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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.


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