Up in the Air

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

James likes to think he helped usher in the golden age of Nederland football. Two years earlier, James, then just a parent, told the school's athletic director that unless he reinvigorated the football program, he was going to consider pulling his sons off the team. The school had to take the threat seriously; without the Knights, there wouldn't have been much of a team left. And before this year's season, James asked Coach Jones if he could volunteer as an assistant coach, saying he could see where they were lacking.

"I felt Nederland never had an offensive line or defensive line. It's because they never had any coaches focusing on that," he says. "If they just had a little bit of protection, they could be really good." So James became Nederland's third assistant.

But he had an ulterior motive for joining the team: He believes his boys need him.

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).

Details

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

Take Kyle. First there was the big move from Texas, then his parents' acrimonious divorce, and finally the shock of welcoming a new family into his household. Things were finally settling down when Kyle, who is seventeen, found out this summer, right before his senior year, that he was going to have to play quarterback. Most kids would die for this opportunity, but not Kyle.

"I think I could do any other position on the team well, but not quarterback," he says. "That was way too much stress for me to put up with."

Fine, said James: "You pick the quarterback." Kyle couldn't think of anyone else on the team who could do it, so he took the position. "This was one of those times when he had to do it for the team," says James. "I feel like I need to share that with Kyle."

Then there's Eric, also seventeen. During football games, his 5'10", 255-pound frame is a freight train of unstoppable Texas muscle, one that's caused opponents more concussions and post-game nightmares than anybody can count. Off the field, he's 255 pounds of infectious charisma, but deep down, "it's been tough for Eric," says James, explaining that his stepson had been playing at a 5A school in Texas. "Some serious football, and now he moved up to a school were football is kind of a second-level sport."

Lastly there's Jesse, a fifteen-year-old sophomore. "He was born reserved," says James, recalling how Jesse, when he was little, didn't say a word until after he could already speak in sentences. Last season, Jesse, a lineman, didn't push himself during football practice and spent most of his time on the bench, his father says, something that is all too common.

"These kids have been taught to lose their entire lives, as long as they've been in Nederland. Nederland sports were for a long time a losing situation," he says. "You need to learn how to be successful in life, how to reach inside yourself and find whatever it takes to win. You can carry that into your business life and personal life. If you face challenges, you don't lay down. You dig deep inside and try to find something inside yourself."

James looks at the clock. It's getting late, and tonight he still has to make up for the work he missed during practice. Tomorrow he'll wake at the crack of dawn and start it all over again — work, practice, more work — but it's never hard for him to start his day. "Everything's so wonderful right now," he says with a grin. "Why lay in bed sleeping?"


October 13: Nederland Panthers vs. Vail Christian Academy Saints, Gypsum

The October sky above Gypsum is a dour shade of gray. It matches Jones's mood as he faces the team sitting dejectedly in the end zone at halftime. The Vail Christian players had heckled the Panthers managers before the game, and the team should have responded by shoving such shenanigans back in their opponents' face. They're better than the Saints. The coaches know it, the players know it, but the scoreless scoreboard suggests otherwise. "This ship is sinking," Jones mutters.

The Panthers have won three of their six games over the past month, guaranteeing they'll make the playoffs, but they haven't played as well as they'd hoped, and the season has been plagued by mental errors. The one bright spot is that Gage is playing again. The sophomore spent the past month convalescing, spending his nights staring at the frayed jersey that hospital attendants had cut off him; it's now affixed to his bedroom wall. His recovery was faster than his doctors expected, so this afternoon Jones put Gage in the game and, near the end of the first half, told Kyle to throw him a long ball.

"Yeah," Gage thought to himself as he caught the pass. "I'm back."

They still couldn't score, though, so Jones has nothing to be happy about during his halftime lecture. He hadn't ridden a school bus through the mountains for two and a half hours to get to this godforsaken mining town on this crummy day, just to watch his kids practice pratfalls with their season on the line. If they don't win this match-up — and next week's against Maranatha — they won't be hosting a playoff game.

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