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Banners in the Sky
“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”
-Super Bowl Winning Coach, Vince Lombardi
In every sport, at the end of each season, only one team can walk away as the champion. There is only one winner. The Campolindo Cougars were unfortunately not that team. Their 2011/2012 football season ended as most teams’ seasons end; in defeat. Although a California Interscholastic Federation Division III State Championship wasn’t in the plan for the Cougars, an immeasurable experience could best describe the season in its entirety.
His eyes turn to the scoreboard, and a grin quickly emerges upon his face. The clock is slowly ticking down; only seconds remain until that championship trophy is within his grasp. A sudden jolt of chills creep down his body as the Gatorade and ice chips slide out of the cooler and saturate his shirt. He looks back to the scoreboard: 3, 2, 1, and the buzzer sounds. Instead of cheering fans and an extravagant celebration, he is met with loud music engulfing the silence of his bedroom. A hand sluggishly inches from beneath the covers to silence the annoying sound that is the 4:45 AM alarm. It is time to part with the joyous dreams and fantasies and allow for the reality of a new day to set in.
The shower begins to spew out water as Kevin places his hands upon the smooth tiled walls and his head beneath the flowing liquid. The water, although not as fulfilling as the Gatorade shower, serves a different, necessary purpose: an opportunity to cleanse his mind and body. After the shower, he continues through the morning process and begins to dress. The slacks go on one leg at a time, and then the short-sleeved navy polo is pulled over his head, reading “Coach Macy” across the left breast. To finish off the outfit, a matching navy hat is placed upon his thinning, gray hair. The very same hat that he was issued the first day he accepted the head coaching position at Campolindo, a high school in the suburbs outside of San Francisco.
It is Monday, August 15th, and with the dead of summer setting in, the air is heavy and filled with moisture. Just as the day begins, so does a new football season for Coach Macy and the Campolindo Cougars. The car ride to the school allows for Coach Macy to reflect on the past and continue dreaming for the future. Just as the thoughts begin to connect and images form within his mind, the monstrous structure that is Campolindo High School is suddenly before him.
Coach Macy pulls into the empty parking lot, not another soul or car for that matter in sight. As the summer progresses and the school year approaches, more students and teachers will begin to fill the parking lot, but for now it belongs to Coach Macy and the rest of the football team. As Coach Macy approaches the gymnasium, he cracks open the door and shoves a worn brick in between the wall and the door to keep it pried. He flicks up the light switches, and a buzzing noise consumes the empty gymnasium as the lights begin to heat up. As they brighten, the championship banners hanging from the ceiling begin to appear from the depths of the darkness. Coach Macy slowly paces around the gymnasium, looking up at each banner in search of one in particular. Four Olympians in 2008; no. Men’s Volleyball State Championship in 2004; not quite. Cross Country State Championship in 1998; getting closer. As he reaches a discolored red banner hanging in the deepest corner of the gymnasium, he stands still and arches his head up towards the sky to read the navy letters “Football Section Title 1986.” It’s now 25 years later and not a single banner hangs to match the only Section Title in Campolindo’s football history, a thought that has agonized Coach Macy since he began coaching at Campolindo seven years ago.
After Coach Macy walks away from the past, he makes his way to the present as he enters the men’s locker room. The smell is pungent as the stench of years and years of athletes’ blood, sweat, and tears invades his nostrils. The floors are shining but unfortunately once the players enter, that reflective image will quickly fade. Coach Macy takes a newspaper clipping and tapes it to the exit of the locker room, disrupting the pure white walls. With a closer look, the clipping reads the preseason rankings for the Diablo Foothill League: “Last place honors go to the Campolindo Cougars.” A projection any team is sure to cringe at and one that is even worsened by the prediction of a winless season.
Coach Macy then walks into his office to make his final preparations for the practice, only moments away now. He sits at his desk, and in front of him rests a schedule for the day, but as he attempts to read through it, his mind keeps drifting off to the end of last season: the disappointment, the controversy, the school board’s decision. When a team finishes last in the division, there are always questions to be answered. The parents of the players didn’t want answers; they wanted change. The coaches, especially Coach Macy, sat in the hot seat. As the third head coach chosen to lead the Campolindo Cougars since their Section Title victory in 1986, Coach Macy’s biggest concern was wondering if and when coach number four would walk through the door to replace him. After weeks of uncertainty and debate, a decision was made to keep the current coaching staff intact. Now, months later, Coach Macy remains in the same position he has found himself in the previous years, preparing for another season as the head coach of the Campolindo Cougars. Just as the flashing memories come to a close a knock vibrates the door as the assistant coaches indicate the commencement of practice.
Outside of the locker room and past the gymnasium, a circle of undersized and inexperienced football players kneel on the football field at the 50 yard line. Coach Macy makes his way to the center of the field and begins to speak, but his voice starts out soft so he goes to clear his throat and begin once again. He is ready to get the season off on the right foot as he says, “I hope that you have all seen the paper. I’ve taken the liberty of hanging it up in the locker room just to ensure that what was written isn’t ignored.” The anger begins to mount in Coach Macy’s voice as he tightly clenches his worn hat in his hand and continues, “They aren’t giving us a fighting chance, and that’s alright. They don’t know us. I’ve seen you kids grow, and I see a team here that is ready to beat the odds.” He pauses for a moment and completes a circle to ensure that he makes eye contact with each of the players. His hands then rise in triumph as he finishes the speech, “Come season’s end, I don’t expect to just tally a few wins; I expect to see the Cougars on top of the rankings. Let’s break it down and get to work!” The circle begins to close and move in a wave like fashion as the players jump in excitement for the season to come.
The summer progresses and the players steadily grow together as a team. The constant 80 degree heat amplifies the intensity of the practices. Sweat slowly seeps through the clothes of the players and drenches the pads that engulf their bodies as they run through the daunting temperatures. Weights are lifted and muscle tissues tear as the Cougars attempt to minimize the noticeable gaps in size and strength between themselves and the other teams in the Diablo Foothill League. Each day brings an experience previously unseen in these young men. They gradually develop and show bright signs of improvement in their skillset. Although the Cougars are not blessed with the fastest, tallest, or strongest group of athletes, it’s the determination to progress their attributes that differentiates these kids and this team in particular from previous years. With a majority of the starting line-up having graduated last year, including the entire offensive line, new faces and voices emerge in the Cougar’s locker room. With this information in mind, Coach Macy and the rest of the coaching staff keep the players focused on the goals at hand, ensuring the preparation will not be in vein. As each day passes, the excitement rapidly grows within each member of the Cougars team as they prepare to disprove the expectations placed upon them.
Friday, September 2nd. “Let the games begin”, reads a poster taped to the fences surrounding the track and football field. Crowds of fans shuffle into the stands to support the Cougars for the first home game of the season. The team sits anxiously in the locker room awaiting the coaching staff to enter and for Coach Macy to give the motivational speech the team has been waiting for all preseason. The walls vibrate as Coach Macy enters and closes the door to his office. He stands at the head of the locker room as the assistant coaches disperse amongst the players. The words effortlessly flow out of Coach Macy’s mouth, “We make a statement tonight!” Cleats stomp, helmets smash against lockers, yells echo loud enough for the fans to hear, and the team gallops onto the field as the season commences.
Non-conference play leaves the Cougars in an unfamiliar position: undefeated heading into the division portion of the schedule. Although these games were predicted to be close, the “experts” had not foreseen an undefeated start for the Cougars, especially while outscoring opponents by a combined 100 points in the four games. Campolindo has already demolished the expectations placed upon them and now look to upend the division. The streak continues, with no team prepared to compete against the heart and determination living within the Campolindo Cougars. Week after week, the competition folds and watches in awe as the Cougars fight their way to a mark of 10-0 heading into the playoffs. With this record, Campolindo earns a well-deserved division title and holds a lot of momentum heading forward into the playoffs.
The matchups are set and, with a perfect record, the Campolindo Cougars are awarded the honors of a home playoff game. The magic will either continue with a run through the playoffs or end on the turf that has molded this team for the past two and a half months. The first opponent for the Cougars is Hercules High School. With a stellar performance, Campolindo dominates 58-21. They are able to overpower Hercules through every facet of the game, scoring touchdown after touchdown through the air, on the ground and even on defense. They do all of these things while completely shutting down the Titans’ offense with stringent defensive play. Another week is added to the season and another home game is awarded to the Cougars. The next opponent hails from Bishop O’Dowd High School, and the perfect season continues with a 34-17 victory. Although the Dragons remained close through the first half of the game, the Cougars were able to hold off any comeback attempt by Bishop O’Dowd by controlling the clock through their ground-and-pound running game. It has become evident that Coach Macy has prepared the Cougars to make an improbable and unprecedented run.
The section semi-finals come knocking, and with an opponent fiercer than the Cougars have seen so far this season. The Cardinal Newman High School, ranked 2nd in Northern California, is favored heavily heading into the game and savors the home field advantage it has rightfully earned. Even though both teams are undefeated as they head into the matchup, the game seems to come to an end before it even starts. Within the blink of an eye, nearly two quarters disappear and 21 points are added to the Cardinals’ side of the scoreboard. With less than four minutes left in the half, the Cougars are forced to regroup or sit back and watch as the Cardinals rip away any dreams the team had of capturing the sought-after Section Title and coveted State Championship berth.
A spark of hope in the form of a Campolindo touchdown opens the door for a possible comeback. Following the touchdown, the Cardinals falter allowing for the Cougars to have one last chance at scoring before the half. As the center hikes the ball, the clock begins to tick down the final seconds of the quarter. The quarterback’s steps are matched by the steps of the defenders, and the field begins to close on him. He begins to spin and roll out to the right side of the field, but he is met by two Cardinals defenders and is forced to shuffle his feat in retreat. In a last second attempt, the quarterback heaves the ball down the field, a Hail Mary attempt. The ball drops out of the sky, landing perfectly within the arms of the receiver, and the Cougars head into halftime down by a single score. It is clear that the momentum is shifting, slipping out of the firm clutch of the Cardinals and falling in favor of the Cougars.
As the Cougars enter the locker room at half, the players sit, eagerly awaiting the chance to get back on the field and continue their unbelievable comeback. Coach Macy stands staring at the team, smiling as he winks to show the excitement building within his body. He then says in a calm, confident voice, “It’s our time,” as he signals for the players to clear the locker room and bring their energy onto the field. What seemed like an improbable task turned into an impressive 35-24 winning performance by the Campolindo Cougars. The next stop for the Cougars: Oakland Coliseum for the Sectional Title game, the same location the Cougars captured their only Section Title 25 years earlier.
The school week could not move any slower; each day of preparation increases the unrest, which can be observed in the players and Coach Macy in particular. His office lights remain on throughout the week and the door never opens. Only business is completed; fun can wait until the dreams are fulfilled. It is evident that this game has a more important role than just a title game or potential banner to hang from the ceiling in the gymnasium; it is an opportunity for the school to connect and join together in a celebration which it has not seen in 25 years.
Friday night arrives. The bus pulls in, opening its doors to the team and coaching staff. Hugs, kisses, and kind words are shared; the bus door closes, and the trip begins. As the bus leaves the high school, an escort of flashing blue and red lights lead the way, a kind gesture of support from the police department and entire town. The cars ignite their engines, line up, and follow the team to join in the unforgettable experience. An image of the entrance to the highway resonates through the hearts of the team as a plethora of signs surround the entire road. “25 Years Later,” “Our boys, our pride,” and “Cougar Pride, 2011 Section Title” read some of the more memorable signs. Once the bus arrives at the Oakland Coliseum, the reality sets in.
The team trots onto the field to a stadium filled with family, friends, and supporters. The crowd of nearly 10,000 begins to chant in anticipation of the opening kickoff. The players attempt to go through their drills as usual, but the anxiety is overwhelming; the stage far surpasses any images that were previously imagined. Reassuring words are shared by Coach Macy and all of the players as the team steadily prepares for the contest to determine the fate of the season and a potential celebration. The officials call the captains to the center of the field. Coach Macy places his hands upon the seniors who will potentially play their final games as Cougars and says, “This is the moment we have been waiting for, that we have prepared for, let’s capture it forever,” and then gives a subtle wink to bring the memories of last week’s victory into their minds as he sends them on their way to the coin toss.
The whistle then blows and the ball lifts into the air as the kicker bounces the ball off of his foot into the bright, shining lights, and the game begins. The clock ticks down, noises echo throughout the stadium, and the tension mounts. Flash forward to a quiet stadium, 2 seconds left in the 4th quarter and the Cougars are clawing away at an 18-17 deficit. With the Campolindo kicker lining up for a reasonable 21-yard field goal, the crowd rises to its feet for the final play of the game. The Cougars surround Coach Macy in anticipation of the kick. Hands are held, and all of the individuals come together as a team to watch the fate of their season unfold with the swing of a leg. The ball is snapped, and the crowd screams as the ball sails through the uprights and the Cougars charge the field in triumph. The 2011 Section Title is awarded to the Campolindo Cougars. A sign raised in the midst of the celebration reads, “2 tickets to the game=$21... Parking at Oak Co.=$25..... Winning the NCS=priceless!!! Congratulations Cougars!”
The image of the Oakland Coliseum from space would reflect that of an empty stadium, but with a closer look, it is evident that the field is bursting, completely consumed with Campolindo supporters, players, and community members. A reporter is able to sneak through the madness and grab Coach Macy aside for a second to attempt to get a few words about the exciting victory: "You can see just how special this night was. There was something magical about this year, these kids, and these fans…the best school with the most spirit. This type of electricity in the game tonight, it just busted loose in here and this is just a big celebration for our community. This is once in a lifetime for our community.”
After the lights are shut off in the Oakland Coliseum and the security guards begin to force an end to the ongoing celebration, a new venue must be chosen to continue the evening of rejoicing. The players board the bus, dancing triumphantly while doing so, the door closes, and the engine sparks. A pointer finger is raised in the air by all and a voice from the back end of the bus yells in a proud tone, “State!” A chant begins to echo throughout the aisle and seats, shaking the bus as it travels back to the school.
The ride is quick. When the team arrives back to school there is not a soul in sight; there is just a dark campus filled with a team ready to explode with joy. As each player exits the bus, they are cheerfully met by Coach Macy with a hug and several words of encouragement for the next week to come. A handshake and nod of approval is shared by each of the coaches as they exit the bus one by one, leaving just Coach Macy behind to take a moment to reflect on the accomplishments to this point and the final game to come.
As Coach Macy turns to exit the bus, he is met by a feeling of shock and awe. To his amazement, the parking lot, previously resembling a ghost town, has now been filled by the thousands of Campolindo fans who attended the game. Before he has the chance to take a step off the bus onto the familiar concrete, Coach Macy is lifted into the air and floated across a sea of fans. A dream-like image has become a reality for this team and this town. Even though the Cougars will go on to lose in the State Championship game the following week, it is the excellence that was achieved that will forever be remembered. A school that planned to celebrate its 25th anniversary of the only football Section Title in school history at season’s end now has a new celebration to plan and a new banner to hang up in the sky.