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 Panthers defense holds, but by the time the team gets the ball back, there are only 36 seconds left. They make a go of it, but there's not enough time; the distance is too far. Nederland is still 42 yards away from the goal line when the clock hits zero.

It can't end like this.

Weeping, the Panthers walk the rest of the way to the end zone, where their coaches are waiting. "Some of the other games, you can cry over. Not this one," says James Knight, though he's crying himself. "You guys just played the best game of football I have ever seen you play."

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.

Jones agrees. "I will never forget you or this team or this day," he manages. "This is important stuff. You cannot forget what you did."

Eric stands up. "Guys, I've been waiting all year for this moment," he says, his speech prepared. "Seniors, move on to bigger and better things. Juniors, you are now the seniors. Show people we can get here again and go further. Sophomores, you have to step up." That's it; there aren't any freshmen suited up for him to address.

The team walks off the field together as the fans cheer them out. Off to the side, some of the Sedgwick parents approach Monica. "I don't think our team has played a team as hard as Nederland," one tells her. "They really gave us a run for the money."

She knows.

November 14: Jones's house

Coach Jones sits in his house, a refurbished mining building surrounded by run-down mine shafts and bunkhouses, and thinks about the game. He's done so almost every night for the past two weeks, running the what-ifs and alternative plays through his head. But he has to start thinking about next year.

CHSAA just announced its decision regarding the 2008 Panthers. The team will be going back to eleven-man football, but they'll be part of a newly constructed north metro-area league featuring squads like Limon, Lutheran Parker and Lyons, teams that are at most two hours from Nederland, not six. While the Panthers may once again be outnumbered, there's a good chance they won't be downright overwhelmed.

"It's a good situation. Eleven-man is my expertise," says Jones. "We want to be playing eleven-man football, and we don't want to be driving all over the place. We just need to get more kids out there."

And maybe they will. What's important now is that the Panthers have built something: a new reputation, a new type of team — one that won't disappear just because they'll send three more players onto the field each game.

"People are getting used to winning football games," he says. "We are not going to be a joke and a laughingstock every week. We'll give people something they'll be proud to cheer on, that'll force them to say, 'That's Nederland football out there.'"

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