Friday, November 26, 2010

The Hillside Run, Part 3


-No Pick Six this week, since we're all traveling and busy. It will resume next Friday, but I can tell you now that we have an unprecedented 4-way tie for first place.

-This article, from Charlotte Magazine, mentions both Seth Curry Saves Duke! and our friends at Crazie Talk.

-For today's post, since I'll be in a car all day, I'm going to post an article on high school football I wrote for ReeseNews. It's about the Hillside Hornets, a team from inner-city Durham attempting to win their first state championship in school history. Their star is quarterback Vad Lee, a senior heading to Georgia Tech next year, but the whole team is pretty well stacked. They're undefeated thus far, and tomorrow night they'll be playing for a chance to make the state semifinals. Last week, they took on a team from Pembroke, NC, in the round of 16. The following article documents that game. It's longer than your run-of-the-mill recap, so feel free to read all, part, or none.



Part 1: Hillside completes an undefeated regular season with a win against rival Northern High.

Part 2: Hillside dispatches Southeast Guilford in the first round of the playoffs.

Opening Gambits

Eight captains stood at midfield, helmets on, their smoky breath already visible beneath the stadium lights. Watching from the Hillside sideline, in the heart of Durham, you could look beyond the players to the scattering of fans huddled together on the visitors’ bleachers, and beyond that to the cluster of pine trees behind the chain link fence surrounding the field. The four captains from Purnell Swett faced the four from Hillside, and the referee tossed his coin.

One of the Hillside captains was Vad Lee, a 6’3”, 210-pound senior quarterback bound for Georgia Tech. Another was Keenan Stalls, a junior defensive back who would knock one of his own coaches to the ground before the game was over. When Purnell Swett chose to receive, all eight players jogged to the end zone. Their teams waited for them off the field, atop a small hill near a softball diamond and the school, in two anxious packs. This was the 4-A North Carolina state playoffs, round of 16.

The Rams of Purnell Swett came downhill first. Their captains urged them on from the end zone, and the fans welcomed them loudly. The white-clad players streamed onto the field like an armed regiment geared up for battle. At 8-4, they were trying to pull off a miracle and upset the undefeated Hornets on the road. The Pembroke team had just come off a 28-14 win against favored Terry Sanford in the first round of the playoffs. But tonight they’d be facing a greater beast, and only a stunner would see them through to the final eight.

On the way to the field, they sprinted past the four Hillside captains. With the rest of the Hornets still far away, there was a distinct sense that Lee and his three teammates were about to be overwhelmed by the opposition. Sure, this was a football game, not a battlefield. But when the visitors crossed the running track and breached the yellowed grass of the field, they unleashed their savage war cry on the four Hornets. A reasonable spectator felt a lump in his throat; the outnumbered captains should walk away. Better yet, they should run.

But they didn’t run. In fact, they jogged casually to their foes until they were close enough to touch. Lee, his posture self-consciously erect, led the way. It was impossible to tell from behind if the Hornet captains were jawing or just staring. What they weren’t doing, though, was backing down.

When the main body of players had passed and a few stragglers brought up the rear, it was the Rams who veered away, cowed by the presence of Lee and Stalls and the brilliant defender Myer Krah and sophomore Shyeim Stephens.

“You can’t touch us now,” the four stars seemed to say, “and you won’t touch us later.” Alone among the enemy, they had passed a crucial test. They showed the rest of their team, watching from above, that nothing scared them.

Then, with a roar that dwarfed its predecessor, the Hillside Hornets charged down the hill. They were hot on the heels of their opponent, and what started as an entrance began to seem like a pursuit. The captains waited, and when the generals met the infantry, the blue mass surged onto the field. The piercing horns of the band blared in the cold air, and the home fans erupted.

I stood rapt, a silent witness to this theater, and now I have to wonder: was that the moment when the game was won?

Coach T

A man with a prominent stomach and gregarious manner spoke with me before the game. A headset hung around his neck, and he called himself Coach T. He wanted to talk about the recruitment of Lee.

“Cutcliffe tried,” he said of the Duke head coach, “but Butch Davis never threw his hat in the ring.” Davis is the UNC coach, and it surprised me to hear that he never pursued Lee.

“Well, he came around,” said Coach T, “but he never really put a good foot forward.” To punctuate his point, he took a giant Groucho Marx step ahead, landing heavily on his right foot. His entire body reverberated. “How you gonna let someone like that get out yo state?” he asked.

The men around him agreed; Lee was special. “Trust me,” Coach T said before leaving, “that coach at Georgia Tech got a steal.

Early Desperation

Like Southeast Guilford the week before, Purnell Swett saw fit to run through a paper banner prior to the start of the game. Pembroke is a traditionally Native American area, and the high school is named after a 75-year-old former administrator who became chairman of the Lumbee Tribe earlier this year. About 80 percent of the student body is Native American.

The Rams received the kickoff and soon found themselves facing fourth and long. Coach Mark Heil, an intense man in his mid-fifties with a shaved head, sent out the punting unit. But they didn’t punt; instead, they faked and passed for a first down. The visiting fans treated it like a great coup, but to neutral observers like me, it had the acrid stench of desperation. Any team faking a punt that early must understand the long odds facing them, and the bold move had the unfortunate side effect of revealing a distinct lack of confidence.

And it didn’t even stand; a penalty reversed the successful fake, and this time Swett had to punt for real.

The Easy Throw

Lee struggled to find his passing form in the first quarter against Southeast Guilford, but on Friday night he started on the money. Hillside opened with four straight passes, marching to their own 35. After a long attempt fell incomplete, Coach Antonion King yelled from the sideline to Lee.

“Take the easy throw!”

Before the game, I spoke with King. I asked him about the fact that the two teams had a common opponent this season. In their first game of the season, Purnell Swett lost to E.E. Smith High School 13-6. In early September, Hillside beat them 48-0. On paper, it looked like another easy win.

“This is the second round of the playoffs,” King said. “Anything is possible. The underdog, per se, can always beat a top seed right about now.”

I took the words as false modesty, but there on the sideline I realized he really meant it; the urgency in his words and the subtle anxiety in his bearing all indicated a belief that the undefeated season could collapse in a single moment. The easy throw not taken might cost a state championship. In this year, of all years, that just wasn’t acceptable. Not with Hillside’s talent. Not with Lee at quarterback.

He needn’t have worried. On the next play from scrimmage, Jamal Williams sprinted through a hole in the left side of the line, found daylight, darted to the sideline, and didn’t stop until he reached the end zone 65 yards later. Khris Francis caught the 2-point conversion, and it was 8-0 Hillside.
They have many strong suits at Hillside

But cultivating suspense is not one of them. As a journalist and a neutral spectator, I crave the close game, the dramatic finish. It would be nice to string a story out to the last word, when a diving catch in the end zone or an unthinkably long field goal launches jubilant Hillside into the rarified air of miraculous victory.

King, selfish man that he is, would rather have the rout. This week, he got his way. 8-0 became 16-0 became 29-7 became 53-13. But even when Hillside dominates, there’s never a dull moment.

The Talent Gap

Here’s the simple explanation: Hillside had too much size and speed. It changed everything.

When Purnell Swett called a good play — and it happened more than once — a receiver or a back would find the corner, try to turn, and maybe eke out 5-6 yards before a large, fast opponent tracked him down and forestalled any serious damage. Often enough, that large man in question was Treshawn Council, a senior defensive end bound for East Carolina next year. Several times I watched him dash from the line all the way outside the hash marks to snuff out a wide receiver screen or a toss sweep. With players like that on the other side of the ball, the field becomes plenty small.

When Hillside called a good play, pyrotechnics followed. Jamal Williams went on his long run; Khris Francis broke through the line; a receiver dashed downfield. Lee only completed 11 passes for 107 yards, but he tallied 105 yards rushing despite a strange tendency to avoid contact. He’d either slide feet-first ahead of the defender (he even managed this on a fourth-and-one sneak) or step out of bounds as a defensive back bore down. There was something almost aristocratic in his refusal to withstand a collision, as though an opponent like Purnell Swett did not deserve the full measure of his brilliance. This was out of character; in past weeks, I’d watched him take on up to three players at once in aerial maneuvers that sent him spinning and crashing at sickening angles.

All of King’s Horses

It hardly seems fair, but Hillside had the coaching edge as well. King is a masterful play caller, and his variety was on full display Friday night. The mixture of runs and passes kept the opposition befuddled. Eight different players rushed the ball and nine different players caught at least one pass. King told me he scripts the first 10 to fifteen plays, but after that he adjusts within the game.

It’s one thing to be blessed with depth and talent at the skill positions. It’s another to know exactly how to use them to demoralize an opponent. At the start of the second quarter, up 8-0, King called run after run, gradually softening the middle of the defensive line. By 5-yard increments, Hillside marched down the field and devoured the clock. On each consecutive first down, Purnell Swett became a little weaker and a little less confident. The withering drive culminated in a 3-yard run by Francis, and the resulting 16-0 lead might as well have been 100-0.

When Hillside attempted and recovered an onside kick on the ensuing kickoff, it was a little like watching a man get kicked while he’s down. Or kicked while he’s falling off a cliff, maybe.

There’s an obvious physical element to any football game, but there’s a psychological component too. King isn’t one to ignore it. When Lee passed to Jarrell Jones for the conversion, Purnell Swett no longer believed they could win. Up to that point, they had managed to furiously bail the water from their endangered vessel, but now the holes were too many and the ocean was rushing in. Then the onside kick happened. Predictably, the ship capsized.

“Now That We Found Love”

That’s the song the Hillside marching band plays whenever the Hornets score. I noticed it in a kind of peripheral way last week, but this time I became engrossed. I’ve watched countless marching bands perform at football games over my spectating career, but none have ever captured my attention until now.

Twenty-five dancers, bundled in blue and wearing white gloves and headbands to counteract the cold, stood at the bottom of the bleachers. Behind them were the saxophones, followed by trumpets, trombones, cymbals, and drums. The tubas stood on the side, emitting their low comical blasts, and the drum major in his white cape directed the spectacle from the track. Every band member wore a boxy shako hat with a feathered plume.

“Now That We Found Love” was originally recorded by The O’Jays in 1978, and Heavy D and the Boyz covered the song in 1991. David Cason, one of two drum majors, pointed at his players in sequence as the dancers juked and bobbed, hip-rolling and dropping low.

The music was soulful, jazzy, blaring, shimmering, sepulchral and funky, depending on which instrument you happened to hear. During the breakdown, when only the tubas played, the trombone section danced with their horns, executing fluid slide moves near the top of the stands. Cason turned to face the field, his cape flapping in the wind. He dipped low to the left, low to the right, smooth in the rhythm.

I had a desire to join them, but I abstained. Lee wasn’t as shy. After one of Hillside’s many touchdowns in the second quarter, he ran off the field, stood next to Cason, and grooved to the band.

It’s Not Just the Players Who Found Love

A.G. Carrington is 45, and he’s on the chain gang for Hillside home games, measuring first downs at the ref’s beck and call. I asked him if the Hillside offense was running him ragged tonight. The more an offense moves, the faster the chain gang has to be.

“Oh, we used to it,” he said. “As long as the box man gets there, we can set up.” He pointed to the box man, a heavier friend of his who holds the marker at the line of scrimmage to indicate the down.

“Problem is, he don’t run so good.” A couple of Carrington’s friends laughed. “But he can move when he wants to. Like when someone’s coming this way to hit him.”

I asked if he liked being on the chain gang. His eyes softened. “I love it,” he said. “Been doing it for five years now.”

Football is a passion for Carrington in the same way breathing is a passion for other humans. When his kids were younger, he coached little league football. Now, he told me, he plays on a flag football team in Washington, D.C.

“Used to go up every weekend,” he said, “til my car broke down. Then I took my van, but that used up too much gas.” These days, he only makes the 5-hour trip every other week.

His friend Ken Bledsoe, a few years older, joined us. Both men graduated from Durham High School, a school that closed in 1995. As kids, they hated Hillside; the Hornets were crosstown rivals. Now they were both on the team’s chain gang, and Carrington’s two sons graduated from the school. I asked them how they fared against Hillside when they played.

“We lost both times,” Carrington said.

“Won three of four during my years,” Bledsoe said. “But that was about the only game we won.” He started to tell me how bad his teams were, citing records that included only a handful of wins.

“Hell, we were the first team in Durham High history go to 0-11,” countered Carrington.

Yet here they were, laughing and rooting for Hillside on the visitor’s side of the field. They found the love.

So did C.A. Tuggle, a professor at the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication. On Friday night, he wore the white cap of the head referee. He’s been officiating for 37 years, starting almost immediately after he finished high school.

In the first quarter, the Hillside and Purnell Swett lines both seemed to jump offside at the same time. The flags came out, but the decision was uncertain. After conferring with the other officials, Dr. Tuggle faced the Hillside sideline and signaled the bad news.

Later, I asked him how it felt to be booed by 500 people. Tuggle laughed. “I pay no attention,” he said.

Coach Derek Biggs found the love. Kenan Stalls, one of Hillside’s captains, suckered the Purnell quarterback into throwing deep on an out-and-up pattern in the fourth quarter. Once the ball was in the air, Stalls made up the ground, went airborne, and came down with the interception.

Biggs was so excited about the play that he met Stalls on the field. The two celebrants came at each other in a flying hip-check, a variation of the chest bump. Between the older man in a sweat suit and the 18-year-old athlete wearing full pads, the latter won. Biggs went sprawling to the ground, and laughter rippled through the stands. But upon standing, he seemed even more energized than before.

Preston Giles found the love, too. He spent most of the game circling the field, filming the action from different angles. His son Zach, he told me, just won offensive lineman of the year in the Pac-6. He was filming him for colleges.

“Make sure you give that line some credit!” he told me.

Credit to the Line

They average 295 pounds a man, and they provided Lee with excellent protection all night, but Purnell Swett coach Mark Heil gave them better credit than I could ever manage.

It’s become a habit for me to spend the third quarter on the opposition’s sideline, getting the vibe from the losing side. This time, it wasn’t a pretty sight.

One of the Purnell players huddled and shivered in a Native American blanket, surrounded by medical staff. He’d suffered a concussion from one of the many massive hits applied by Hillside (one in particular, doled out by Christian Davis-Ballard to a Purnell receiver, was the hardest hit I’ve ever seen in a high school game).

The fans were booing the play calls, and after Heil expressed his frustration at a Hillside reception that he thought had been dropped, a wise guy in the stands yelled out “throw the red flag and challenge!”

But, as I was saying, the greatness of the Hillside line became evident because of Heil. With the score 29-7 and the Hornets driving, Lee had a 3rd and long just outside the 10. He dropped back, surveyed the field, and found nobody. Then he surveyed it some more. There was no hurry — nobody was close to touching him. Finally he found his receiver, Austin Weeks, for a 16-yard touchdown on a spectacular leaping catch.

“I blitzed six people!” Heil shouted. I’m not sure to whom he spoke, since he was staring intently at the field. It was more like a complaint to the gods, a protest against the inherent unfairness of the universe. His voice softened, becoming less angry and more incredulous. “I blitzed six people.”

Credit to the line.

Losing the Love and Finding it Again

Mark Heil wasn’t having a great night. At halftime, my photographer Josh and I sneaked up on his team’s huddle in the far end zone.

“Shit, it’s three scores!” he yelled, vainly attempting to encourage his despondent team. His raspy voice sounded like the character Mick from the Rocky movies. “You’re playing like zombies! You never stop fighting!” He spoke like a man losing the love.

Now that I think about it, though, Heil kept fighting, impassioned even after a superior team had snuffed out the flame of hope. He stormed and raged up and down the sideline, plotting every play like it might be the one that would turn things around, like the overwhelming evidence piled against his team was just a temporary stretch of bad luck.

Only an occasional look of heartbreak and futility gave him away. But your heart can’t be broken unless you loved in the first place.

The Upshot

Jamal Williams rushed for 169 yards, Hillside rolled, and the newspapers all talked about the depth and range of their offense. I spoke with Williams, a senior, while he stood on the sideline. He’s shorter than he looks on the field, and in its natural state his face reverts to a smile.

I told him I didn’t realize the extent of his speed until the 65-yard touchdown run. He laughed bashfully. “Thank you,” he said. I asked about colleges, and he told me he wasn’t sure yet, but that offers from 1-AA schools would be coming in soon.

“Are you guys ever going to have a game?” I asked.

“We keep thinking these are gonna be games,” he said, pointing to the field. The carnage we surveyed might be called many things, but a ‘game’ was not one of them. “And we might get Dudley next.” They beat Dudley, the #2 seed in the region, 33-0 earlier in the year. If Dudley won, the two teams would meet again.

But down in Greensboro, a team called Lee County out of Sanford, North Carolina, was pulling off a 28-13 upset. They’re led by twin running backs, Isaiah and Israel Williams. Just as those are biblical names, it might take a biblical effort to beat Hillside.

Earlier in the playoffs, Lee County beat Durham Northern 16-12. Hillside beat the same team 38-6 the week before. On paper, the Hornets will be favorites again. The teams will play the day after Thanksgiving.

Possible Stumbling Blocks

1. Overconfidence — It’s been two months since they won by less than 20 points. It’s been one month since they’ve won by less than 30. Will they know what do when things tighten up?

2. Penalties — In the first quarter, Hillside notched five penalties almost before either team had warmed up. The situation improved after that, but in tense situations they become highly mistake-prone. It doesn’t bode well for the future, when entire games may be tense.

3. Sloppiness — It’s rare to see Coach King mad. Before the game, I asked about his serenity. “Sometimes I guess you just have to play the role,” he said. “Whichever role you have to be at the moment. Right now I have a bunch of other people who are a little vocal . . . so I have to sit back. You just can’t have everybody doing the same thing.”

But when Purnell scored their second touchdown on a punt block, he erupted. It was the maddest I’ve seen him, and the score was 50-13. He knows, though his players might not, that these kinds of mistakes can cost everything against the wrong team.

But It Won’t Cost Them Tonight

Lee was out of the game by the fourth quarter. He stood on the sidelines, his arms behind his back, surveying his team like a commandant at inspection. King was mildly miffed that Purnell Swett has kept their starters in. The rest of the players looked free and easy, another win in the books.

On one of the last plays of the game, Christian Jones made a great catch on a deep ball to set up a Frederick Adujua field goal. As Jones ran back to the sideline, feeling good, one of his friends tried to get his attention.

“Christian. Yo, Christian!”

Finally, Christian looked over.

“Christian . . . you still ugly!”

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