Up in the Air

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

Later that evening, the mist glows eerily from the light of a full moon as it flows around Monica Plumb's house, where the Panthers, minus the coaches, are holding their weekly team party. They dine on cookies and Twizzlers (Monica's superstitious pre-game tradition), drink water and Gatorade — no soda allowed — and play round after round of video games. The seniors — Dan, Kyle, Eric, Will and others — talk about how tomorrow could be the last game of their high school careers. For some, it will be the last game they ever play. "I am going to play this game to make Coach proud," says Darr Paxton, a senior lineman. "I think more about making him proud than anyone else."

The team has seen how Jones is always showing them videos of his games in Wisconsin. They've noticed at practice how he volunteers to play quarterback. "You can tell it's all still in his head," says Kyle. "He cares a lot. A lot of people don't get football like he does."

Sometime in the night, the clouds glide down the mountainside. In the morning, the foothills are inundated with dreary fog, but at the top of Boulder Canyon the haze fades away. Nederland is awash in brilliant autumn sunlight — a city in the clouds.

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).

Jones stands in the sunshine on the Panthers' field. He got up late today. "I'm not in my normal mood," he says. "I feel a little nervous. I haven't had this all year. It's a good feeling, though: the calm before the storm."

He watches as the Cougars, dressed in cowboy hats and letter jackets, disembark from their school bus. They look awfully loose, thinks Jones, considering they just drove three and a half hours from the Nebraska border. Sedgwick has won nearly all its matches this year, racking up 52, 55, even 81 points in a game. Maybe that's why an online Colorado high school football website predicts the final score today will be 43-11, Cougars.

Two hours later, Sedgwick starts the game with a long kickoff — one Nederland botches. The Panthers go nowhere and are forced to punt, but the kick goes bad and the Cougars take possession of it two yards from the Panthers' end zone. "What is going on here?" Jones moans on the sidelines. Things are going terribly.

Or maybe not.

Sedgwick charges into Nederland's defensive line, only to be pushed back. On the next play, the Cougars are pushed back some more. Then Tim Plumb intercepts the ball and runs twenty yards up the field as Monica screams joyously from the stands. Soon the Cougars are doubling over, winded in the high altitude, and their visiting fans are groaning.

Penalty, Sedgwick. Fumble, Sedgwick. First down, Nederland. "Can you feel it?" hollers James as his players charge past him. "This is our game!"

At halftime, the Cougars lead 12-0, but the Panthers feel like they're the ones who are ahead. "You're twelve points down to a team that was ranked number two in the state at the start of the year," Jones tells the team as they huddle in the school's weight room. They allowed the Cougars to have those two touchdowns, courtesy of two unlucky fumbles — and they're done feeling charitable. "We are going to score a touchdown in the third quarter, and we are going to score another in the fourth. And we are going to win!"

But early in the third quarter, Sedgwick scores again, bringing the tally to 20-0. But then something goes wrong for the Cougars. Maybe it's the altitude, or the long bus ride here. Or maybe they showed up today expecting to play the old Nederland Panthers.

Dan grabs a kick return and streaks to Sedgwick's 42-yard line, and everything falls into place. First there's a bomb to Gage, then Eric plows the ball through the opposing line, and finally Kyle dashes it into the end zone. "We have a ballgame, boys," calls Jones to the team. A minute later, the Cougars fumble again — handing Nederland the ball within twenty yards of the end zone. That's all Nederland needs; on the fourth down, Kyle dives forward, putting the ball over the goal line. Nederland is just six points down.

"This is your game!" screams Jones. "Do you believe?"

Pump-up music blasts from the stadium sound system, and the valley echoes with roars from the stands. Sedgwick fumbles once more, and the Panthers take advantage of it yet again. "Yeah!" screams Jones. Nederland has just scored 21 unanswered points in twelve minutes and stolen the lead from one of the toughest eight-man teams in the state.

In the fourth quarter, the Cougars regain their composure, finding the end zone themselves and recapturing the lead, 26-21.

From the sidelines, James Knight rallies the players: "We are going to win this, boys! We have seven minutes!" That's more than enough time to score, and three minutes later, the Panthers are driving. At the 43-yard line, Kyle launches the fourth-down pass straight at Dan, who's wide open. It's a big, easy pass that curls through the sunlit air, setting up Nederland's star receiver for a big catch. Except the pigskin bounces out of Dan's grip, and the Cougars get the ball.

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