October 20: Maranatha Christian Center Crusaders vs. Nederland Panthers
W-I-N. That's the acronym that head coach Aaron Jones has repeated for months to his high school football team, the Nederland Panthers, when they've needed to get their heads in the game. W-I-N: What's Important Now.
And what's important right now is that the Panthers are trailing the Maranatha Crusaders 13-8. It's the last game of the regular season, and there's a minute left to play. Nederland has the ball, but it's fourth down, and the team is stuck at Maranatha's 46-yard line.
The 32-year-old coach, whom everyone simply calls "Jones," calls a time-out and runs onto Nederland Middle Senior High's beautiful, brand-new field, ringed by mountains and clouds 8,442 feet in the sky. If not for his Panthers coach's shirt, the trim, curly-haired Jones could pass for one of the teenagers huddled around him.
To view select scenes from Nederland's unlikely year, click here.
As he stands here, looking at the dirty, tired faces of his players, his brain goes blank. Over the past few hours, these evenly matched teams traded hard-fought touchdowns before settling into a bruising stalemate, with Maranatha five points ahead. Lately, these late-in-the-game moments have become his team's specialty: do-or-die surges that sometimes work, sometimes don't, causing Jones to lose not just his voice from screaming on the sidelines, but also, temporarily, his mind.
The Panthers have come a long way, and not just in the last few minutes. Between 2003 and 2005, they lost 21 games in a row. They were punching bags, bussed to the far corners of Colorado just to get pummeled by some of the state's toughest 1A teams. When anyone mentioned the Panthers outside of this mountain town of 1,337 residents, the usual response was, "What? Nederland has a football team?"
But in 2006, the Colorado High School Activities Association, which governs high school athletics statewide, allowed the Panthers to move down — for just two years — from division 1A, where football teams have eleven players on the field, to an eight-man division where the guys aren't as big, the teams aren't as loaded and the schools aren't as spread out. The Panthers started winning, and last season, the team hosted its first home playoff game since 1969.
If they don't beat Maranatha in the next minute, though, they won't get to repeat the honor this year. And since most of players are seniors, they may never play on this field again.
Throw a slant to Dan Brokos, the coach tells quarterback Kyle Knight; Dan is one of the best receivers in the conference. No, Jones changes his mind: Dan has been knocked around this game. Run a pass-action play. On second thought, don't do that, either. Run a sweep! No, a screen!
Play after play tumbles out of Jones's mouth, none of them right. The refs begin yelling at him to get off the field; the time-out is over.
"Here we go, Panthers! Here we go!" screams the underwhelming but raucous crowd in the stands. A reporter covering the game for both the Gilpin County News and the Nederland Mountain-Ear standing by the field drops all vestiges of impartiality. "Don't let it end this way!" she wails.
Frantic, Jones looks to his sidelines and sees Mitchell Platenkamp, who hasn't played much this game. A full-time soccer player, Mitchell misses many football practices, but he sure can move. Jones hastily switches him in for one of the running backs. Get the ball to the soccer player, he tells the team. Sure, it's unorthodox, but then again, nothing about the Panthers' success has been standard. Why start now?
The players clasp hands before breaking out of the huddle. It's now or never.
August 16: Nederland Elementary School soccer field
Coaches' whistles and the thump of well-hit tackling dummies fill the air in the warm August sun, echoing among the green peaks surrounding the Nederland Elementary soccer field. "That's good, guys," Jones says as players hurtle toward the blocking dummies, practicing their first full-speed tackles of the season. "Anybody have a headache?" Elsewhere, kids chase down passes, navigating the unruly undulations of the diminutive field while kickers aim punts at a steep, rocky hill near a utility shed strapped down against 100-mile-an-hour wind gusts that sometimes blast through.
The Panthers don't usually practice here, on a grassy shelf several hundred feet above town. But their regular field, next to the sleekly modern combination middle and high school, is a construction zone. Over the summer, workers began replacing the rock-studded dirt with synthetic turf designed to withstand the area's mighty elements.
But the project is running behind, which means that for the first few weeks of two-a-day practices before school starts — and maybe for a few weeks of regular practice after that — the team has been relegated to one of the only other flat surfaces around. It's far from perfect, but at least the weather's nice — never a sure thing here. Last night, practice got hailed on, and the night before that there was lightning all along the ridge line.
Tough conditions are typical. In fact, for some of the assistant coaches and players, just getting to and from practice involves hour-plus drives through curvy, two-lane roads. Snow, rain, hail and sleet are common. Off the field, it's not unusual for the grand prize at a Nederland football raffle to be a truckload of firewood.
Football up here looks very different from the game Jones played at a large Wisconsin high school, where the auditorium was bigger than Nederland High's entire educational facility. But, he says with finality, "It's still football."
He's an expert in such matters; he was born into the game. Jones's childhood was spent on the sidelines, shadowing his father, who was also a high school coach. Dad took a break when Jones reached high school so he could be in the stands on Friday nights, cheering on his son, a six-foot, 175-pound 1992 Wisconsin Football Coaches Association All-Region Quarterback. That distinction earned Jones a spot as a scout quarterback at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse. But the school was facing increasing pressure to provide equal athletic opportunities for men and women, Jones remembers, and about a month into his freshman year, it cut forty football players so it could redirect the money. Jones was one of those cut, and it crushed him. "I think equity for girls in sports has been great," he says, "but I feel I was one of the sacrificial lambs for it."
After graduation, he returned to his high school alma mater as an assistant football coach. He liked being known around town as "Coach Jones," just like his father, the type of guy the kids looked up to. "Coaching football is different than any other sport," he says. "Your decision can blow the game or win the game. I feel like I am going against the coach across the field and I want to beat him. Really bad."
That passion fueled him through seven seasons as an assistant coach for his old team until he realized if he didn't get out soon, he might never leave his home town. He'd started applying for coaching jobs elsewhere when he got a call from a college buddy living in Nederland, saying that the local high school was looking for a football coach.
Jones liked the sound of living in Colorado. He'd often visited his uncle, who owns a restaurant at the base of Copper Mountain Ski Resort, and he'd been to Boulder for a Widespread Panic show. "Colorado is a cool place to move to when you are from Wisconsin," he says. He hadn't been to Nederland.
Jones first saw the mountain town — often associated with aging, reclusive hippies, Rainbow Family gatherings and the annual Frozen Dead Guy Days festival — in the spring of 2006, after the school had already hired him. He drove his Dodge Ram west out of Boulder, up the eighteen miles and eighty twisting turns of Boulder Canyon until he emerged at the edge of a great forested bowl ringed by hills and adjacent to a strikingly blue reservoir. He parked his pickup and snapped a photo of the community nestled at its center: a tiny hamlet populated by fanciful Swiss chalet-style architecture and crisscrossed by old fences decorated with pieces of rusty mining equipment, remnants of the town's long-gone tungsten boom.
"This is a really cool place," Jones said to himself. "I think I can do this."
He met the football team that day and walked them to their field's end zone. Get used to this spot, he told them: "Plan on spending a lot of time here." The words may have sounded strange to a team used to losing. But Jones turned out to be right. In 2006, under his direction, the Panthers won six of their nine games.
Now, watching his players practice, he knows this year will be even better. As practice draws to a close, Jones calls the players around him. "I'm starting to see something click," he says with excitement.
He doesn't mention the worries running through his head, such as having no idea when the guys will be able to practice on a real field, or not being sure who will be playing quarterback. And he doesn't need to bring up his biggest fear; it's on the minds of the players as well. Eleven of the 21 Panthers will graduate in the spring, and there may not be enough players to field a team next year. Worse yet, their two-year, spirit-building turn at eight-man football is set to end after the season, meaning the team will be thrown back in with the state's high school powerhouses in 2008.
But as Jones looks to the sky, there are more immediate black clouds building, and he hurries the players on a bus waiting to take them back to the high school. As one assistant coach quips, "We can overcome a great many things, but not lightning."
September 1: Nederland Panthers vs. Dayspring Christian Academy Eagles, Greeley
It's hot out here. Too hot. Beneath his pads and his blue-and-white away jersey, senior wide receiver Dan Brokos is getting baked alive. When seventeen-year-old Dan and his teammates arrived in Greeley this morning for the first game of the season, steam was rising from their opponents' freshly watered field like smoke from a griddle. It was an appropriate welcome: As the game begins, Dan and the rest of the Panthers start feeling the heat.
The Dayspring Eagles rank as one of the state's top teams in eight-man football, and the team has enough guys to rotate key players in and out of the game; Nederland's meager lineup means that most of their first-stringers have to play offense and defense. The Eagles score a touchdown in the first few minutes and never let up.
In the fourth quarter, Dan looks at the scoreboard: 48-6, Eagles. He's missed a few easy catches, causing Jones to holler, "What's wrong with you?" as he pulls him off the field. "Halftime hands" is what Dan's teammates jokingly call him. He's always coming through on the catches nobody makes, snatching the ball out of the air in gravity-defying, jaw-dropping ways on key downs right before the halftime buzzer. "But with the easy catches, I'll just drop it," he admits. "I think it's mostly mental."
Last year, Dan caught 49 passes for a total of 1,060 yards and ten touchdowns. But right now, he's dehydrated and his legs are cramping.
Off the field, Dan is a 6'2" bundle of kinetic energy, all rapid-fire gestures and remarks. He's loved football ever since he made his first touchdown as a five-year-old kid in Aurora. He'd been nervous when his wild-at-heart mom moved him up to Nederland at the end of sixth grade, but then he discovered that Nederland Middle Senior High was located right next to a gridiron, and he knew everything would be okay.
In truth, it's hard to call what Dan and his teammates experienced a football program. In the 1990s, Nederland's school population temporarily swelled, so the middle-high school added new sports programs they hadn't had before, like soccer and cross country. The number of students has declined since then, but the athletic programs stayed in place, so football now competes with other fall sports for enrollment.
As a result, the Panthers got used to looking across the field at opposing teams with double or triple the number of players and coaches. It wasn't a question of trying to score a lot of points; in those days, Nederland fans cheered if the Panthers managed to make a first down. To make matters worse, the team was part of such a wide-ranging division that they would travel four, five, even six hours to get massacred in far-flung locales like Wray, Rocky Ford and Holyoke. Everyone, even their old coach, expected them to lose, and sometimes Dan wondered if he should give up, too. But he couldn't let his long-suffering teammates down — and he couldn't give up the game.
Now, as the clock winds down on the first game of the season, a long pass puts the Panthers within sixteen yards of the Eagles' end zone. Waiting for the next play, Dan knows the ball is meant for him. After the snap, he sprints forward, and, sure enough, the ball spirals toward him. He launches into the air and twists his body around to meet it. An Eagles player is practically hanging off his back, but it's no matter. Dan wraps his arms around the tan leather and comes back down to earth — in the end zone.
But it's not enough. Dayspring scores again, and the final score is 54-12. After the game, Jones takes stock of the players wilting in the end zone in the afternoon sun. He could tell they'd written off the game as soon as the Eagles scored their first touchdown. "I saw a typical Nederland reaction when we got down early," he says. "That's not playing to win." And it's not going to happen next week when the Panthers play their first home game, he adds. It doesn't matter that, with their own field not yet completed, that game may have to be in Broomfield. "Whether we play in Broomfield, in our field or a parking lot," says Jones, "we'll put the football down their throats."
Riding the bus back to Nederland, Dan hopes so. Winning games last season made him realize that he and his teammates could actually accomplish something. As a senior, he'll be off to college next year, but he wants the underclassmen to experience winning, too, and knows they probably won't when the Panthers move back into eleven-man football in 2008: "Being successful in eight-man made us feel better about ourselves. What if we had gone our entire time in school and never got to win a game of football?"
September 8: Victory Christian Academy Conquerors vs. Nederland Panthers
This is it: Gage Hamel's big moment. It's late in the scoreless first quarter of the Panthers' first home game, and Gage has intercepted the ball. He'd been playing defense, covering one of the Conquerors' wide receivers when Gage snatched the opposing quarterback's overthrown pass. Now the fifteen-year-old sophomore, who plays wide receiver himself when he's on offense, is tearing down Nederland's brand-new field of pulverized rubber soil and artificial grass — finished just in time — and he's breaking a tackle here, faking out an opponent there. Forget the official dedication this morning; this is the field's real christening, and Gage is the master of ceremonies.
Freedom. That's what Gage feels as he leaves the Conquerors in his synthetic dust. As a born-and-bred mountain kid, he knows that feeling well: The freedom to snowboard every winter weekend at Eldora Mountain Resort right up the street, the freedom to mountain bike through his neighborhood all summer long.
Gage became part of Panthers football at exactly the right time. The year before his freshman season, the Colorado High School Activities Association passed a bylaw allowing highly unsuccessful high school sports teams to play for two seasons in a lower classification, to give them a chance to rebuild.
The classifications are determined by each school's enrollment. In football, schools with 1,661 students or more play in 5A, the toughest division. Nederland, with 221 high school students, had been in 1A, designed for enrollments between 126 and 256. Eight-man teams are a notch below that, and there are even six-man teams, for schools with fewer than 76 students. The Panthers were a perfect fit for the new bylaw, so Nederland moved from 1A to eight-man football.
While Jones, the Panthers' new coach, had never seen an eight-man team play, he did his homework. In eight-man football, each team has two fewer interior linemen and one less running back than a typical eleven-man team, and the field is 13.3 yards thinner than a regular field to make up for the lost players.
Jones realized that meant that speedy players could find a lot more holes. "One or two players can really dominate a game," he says. "So it's important to find those kids who can be those players and put the ball in their hands."
Gage matched that description, and the night before, as the Panthers practiced for the first time on their new field, the coaches had discussed his unfulfilled potential. "Gage isn't focused yet," they'd said. "He just needs a big play."
This is that play. And as he charges toward the end zone, just as he'd watched his mentor, Dan Brokos, do countless times before, Gage knows this is going to be his year. But 29 yards down the field, a Conqueror catches up to him and slams into his legs. Falling forward, Gage plants his left arm on the ground, spinning himself around and bringing the ball forward a few more yards. He's up and running again before he realizes something is wrong. He looks down and sees that his left elbow isn't where it should be. It's halfway up his upper arm. Pain washes over him, more than he's ever felt before. He's on the ground again, screaming, "Oh, no! Oh, no! Help me, coach!"
Jones, white-faced, is speechless. He runs out on to the field and holds Gage in his arms, but all he can manage to say is, "We're gonna win it for you."
Gage, who's soon on his way to the hospital, doesn't get to see what happens next. Jones, still struggling to regain his composure, can't call the next play.
A massive senior running back, Eric Hernandez, puts his finger in the coach's chest. "Give me the ball, coach," he says.
Jones snaps out of it: "I'll give it to you until they stop you."
But they don't stop Eric, and he runs for thirty yards over the next three plays. Then it's "Daaaaaan Brokos!" the announcer proclaims as the Panthers' star receiver scores a touchdown. Later, sophomore Tim Plumb intercepts a ball and runs it 42 yards to the end zone. "That was for Gage!" he hollers. At the end of the game, Nederland has scored 45 points. Victory Christian has scored zero.
In the locker room, the Panthers are happy but subdued. "We had a good game, but it shouldn't take one of our players going home in an ambulance to get fired up," Jones tells them. He walks into his office and closes the door, thinking about Gage. "Such a great kid. It was the first time I've been out there with an injured kid like that," he says, noting how frightening it is to have that much responsibility.
He looks at his shoes and wonders about Gage's chances of recovering from the injury in time to play again this season. "It's hard to put so much energy into football," he says, "and to have it taken away all at once."
The Knight home, Nederland
Dinner at the Knight household is a major undertaking.
Tonight is burger night, which means roughly a dozen burgers are stacked on a platter in the kitchen. A rainforest of garnishes — lettuce, tomatoes, onions — sits off to the side, and next to that are vast quantities of Doritos and french fries. To wash it down, there's a tall pitcher of iced tea, with a backup in the fridge. It's enough to feed a small army — or, in this case, a fifth of Nederland's football program. Three Panthers players and one Panthers coach all live under this roof.
After practice, James Knight, his sons Kyle and Jesse and his stepson, Eric Hernandez, storm into their sizable home in the hills above Nederland, all of them ready for food. James's wife, Alma, and daughter, Summer, have dinner waiting. Burgers are built, then quickly consumed at the dining room table. The family talks about football, about skiing and about Texas, where they're all from. James, Kyle, Jesse and Summer moved here in 2002; Alma, Eric's mom, moved here in 2005 to marry James.
After a while, the kids wander off to their rooms, and James grabs a few minutes to relax with Alma. Between his full-time job with a product marketing firm and his volunteer gig as an assistant coach, he doesn't get much free time. "There are times when I am so tired," he says. "But these are the best days I've ever lived."
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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
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.
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!"
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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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.'"