chatting with friends who would come in and out of the press box. Compared to them, the timekeeper and my almost 18-year-old self had to be over the hill. But it was an enjoyable time.

At the end of three quarters, a 6-0 lead still seemed safe to the Wildcat fans. The makeup of this Manchester team was very young. Quarterback Tony Lubischer was only a raw sophomore, but you can see good things taking place with him.

For now, though, the Hawks were not going anywhere. The Wildcats' defense stiffened each and every time. And it was becoming frustrating to watch the Hawks' offense sputter time and time again. It got so bad that I was wondering if they were going to score another point this season.

And I was believing that I had a 6-0 game to write about when I got back to Toms River. Pinelands got the ball back with just under seven minutes left and got a couple of first downs. They got the ball into Manchester territory, but were slowed down ... again. They were faced with a fourth and 2 at the Manchester 42. This may have been the time to bring the punter in to pin the sputtering Hawks deep.

But Gillece was feeling lucky. He called a timeout and then sent Lawrence back to the huddle to give his teammates the play. They went up to the line.

Remember, they needed two yards, not one.

As Lawrence got the handoff, I'm thinking, "He's not going to make it." Something inside of me said he was going to come up short in this instance. Sure as anything, Lawrence hands off to running back Dave Cilantro, a sophomore, to get the yards. There's no push from the Wildcats offensive line. Cilantro gets taken down and I look across the field at the yard marker. Then I look back at the ball on the field. The chain gang gets called upon. I knew he was short. Sure as the marker got put down with the ball fairly tucked behind the yard marker half a yard short my beliefs became true.

They should've punted the ball away! What was the coach thinking?!

The young dudes up with me in the press box were as equally stunned. Even if the punter punts the ball into the end zone, Manchester is still taking the ball from its 20. The Hawks had nine first downs up until this point, but they couldn't sustain a drive all afternoon. Now giving them the ball at their own 41 felt like encouragement.

Except Lubischer had thrown an incomplete pass and two runs totaled minus-2 yards. It was now fourth and 12 from their own 39 and the time was ticking down to under three minutes left. Everyone at the field knew the play was going to be a pass. So as Lubischer dropped back again to find his target, he looked one way, then another. He found receiver John Arvanitis and hit him perfectly. By the time the Wildcats put him to the turf, the Hawks had a first down at the Pinelands 43 after an 18-yard pass play.

Momentum was slowly building. But Manchester still needed to score a touchdown, and the end zone was feeling like a trip to the other side of the planet. Lubischer and Arvanitis combined for 14 yards on runs for yet another first down at the Pinelands 29. The Hawks were smelling the end zone. However, they got in their own way again with a 5-yard illegal motion call.

So with just under two minutes left, the Hawks looked in a bind. Then they called for a pass play. Lubischer dropped back and had a decent rush come after him. Just as Pinelands defenders reached him, he let his pass go in the direction of tight end Joe Romans. Romans was being covered well by defensive back Adam Boneski. Boneski got a hand on the ball and deflected it.

The deflection, though, popped up into the air. As if a Hollywood script writer needed a scenario falling into his or her lap, Romans grabbed the ball out of the air and scampered the rest of the way for the tying touchdown with 1:43 left in the game.

Now there was this little thing left called the extra-point kick. John Kerns, who obviously had not done much kicking between goal posts the past four weeks, was summoned to do the honor. But as if he didn't miss a beat, he nailed his kick and the ball went through to make it 7-6.

There was elation heard from the other side of the field from the Hawks fans. It was as if a month's worth of frustration had been let loose with one touchdown and extra-point kick. I soaked it in, but after a bit of time, was wondering why I didn't see anyone get ready to kick off for the Hawks. My eyes became afixed to the Manchester sideline. Down on the ground was Kerns. He was holding his arm.

"What is a kicker doing holding his arm?" I thought to myself. Nonetheless, he had to be taken off the field on a stretcher. In a season in which not a whole lot went right for the Hawks, even when something did go right, it had bad circumstances tagged along with it.

Now I had a question to ask Faulkner after the game. I saved it in the back of my head. There was still 103 seconds left to tick off and Pinelands had enough time to do what Manchester just did. They got the ball at their own 23 and moved up the field, picking up three first downs. They had the ball in Manchester territory inside their 40, but time was running out. They got to the 35, however on fourth down, Lawrence's 16th and final pass attempt came up short with 18 seconds left to play.

And it was over. Manchester had survived, ending a 243-minute streak of not scoring in a 7-6 win. All was good on the other side of the field. The Hawks players were happy, even more so they were happy that the guy who was doubting they would score another point this season was there to report about it. They were reservoirs of information on each and every bit about the three hours that had just elapsed on that Pinelands field. They couldn't shut up. It was exhilerating.

But I still had to ask Faulkner, a man in his mid-to-late 50s, what happened to his kicker after he kicked the extra point through. And here's what I thought I heard:

"In the excitement of what happened, I grabbed him to embrace him and accidentally broke his arm."

I never even questioned what I thought I heard form Faulkner because he was in a slightly melancholy mood, even after victory. So I grabbed what I had and headed back to Toms River to write the game story up. Wrote it up, including that quote done in an indirect manner, and got the story done in just over an hour. By 8 p.m., my boss told me to go home. I still had things to do, but he was adamant -- "You're done ... go home!'

OK, I'm not arguing. By the time I rolled back home, I walk in and hear, "Sur-priiiiiiiiiiise!" Apparently, my mother had planned a surprise 18th birthday party for me three days before my actual birthday and some of my friends were there. I liked the gesture even though I was never a huge fan of surprise parties and still am not to this day.

The next day, I had to head to Asbury Park to cover the Jersey Shore Marathon on what was a dreary, gloomy, yucky, rainy Sunday. Wrote my story when I got in and left to go home.

Now it is Monday, November 12. I had gone to school that afternoon at Ocean County College, came home, and then by 6:30 p.m., went into work at the Observer, like I normally did.

I go in and immediately, I'm getting funny looks from my co-workers.

"You may have a problem," I can still hear fellow writer Chris Christopher tell me.

"Oh? What problem?"

"Did the coach really break the kid's arm?"

"That's what he said to me." I wasn't blinking at that moment.

Then, the assistant sports editor, a guy I had no love for practically from the day I met him four months earlier, asks me what happened and tags a sarcastic, "Were you over at the concession stand getting a hot dog?" for which I defiantly answered, "No!" ("No, asshole!" was not quite in my vocabulary at this particular time.) I explained for the third time in that half hour what happened. By this point, he says I should call the coach up and get a clarification as to what happened and that I should write a correction.

Now all I'm thinking is that this might be the last day of my sportswriting career just 127 days into it. How can I be so stupid?! I've already brought shame to the profession, to my co-workers and to the family name. I am certainly not making it out of this building without turning in whatever it was I had possession of that night.

So I called up coach Faulkner and he answered the phone. We started chatting.

"Did I really misquote you, sir?"

"I think you did."

"My apologies. I didn't mean any harm. I thought I heard you say you had accidentally broken your kicker's arm."

What he explained made a heck of a lot more sense than what I both heard and wrote.

"When he came off the field, he was hugged by his teammates and somewhere in the pile, they accidentally broke his arm," he said.

"Wow," was what I answered back on the phone. "Sounds like a freaky thing."

"Yeah," coach Faulkner said back. "I've been coaching a long time and never seen anything like that before."

Here the coach was supposed to enjoy what was his team's second triumph of the year, and I made it miserable. But all the while, he never raised his voice to me, he never berated me or denegrated what I wrote. He said his peace, explained what happened and when I apologized for the confusion, it was as if nothing happened.

That man made me feel better after I certainly hit that low point in my very young career. I wrote the correction and it appeared in the paper the next day. All was well again. I got to cover Manchester's last football game at home against Monsignor Donovan on Thanksgiving Day. It was a Donovan win. Manchester finished the year at 2-7. Right after the season, Faulkner, who at one time was the head football coach in the 1970s at Jackson Memorial High School, stepped down, never to be a head coach again. I never again saw or heard from him.

A man named Bob Hunt took over the next year and the Hawks improved as they gained more experience as a team.

To this day, I don't take any quote for granted. If there is something that even sounds remotely odd, I ask the person just so I make sure I heard what he or she said.

Because regardless of whether the team won or not, no one wants to feel terrible about something you wrote -- especially when you're wrongfully misquoted.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The most bizarre quarter of football ever witnessed

When the 2007 high school football season started in Putnam County in late August, I was excited.

The team that I would see most of the season was expected to have a big year. Crescent City had moved a number of its players up from an unbeaten junior varsity team and a good amount of the talent that was on the 3-6 team in 2006 was back. I had, in my opinion, the best of the Putnam County football world.

And the Raiders jumped out to a strong start in their season, so yes, I couldn't wait to see more of the team as they were expected to blow through their district and regular-season opponents without much challenge.

Well, somewhere in late September, all that changed. Our Interlachen High correspondent was having personal difficulties in some capacity, I can't honestly remember, and he was not able to cover the games the rest of the season. So that left me and my boss in a bind. How were we going to handle the rest of the season?

Fortunately, we had a news writer that just came into the fold a month or two earlier and he lived in Volusia County. He had done some sports writing, so my boss thought, "Heck, let's get him to do the home games at Crescent City and we'll figure out what to do with the team when it goes on the road."

So it was settled. He all of a sudden got to see the best team in the county play football.

And I got shipped to see the worst team in the county.

Not just the worst team in the county for 2007. Maybe the worst team ever. Nope, let me amend that -- maybe the worst team I've ever covered, period.

To tell this story about the 2007 Interlachen High football team, I have to start with the end of the 2006 season when the Rams had a good year -- for Interlachen High standards, that is. The team went 4-6 and finished the year on an up note with a victory at Branford High School.

The team won 11 games between 2003-06, which if you compare it to the period between 1998-2002 when the Rams went a combined 1-49, that's like a dynasty. They were not good, but for the talent level they had, a 4-6 record was sensational. And the key to this was their head coach, a jovial but no-nonsense guy named Bobby Humphries, who is one of the best people you will ever meet. Not only does he know his stuff, but he's pretty damn funny, too. He was slowly turning this program around after being a laughingstock at one point.

Unfortunately, he wasn't turning the program around fast enough. Less than two weeks after that victory in the finale against Branford, the school principal fired him as head coach. Eleven wins in four seasons, which in Interlachen standards puts them on the same level as say, Lakeland or St. Thomas Aquinas, was not good enough.

At the time, I said it was one of the worst decisions ever made by an administrator. I've had to change my opinion on that since -- it is the worst decision ever made by a school administrator. I'll cut to the chase -- between 2007-09, the Rams won exactly one football game. And outside of a 6-4 2010 season in which one of those wins was a forfeit triumph because of an ineligible player playing in a game for a team that beat Interlachen, the Rams haven't been very good. As a matter of fact, the Rams have won one game since the 2011 season.

Total that up, that's a record of 8-52 since 2007 and 2-48 not counting that 2010 season when the Rams had the county's player of the year -- a transfer from Palatka High School named Kion Williams. I can still hear their coach at the time, former NFL player and Palatka High standout Willie Offord (now Palatka's coach) telling me in the 2011 preview how the team was determined to prove they weren't all about Kion Williams that season ... and then they went on to an inevitable 0-10 campaign.

Now with half a 2007 season to go, I was going to be:

A) not covering a team with the potential of going 10-0 in the regular season.

B) covering a team that had a hard time stopping people let alone scoring.

C) f*cking miserable.

The new guy in charge at Interlachen High was a really good guy named Mike Sinor. Now Sinor had been a coach at a couple of other places, one being Fernandina Beach High. So this was no Johnny-come-lately taking over the reins at IHS. He had a plan to make things work and improve the team's standing in the area, which I was a proponent for. Honestly, he really, really tried hard to make things better.

There was one problem -- he didn't have the personnel that could run it properly. The makeup of his team was more physical with a dash of speed. He was trying to implement the run-and-shoot offense, which is exciting for fans and writers like myself to watch. However, you need a quarterback that can find his targets and you need the targets to catch the ball. And with practically nobody in the backfield, you need to kinda, sorta get rid of the ball in a hurry since the other team knows what you are going to run.

Now keep in mind, what coach Sinor was running was the run-and-shoot with a running back in the backfield on occasion. And when your running backs you put in the backfield are baby bulls, that whole "speed" thing kind of goes out the window.

This was a recipe for disaster, but I knew they could score some points with that offense.

However, those points were going to come after they had fallen behind by so much because their defense was just flat-out terrible. They couldn't stop me even if I wasn't running downhill. You could drive an 18-wheeler through the Rams' defense.

And so with losses during the season to Jacksonville Providence and Yulee, teams IHS had a chance to win against, they were looking at yet another winless season. The same pattern would happen in each and every game that I got to cover involving the Rams -- the other team would jump out on them, take a huge lead, and then with a running clock, the second team would have to do mop-up against IHS' first team and if IHS scored, that was like a victory.

So as predicted, the Rams were 0-9 going into the finale -- and a Friday, November 9 date with a playoff-bound Lafayette High School from the town of Mayo. I kid you not -- someone named this town Mayo. My bet was on a chef who didn't think "Ketchup, Florida" or "Mustard, Florida" was up to standard.

The Hornets had a young man at quarterback named Chad Hempstead, who had broken numerous career records at Lafayette, most of which were held by the most famous player in program history, former University of Florida quarterback and current Jacksonville University head coach Kerwin Bell. Hempstead could have gone anywhere as a college quarterback, though I don't believe he ever did. He also had an All-State receiver to throw to in Jamaal Reid.

Layafette was 8-1. And with Interlachen at 0-9, this had every look of it as the ugliest football game ever.

So like a good soldier who holds his nose to clean up the carnage that has been stinking for the better part of three or four days, I was off on my ride up US-27 to head to the town of Mayo (hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, ha ha ha). But for this last game, I actually didn't mind. First, I knew what the result of the game was going to be, the only thing left for me to fill in the blanks with were the final score and details. Secondly, I had signed up a month earlier to run in the Hog's Breath 5-kilometer race in Destin, a beautiful town on the Panhandle overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.

So basically -- win-win on this night.

But as the daylight disappeared and the night time came to northern Florida, one thing became apparent -- it was gettin' pretty cold. By the time I arrived at Mayo around 7:10 p.m. for a 7:30 start, my car's temperature gauge read 49 degrees.

And, of course, what was I dressed in -- a light jacket over a sweatshirt and wearing a pair of shorts. You should've seen the looks I was getting from the students as I walked in from the parking lot toward the field, let alone the adults. I found my way upstairs to the press box at Lafayette High and it's pretty darn crowded with lots of supporters of this team.

I told those who wanted to know that I was covering the game for the Palatka Daily News and since I don't believe they knew where Palatka was, I was sensing well before kickoff they were feeling sorry for me. I couldn't blame them, either, since I knew what the outcome of this game was well before the opening kickoff.

I also think they were amused by the fact that I was wearing shorts on a night where temperatures were dipping into the low 40s, maybe beyond that. I call it "Jersey Tough." As I explain from time to time, northern Floridians know the temperatures can drop toward freezing, but only northerners who live in northern Florida like myself can stick it out and handle the cold without much complaint.

Basically, I knew what to expect -- a lot of "polite" trash-talking from the fans of the local team. OK, so that being said, the kickoff takes place just around 7:34 p.m.

In the first 105 seconds of the game, the Hornets pounced on a fumble by quarterback David Sinor, the coach's son, and Hempstead found Reid for a 24-yard scoring pass. Blade Herring's extra-point kick made it 7-0.

Well maybe the second drive will go better! David Sinor went back to pass and got pressured. He threw the ball into Reid's arms. From their own 33, the Hornets drove 67 yards on six plays as Hempstead was slinging the ball to open targets. He capped the drive with a handoff to running back Eric McIntyre, who barreled in from 10 yards out.

OK, so maybe the third drive will be the charm! Nope. The Rams were forced to punt and when Quell Brown got tackled on a punt attempt because the offensive line didn't do a very good job blocking up front, the Hornets were really set up for business at the Interlachen 5-yard line. Hempstead hit Jonathan Anderson with a 5-yard scoring strike and the end of the first quarter came with the Hornets holding a 21-0 lead.

Yeah, this game was already over. But the second quarter provided more memories in a high school football coverage lifetime than I could ever admit.

It was 7:59 p.m. The game was moving along fairly well.

But 45 seconds into the second quarter, Lafayette scored again as Hempstead hit Matt Milton for a 10-yard scoring strike to make it 27-0 after Herring missed the extra-point kick. Then three plays later, Sinor was picked off by Brooke Laminack, who took the ball back to the Rams' 43. Didn't take long from there for the Hornets to once again stuff the ball into the end zone as Hempstead hit Reid in stride for a 26-yard touchdown that made it 33-0.

There was 9:07 left before halftime. By now, the Rams had figured out they weren't going to win this one. So they decided to open up the "book of trick plays." During the season, coach Sinor had his son throw everything at defenses -- from hook-and-ladders to halfback options to anything that can be conceived in the dirt on the sidelines during a blowout. He later said to me that "after awhile, we didn't care about the scoreboard."

So on the next Rams possession, David Sinor threw a pass to sure-handed receiver Eric Andreasen, who pitched to a trailing Brown for a 28-yard gain total. And the drive culminated when Sinor pitched out to back Tysir Williams, who floated a perfect strike to receiver Romeo Thompson for a 38-yard score to get the Rams on the board at long last. Jamal Leonard burrowed in for the 2-point conversion and it was suddenly 33-8.

And there was still 6:55 to go in an already plodding second quarter. But wait, the best was yet to come.

Unfazed, Lafayette took the ball on its next possession and drove it 58 yards on seven plays and capped the drive with fullback J.D. Richardson powering into the end zone from 13 yards out. Herring's kick made it 40-8 with 4:03 still left to go in the first half. And nearly an hour has ticked by since the second quarter began. And worse, this just happened to be Lafayette's homecoming game! So imagine how the fans sitting in the stands freezing their behinds off were feeling at this point.

Apparently, the Rams didn't care. From their own 40 on the next drive, quarterback Sinor dropped back and hit Andreasen with a 9-yard strike. Within a second, a speeding Brown came in and took Andreasen's lateral. And Lafayette defenders couldn't catch Brown. Touchdown. Jessie Thomas' extra-point kick made it 40-15 with 4:03 left before halftime.

This was a Lafayette team that was about to become 9-1. But if they can't stop trick plays when they have seen them on tape, I definitely wasn't holding out hope for their playoff chances at all. C'mon guys, you can't be this gullible.

Lafayette's answer -- just keep scoring. Thomas squibbed an onside kickoff and Lafayette pounced on the ball. And just like they had all night, the Hornets answered with another score in two plays -- McIntyre, who would finish the night with 179 yards on 11 carries, rumbled 49 yards to the Rams' 3 and then finished it off himself with a run on the next play. Herring's kick made it 47-15.

All this supposedly happened in just 11 seconds. The clock read 3:52 before halftime. And I was starting to get antsy. No, not because it was cold. I wasn't feeling cold. I had a deadline to deal with and I had set myself up to type my story and send it from a Hampton Inn in Perry, which was still 30 miles away.

It's now 9:02 p.m. Yes, the second quarter was insanely taking an hour to play. C'mon guys! Let's move this one along!

Interlachen had moved the ball to its 40, but Sinor went back and found Reid again instead on a sideline pattern. Oops! That's not the kind of interception you want against you when the defender catches the ball and has no one other than the quarterback in between him and the end zone.

An extra-point kick later, it was 54-15. And there was still 2:59 left before halftime. I look at my watch. It's 9:06 p.m. How much longer is this going to take?

So the Rams get the ball back again -- and they're moving the ball into Hornets territory without the help of a trick play! Amazing. However, Sinor tries to find Thompson on a fade toward the end zone. It was Lafayette's Chris Padgett who jumped up to make the catch. He came down with the ball at his own 1-yard line. A bad break for the Rams indeed.

Now the Rams have the Hornets at their own 1. Maybe this might be the moment they make a stand and get the ball back and maybe threaten to score one more touchdown before halftime. Well those thoughts started to disappear when the Rams were detected for an illegal substitution, pushing the ball up to the 6.

Then they totally disappeared. I can still see Hempstead going back in a five-step drop behind the goal line and firing a pass toward the sideline to a streaking Reid. Catching it in strike, Reid was not going to be caught.

Ninety-four yards later, it was 61-15 with 1:15 left before halftime. Hempstead's night was over by halftime. In his final regular-season game, he was 7-of-9 passing for 183 yards and five -- yes, five touchdown passes.

But the Rams got the ball one more time before halftime. Sinor threw to Andreasen out in the flat, but Hornets defenders had it covered and the receiver lost 6 yards on the play, back to his team's 28. Sinor called a timeout with four seconds left. What trick play could the Rams have up their sleeve to end the half? I couldn't even imagine after all I saw in over an hour in the quarter.

So Sinor gives his son the play and goes back to the huddle. They break the huddle to go into the run-and-shoot formation of two receivers on both sides of the line. Whatever this play is better be good.

Sinor goes back to pass and he's being hurried to throw the ball by ferocious Hornets linemen. His smallish frame lets go of a heave toward the middle of the field as he gets buried under them. Two defenders -- Reid and Laminack -- have their eyes fixated on the ball. This is going to be an interception. One of these guys is going to have the ball and the half will mercifully be over.

Reid touches the ball. It tips to Laminack. He can't catch the ball as he tips it. You wouldn't believe what happened next.

Thompson somehow came up with the football! Seriously! Once the ball was secured, he had nothing but green field ahead of him as he raced 72 yards for the touchdown on the final play of the half. I looked at the field to see if there were any yellow flags on the ground. None.

I did something I have never done in my career.

I uncontrollably laughed my ass off. The Lafayette faithful in the press box were probably not too amused, but I really didn't care about their feelings at that particular moment. It was only appropriate that the most bizarre quarter of football that I had ever seen in my career ended with a Hail Mary that was tipped by not one, but two defenders and landed in the arms of the receiver they were trying to cover.

The score at halftime was 61-21, the score of routs at the ends of games, not halftime! The second quarter ended at 9:17 p.m. It took 1 hour and 18 minutes to play those 12 minutes. In other words, it took six and a half minutes to play each minute! And when the dust settled, I had added up the damage in that one quarter alone.

The two teams combined for 61 points and 519 yards -- in the second quarter alone! For a one-sided laugher, it was pretty darned entertaining. But there was already talk at halftime from the Lafayette folks about "breaking the scoreboard" ... or scoring 100 points in this game. No foolin'. They were already talking like it was a done deal.

But I knew far better than those oafs did. Why? Two reasons: First, Lafayette had a bench and the coach wasn't going to risk injury to his main players and he was surely going to give the backups a chance to play. The Rams' defense may have been horrendous, but it wasn't going to give up 39 more points to a second team. And two, even though coach Sinor wanted to play the third quarter in normal fashion and not have a running clock with a 40-point deficit already, he was going to have to deal with the mercy-rule running clock in the fourth quarter anyway unless his team found a way to get the deficit under 35 points.

With the homecoming ceremonies over and kickoff for the second half at 9:40 p.m., the Hornets' coaching staff was right on cue -- they were playing the backups. Offensive lineman Nathan Broughton was put in the backfield and he scored on a 1-yard plunge to make it 68-21 going into the fourth quarter.

Then in what would be David Sinor's final quarter as IHS quarterback, he hit Thompson for a 48-yard strike to finish the scoring with 8:55 left in the game.

At 10:26 p.m., the game ended mercifully. The shivering fans were finally leaving and I had interviews to do with IHS players and coach Sinor, who took the whole game in stride. He was proud of the fact his kids never quit, adding, "We scored more points on their defense than any team did this season. That team shut out three others teams, held three others to one touchdown and three other teams got two touchdowns. To score four touchdowns against that team, I felt we did very well."

OK. If he said so. Of course, stopping the other team might have helped, too. And I'm pretty sure the Hornets saw more trick plays on them than they did the entire season. It was about 10:40 and I needed to get to Perry to start typing a story.

Thirty miles on mostly desolate US-27 can feel like the loneliest ride in the world. And believe me, no one was happier to see the town of Perry more than I did by about 11:15 p.m. I had already made plans with the hotel management at the Hampton Inn on US-19/98 that I needed their Wi-Fi to do my story on my laptop, which they were more than happy to accommodate me.

But I was under the gun by now. The boxscore of this game took over a half hour to do! In spite of all the interceptions he threw and his 10-for-23 performance, young Sinor threw for 267 yards. Thompson caught three passes for 158 yards. Overall, Interlachen finished the night with 343 yards on offense, 312 in the air. But Lafayette had 472 yards of offense. The teams had combined for a mind-boggling 815 yards of offense with 519 of those yards in the second quarter! Again, just an insane 12 minutes that stretched out over 78.

I sent the agate just after midnight. Describing this game was a totally different story. So putting fingers to laptop keys, I went at it. It took 30 minutes to craft this so-called "masterpiece," but it got done. And by 12:40 a.m., I had sent the story to my boss. I had to wait now. He was working along with our night news editor, who would help out with doing the scoreboard page I normally do on Football Friday nights if I was out of the office and at a game. I sure miss him doing that for me these days.

It was almost 1 a.m. My cell phone rings. My boss says we were good to go. I didn't want to spend too much time telling him about this game, though he had heard my reports during the game via cell phone conversation and knew it was just a wild evening -- and second quarter.

By 1:15 a.m., I was out the Hampton Inn door and on my way to Destin. But the ride to Destin isn't exactly around the corner -- even from where I was. And I was slowly fading as the ride to Exit 70 on I-10 was becoming nauseatingly boring. Never being in this part of the state before, I simply guessed my way into Destin and then finally found the hotel at 5:45 a.m. EDT -- four and a half hours later (I had made a stop at McDonald's along the way and had driven on US-27 into Tallahassee, then weaved my way on US-90 until getting onto I-10, so it took some time).

As I rolled up into the parking lot at the Motel 6 on US-98, all I cared about was just getting into my room and falling asleep. But now I was going to have a new obstacle in my way. The overnight manager was in the middle of doing the audit at 5 a.m. (that's what time it was in the Central Time Zone then). So she couldn't check me in for another 45 minutes.

Now I'm angry. I had a race to run at 3 p.m. CDT on November 10. As I said in a much quieter tone than John McEnroe once said, "You can not be serious." She was, but she made me a deal -- if I came back at 5:45 a.m., just over 50 minutes time, I not only could get my room, but I could get it for free.

Yes, I always have admired that word -- free! So happy, but tired, I agreed to come back in 50 minutes. I schlepped over to the Waffle House to have some carbs for breakfast, even though the race was not for another nine hours or so. I thanked the waitress for allowing me to hang out until I got back down the road to the Motel 6 where at that point, the overnight manager kept her word and I got in to my room about 5 minutes later, turned on the television and fell asleep with it on at just around 6:20 a.m.

I woke up at around 12:30 p.m., two and a half hours before the race. By this point, the only thing I care about eating is a couple of bananas. I got to the race about three blocks from the hotel, got my racing stuff, went back to the hotel, pinned my number for the race to my shirt, headed back and at just after 3 p.m., I was racing. I finished in 25 minutes and 20 seconds, which I was very proud of since it was one of the fastest races I ever did for 5 kilometers.

By about 5 p.m. that afternoon, I finally could relax. I spent one more night (for the $40 rate) at the hotel and left Sunday afternoon to go back to Palatka after what was my "birthday weekend." But what memories I took from the previous two days.

Five days later, the same principal who had fired Humphries then fired Sinor, who never was allowed to have a second season to prove his offense could work with better personnel.

Yes, the Humphries dismissal is still the worst ... firing ... ever.

The 2007 season was a lost one for Interlachen's football team at 0-10 as the Rams were outscored an unfathomable 488-110. But the last game, for as excruciatingly long and bizarre as that second quarter was, had one other benefit for myself -- the story I wrote took second place in its division for "General Excellence in Sports Writing" for the Florida Press Club.

I made lemonade. Or chicken salad. You can use whatever analogy there is to use.

The 2007 season ended with Crescent City going 10-0 in the regular season as I thought it would, but the Raiders lost in the first game of the state tournament to pesky Clearwater Central Catholic, 23-0.

But my boss got to cover that game. I didn't. My season was over.

It ended in an exciting fashion -- just as it started.