Up in the Air

Once the laughingstock of high school football, the Nederland Panthers have climbed the mountain. If only they could stay there.

The classifications are determined by each school's enrollment. In football, schools with 1,661 students or more play in 5A, the toughest division. Nederland, with 221 high school students, had been in 1A, designed for enrollments between 126 and 256. Eight-man teams are a notch below that, and there are even six-man teams, for schools with fewer than 76 students. The Panthers were a perfect fit for the new bylaw, so Nederland moved from 1A to eight-man football.

While Jones, the Panthers' new coach, had never seen an eight-man team play, he did his homework. In eight-man football, each team has two fewer interior linemen and one less running back than a typical eleven-man team, and the field is 13.3 yards thinner than a regular field to make up for the lost players.

Jones realized that meant that speedy players could find a lot more holes. "One or two players can really dominate a game," he says. "So it's important to find those kids who can be those players and put the ball in their hands."

Anthony Camera
Coach Jones (left) lives and breathes Nederland football; the Panthers take on the Sedgwick Cougars (above).
Anthony Camera
Coach Jones (left) lives and breathes Nederland football; the Panthers take on the Sedgwick Cougars (above).


To view select scenes from Nederland's unlikely year, click here.

Gage matched that description, and the night before, as the Panthers practiced for the first time on their new field, the coaches had discussed his unfulfilled potential. "Gage isn't focused yet," they'd said. "He just needs a big play."

This is that play. And as he charges toward the end zone, just as he'd watched his mentor, Dan Brokos, do countless times before, Gage knows this is going to be his year. But 29 yards down the field, a Conqueror catches up to him and slams into his legs. Falling forward, Gage plants his left arm on the ground, spinning himself around and bringing the ball forward a few more yards. He's up and running again before he realizes something is wrong. He looks down and sees that his left elbow isn't where it should be. It's halfway up his upper arm. Pain washes over him, more than he's ever felt before. He's on the ground again, screaming, "Oh, no! Oh, no! Help me, coach!"

Jones, white-faced, is speechless. He runs out on to the field and holds Gage in his arms, but all he can manage to say is, "We're gonna win it for you."

Gage, who's soon on his way to the hospital, doesn't get to see what happens next. Jones, still struggling to regain his composure, can't call the next play.

A massive senior running back, Eric Hernandez, puts his finger in the coach's chest. "Give me the ball, coach," he says.

Jones snaps out of it: "I'll give it to you until they stop you."

But they don't stop Eric, and he runs for thirty yards over the next three plays. Then it's "Daaaaaan Brokos!" the announcer proclaims as the Panthers' star receiver scores a touchdown. Later, sophomore Tim Plumb intercepts a ball and runs it 42 yards to the end zone. "That was for Gage!" he hollers. At the end of the game, Nederland has scored 45 points. Victory Christian has scored zero.

In the locker room, the Panthers are happy but subdued. "We had a good game, but it shouldn't take one of our players going home in an ambulance to get fired up," Jones tells them. He walks into his office and closes the door, thinking about Gage. "Such a great kid. It was the first time I've been out there with an injured kid like that," he says, noting how frightening it is to have that much responsibility.

He looks at his shoes and wonders about Gage's chances of recovering from the injury in time to play again this season. "It's hard to put so much energy into football," he says, "and to have it taken away all at once."

The Knight home, Nederland

Dinner at the Knight household is a major undertaking.

Tonight is burger night, which means roughly a dozen burgers are stacked on a platter in the kitchen. A rainforest of garnishes — lettuce, tomatoes, onions — sits off to the side, and next to that are vast quantities of Doritos and french fries. To wash it down, there's a tall pitcher of iced tea, with a backup in the fridge. It's enough to feed a small army — or, in this case, a fifth of Nederland's football program. Three Panthers players and one Panthers coach all live under this roof.

After practice, James Knight, his sons Kyle and Jesse and his stepson, Eric Hernandez, storm into their sizable home in the hills above Nederland, all of them ready for food. James's wife, Alma, and daughter, Summer, have dinner waiting. Burgers are built, then quickly consumed at the dining room table. The family talks about football, about skiing and about Texas, where they're all from. James, Kyle, Jesse and Summer moved here in 2002; Alma, Eric's mom, moved here in 2005 to marry James.

After a while, the kids wander off to their rooms, and James grabs a few minutes to relax with Alma. Between his full-time job with a product marketing firm and his volunteer gig as an assistant coach, he doesn't get much free time. "There are times when I am so tired," he says. "But these are the best days I've ever lived."

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