Up in the Air

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

"If something doesn't change, our season's going to end in the plains in three weeks," Jones tells the players. "We gotta win this game."

He and the other coaches walk away, leaving the players to think about what he said. A senior stands up: Will Forrest. It's time for one of his speeches. Will, seventeen, is the heart of the team, and not just because he plays center, the guy in the middle of it all. He's the kid who remembers the players' birthdays, a native Nederland boy who reminisces about playing Power Rangers with the other seniors back when they hardly knew what a football was. "I don't have anybody looking at me for next year," says Will to the team, talking about college football programs. "Nobody wants a 5'10", 195-pound center to play for them. But the coaches do want us right here. So play with intensity and realize we can make or break our season right now!

"There's this thing soldiers talk about," he continues, as his teammates chuckle a little. It's no secret that Will obsesses over the World War II television miniseries Band of Brothers. "You have to accept that you are already dead to be a soldier. If you think you are already dead and in the ground, you can do anything. You can go out there and play your hearts out, even if you get hurt." For Will, football is like warfare — "Knock on wood, it's as close to combat as I'm coming." When he straps on his pads before a game, "It's like putting armor on, getting ready to go into combat," he says. "You can be the nicest guy off the field, but when you put all that on, you can be as mean as you want." He wraps up his speech: "We are never getting this back. What happens here stays here."

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.

Whether because of Will's fervor or their coach's fury, something clicks for the Panthers in the second half. The Saints score early, but Kyle responds by running 56 yards for a touchdown, tying the game at 8-8 and sending the game into overtime. The two teams line up at the ten-yard line; each has four attempts to score. If the Panthers make a mistake now, they can kiss the game goodbye. Vail scores, but Nederland responds in kind, and the game rolls into a second overtime. The smattering of Nederland parents who drove up here are on their feet, furiously stomping the metal stands.

Eric takes the ball and plows through the Saints, earning his team an eight-point lead. The Saints can't match them, and the final buzzer sounds. It's 24-16, Panthers.

Jones can't believe it. Hollering for joy, he meets the players in the middle of the field in a giant, sweaty bear hug. Deliriously, he shakes hands with the players' parents, thanking them for making the drive. "You're buying dinner for everyone tonight, coach!" one says with a laugh.

Hell, he just might.

The Plumb home, Rollinsville

French toast and video games. That's the perfect combination to get a boy ready for a big game. Monica Plumb abides by this rule. It's early Saturday morning before the final game of the regular season against Maranatha, and her son Tim, fifteen, is standing transfixed in the living room, facing off against a digitized version of the Green Bay Packers on his Xbox 360. The aroma of French toast batter and maple syrup wafts through the mountain house. "Oh my God!" the sophomore hollers. "The game was going in slow motion and I couldn't find the ball!"

Monica pops her head out of the kitchen. "That better not be what happens in the game today, mister!" she says. She'll be there cheering him on, just like she does every Saturday. Monica is a football mom, a superfan who reads books on sports nutrition to determine what to feed Tim before the games; unfortunately, her son isn't fond of spaghetti and meatballs for breakfast. When she recently heard that one of Tim's teammates had to sit out of a game because he let his grades slip, she took him aside. "It's time you realize your future is in your own hands," she told him.

"I'm just a mom," she says with a shrug. "You rise up with your kids and catch them when they fall. When I was growing up, both my parents worked, and when I broke a track-and-field record, no one was there to cheer for me. It's just family history, you know? I didn't have anyone cheering for me."

Monica can't understand why the stands during Nederland home games are largely empty. "You would think people would come out to support their high school," she says. "It's not just a small town full of hippie kids. People would be surprised at how successful these kids are."

Monica, like Coach Jones and James Knight and all the other parents, wants the Panthers to keep winning. They know the players don't want to go back to eleven-man, back to the endless drives and the devastating losses. But it doesn't look like they have a choice. The two-year rebuilding period ends after this season, and the high school activities association has indicated that it plans to realign some of the divisions.

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