Up in the Air

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

But this morning, Monica's got a football game to focus on — a game that Tim and his team are going to win. "The power of positive thinking!" Monica exclaims. "We keep praying for good stuff, right, Tim?" There's no reply. Tim's lost in the final moments of his on-screen football game. He's decimated the Packers, 57 to zero.

Monica smiles. "Wouldn't that be nice if that were today's score?"


October 20: Maranatha Christian Center Crusaders vs. Nederland Panthers

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).

W-I-N. That's what Jones is always saying.

What's Important Now, with the Panthers trailing 13-8 and stuck on the 46-yard line with one minute left to play in the last game of their regular season, is that Jones makes the perfect decision by putting in soccer player Mitchell Platenkamp.

Mitchell takes the ball and blazes around the Crusaders' defense, earning his team a first down at Maranatha's 35-yard line and shaving only four seconds off the clock. On the next play, Kyle looks to throw a pass, and Gage is wide open.

"Throw it! Throw it!" Jones and the other coaches holler.

But Kyle doesn't throw it, and a wall of Crusaders descends on the Panthers' quarterback, trying to knock the ball loose.

"Throw it out of bounds! Throw it out of bounds!" scream the coaches.

Too late; Kyle is gone, engulfed by his opponents — but he emerges, having somehow slipped through the maelstrom, scrambling right, cutting left, faking out one frustrated Crusader after another.

"Run it! Run it!"

He does, skimming the Panthers' sideline as he races toward the end zone. A final opponent blocks his path, but Dan is hurtling toward him, ready to block him. Wham! The Crusader is knocked off his feet. Kyle is finally pushed out of bounds — at the one yard line. There are 46 seconds left on the clock.

"You're blind! You're blind!" A Maranatha parent runs onto the field, screaming at the referees. That was his son Dan sent airborne, and he thinks it was a dirty hit. "This is bullshit!" So much for Maranatha's slogan: "Christ-centered academic excellence in a loving environment."

The game is stopped as the father is escorted from the stadium, giving Jones time to adjust his strategy. Throw a play-action pass to the tight end, he tells the players, and when play resumes, the quarterback fires a beautiful shot into the end zone — right into the calm, collected hands of Jesse Knight.

The crowd thunders, and the stadium's sound system blasts techno music as Eric explodes through the Crusaders' defensive line for the two-point conversion, making the score 16-13, Nederland. "It's not over yet!" Jones screams over the din. He's right: As the clock ticks down, the Crusaders take the ball back up the field to the Panthers' 25-yard line with just two seconds remaining. It's an easy field goal for a good kicker — and Maranatha has a good kicker. But as he runs forward, his leg poised to send the ball screaming through the goalposts, Eric goes crashing toward him like a Mack truck. It would be hard to blame the kicker for being distracted, and the ball spins pitifully away; the kick is no good. The game is over.

Pandemonium.

Everyone's on the field, screaming and crying. Jones, beside himself, collects the euphoric players in the end zone. "This is a game that makes people champions!" he declares. "I will remember this day as long as I live."

As the Panthers walk off the field to the waiting cheers of their fans, James stops his son Jesse and hugs him. "All of that from a sophomore," he whispers into his son's ear, tears flowing. "What a man you've become."

Jones soon finds himself at a downtown Nederland bar, knocking back a celebratory round of Maker's Mark with his coaches and colleagues. Their toast fills the small, dimly lit watering hole: "Panther pride!"

The group laughs and tells stories. There's little talk of the big game next week, or what happens after that: On November 13, the Colorado High School Activities Association will decide the fate of the 2008 Panthers. "Obviously, I think we would have more success in eight-man," says Jones. "Will we be hosting a playoff game next year if we go back to eleven-man? Probably not."

Whatever happens, the coach plans to stick around and help the team through it. "I like being up here," he says. "I know a lot of people don't stay a long time. I would just as soon stay here and coach football for a long time."

That is, as long as there's football to coach. "If I didn't have a team," he says, "I would be somewhere else."


October 27: Sedgwick County Cougars vs. Nederland Panthers

Fog rolls into Nederland the day before the Panthers' first playoff game. It creeps over the hills during the team's afternoon practice, settling among the pine trees as Jones psyches up his players. "We haven't played a team like this," says the coach. "They are not expecting to have a game tomorrow. That is not the case. We will ground them into the dirt and win it in the second half. We're gonna hit them like Buster Douglas, baby!"

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