Trailing by four touchdowns to Alta, the Skyline Eagles head coach Roger Dupaix called a timeout late in the fourth quarter. He walked onto the field and stood among a group of anxious boys holding hands, waiting for word on how to score against a stifling defense.
"Boy, this is something, isn't it?" Dupaix said, looking at the scoreboard. The players relaxed, smiled, and then he delivered the play. "We've got some work to do, so let's play football. Let's have some fun."
Final score: Alta 45, Skyline 10.
This is uncharted territory for Skyline football and its legendary coach.
There are visible cracks in the dynasty. For whatever reason, the usual in-season patching hasn't held. The Skyline Eagles are hanging by a talon.
Skyline's struggles this season are notable only because of its past successes. The Dupaix era has seen seven 5A state championships over 19 years. Add these to Skyline's previous six football championships, and it's easy to see why the rest of the Utah prep football masses aren't bothering to hide their glee. Goliath is on the ropes.
Dupaix never expected to find himself at the helm of a football dynasty.
"To be honest, I'm surprised we've won so consistently. I'm surprised there haven't been more years like this . . . . We've lost four straight, but we're going to come out tomorrow and work hard, study film and turn this love boat around," Dupaix said. "I just need to be more positive."
A decade earlier, Dupaix made a similar trip onto the field during a timeout in the final seconds of the 1995 state championship game.
"We scored a touchdown making it 12-14, so we had to go for a two-point conversion," Jackson Peck recalls. "In the huddle, we were so nervous, there was an energy, and we were all so excited, just squeezing each other's hands. We just wanted to know the play. We looked at him waiting and wondering what genius he had in store for us.
"He stood in front of us and looked up into the stands to the left, and then he looked to the right. We were jumping up and down with excitement. Then he looks at us and says, 'It's a pretty nice night to play football, don't you think?' "
Then Dupaix called the play and they tied the game against Fremont. The Eagles eventually won in overtime, but it was Dupaix's ability to keep his calm at that moment that still impresses Peck.
"Roger keeps everything in perspective. Football is such an emotional game, and the thing he does is take the emotion out of it," said Peck, now an assistant Skyline football coach.
"I fumbled the ball two out of the first three touches I had," Peck said. "He (Dupaix) didn't say a word to me. He'd just pat me on the back and tell me to get the next one."
Besides his steely calm demeanor, Dupaix is also renown among his peers for his ability to alter offensive schemes to accentuate the strengths of his current players. His assistants believe at least some of his effectiveness lies in his ability to collaborate, listen and especially delegate responsibility without second-guessing or micromanaging.
But Dupaix is only the most recent of Skyline's stewards.
"Skyline had the tradition before I got here," Dupaix said. "The tradition, the motivation to do well, all made my job easier."
"H.G. Linford (Skyline's first coach) set the standard," said defensive coordinator Steve Marshall, who won a state championship with the Eagles as a player in 1969. "That's when we began to shave our heads. It showed whether you really wanted to be a Skyline football player. In those days it was an easy way to cut. If you didn't cut your hair, you didn't get a uniform."
Skyline won its first state title in 1967 under Linford. They won again in 1969 and 1970. All of Skyline's current coaches except Dupaix graduated from and played for Skyline.
"It's bigger than anything else," Marshall said. "It's not any one person, any coach . . . Skyline is going to be successful with or without me."
Outsiders often see Skyline's football achievements differently, and no discussion of the Eagles' success can ignore constant criticism that it recruits players from outside its boundaries. The coaching staff just shrug and shake their heads when asked about it.
"Some people have felt our success is because we recruit, which never happened in a million years," said Marshall, who lives in Brighton High's boundaries, yet he's sent all four of his children to Skyline. His youngest son is currently the team's quarterback and free safety.
What did happen, Marshall explains, is that in the late 1980s the Jordan School District was bursting at the seams and encouraged its residents to consider sending their children to Skyline rather than overcrowded Brighton and Alta. Students were bused from the Jordan District to Skyline until as recently as three years ago.
"Oh, there is always an issue," said assistant coach and Skyline athletic director Steve Marlowe. "It's never the coaching. It just goes with the territory. As soon as you start to win, they say something like that."
"I know it (recruiting) doesn't happen," said Edie Dupaix, Roger's wife of 34 years. "I just feel like people just have to find a reason for our success. Why can't they just give credit where credit is due? Kids are drawn to a good program, and it's not just to (Dupaix), it's the whole staff."
Marlowe agrees with Marshall that most of the recruiting rumors began with Skyline's agreement to take students from overcrowded schools in Jordan District. Hundreds of families were sent letters encouraging them to attend Skyline by Jordan District. Also, in 1991, the Utah Legislature passed the open enrollment law, which enables students to go to the school of their choice for any reason, if they do it at the beginning of their high school experience.
"Currently about 42 percent of our students come from outside our boundaries," Marlowe said. "About 30 percent of our football players do . . . . We lost 300 students as soon as they quit busing three years ago."
The school has lost about 75 students each year since 2000 and currently has a population of 1,450.
But winning with the regularity of Skyline suggests more than simply a numbers game.
Constant talk about why the Eagles are different and what honoring the Skyline tradition means is peppered throughout practices, team dinners and team meetings. The weight room is a shrine to the past with boards listing past successes and quotes meant to inspire current players.
"It started a long, long time ago when Skyline was the biggest school in the state," Marlowe said. In the early '80s, the school's numbers plummeted, and the dynasty seemed in decline. Then two important things happened: The Jordan District's bussing decision and Dupaix was hired as the Eagles head coach.
"Roger came in, and he just fit in so well with the community," Marlowe said. "He has a strong football mind, and he's able to communicate with players, parents and the administration. Everybody just loves him."
Like his predecessors, he reminds current players about the school's tradition of success in a variety of ways, while still allowing each squad to make its individual mark on the program. Marshall said each new player watches several old game films and when they choose a number, they can tell you who wore the number before them and what it means to be part of that specific tradition.
Another way Dupaix links past with present is to bring back former players. Three weeks ago at a team dinner, he did just that with members of the 1999 undefeated, nationally ranked state championship squad addressing the players.
"Everybody in the state wants what you have," said Brandon VanLeeuwen, the 1999 quarterback. "I would love to be able to strap up one more time . . . . There is nothing like playing football for Skyline."
Zane Bechtold, added, "There are two kinds of football in the state high school football and Skyline football. Skyline football is a step above. I would die to play again."
Bo Nagahi, who won a Fiesta Bowl with the U., said he'd give up his college glory to have another chance at feeling like he did as a Skyline Eagle.
"You don't understand it yet," he told current players flashing his Fiesta Bowl ring. "I would give this back because it's not even close to what I had here at Skyline. Why? Because of my friends and the chance to play together for Skyline. There's nothing greater than what you've got right now."
Rob Sirstins was a bit tough on this year's team, asking them why they all hadn't shaved their heads something that is now optional.
"When you put on the gold dome, you're representing me and my team," he yelled.
Afterward, a clearly emotional assistant coach Brodie Reid said even the 1999 team had help.
"They were ranked nationally because the teams in the four years before them won state championships," he said. "Every team is special and part of that tradition."
One thing coaches attempt to do is convince all the players whether they ever get in a game or not that they are an important part of every aspect of the season.
At a recent team meeting, coach Brodie Reid's eyes settled on Bryan Forbes. "I'm going to miss watching Bryan work his butt off," he said choking back tears.
The senior running back is on the punt team, which means when Skyline's offense is clicking, he doesn't get in the game. Yet, coaches and teammates say no one works harder in practice.
"Whatever they ask me to do, I'll try harder," Forbes said.
Without players like him "the team would never get anywhere," said quarterback Matt Marshall. "He's just as important as any starter."
At halftime during the team's loss to Alta, Dupaix asked the junior varsity players to wait in the hall because it's so crowded. Assistant coach Beau Marlowe walks into the hall with them and paces up and down talking to them, while Dupaix talks with the varsity players. "When I was a junior, the seniors on our team came to us and said we need your help," Beau Marlowe said through tears. "These guys need your help. They need you on the sideline. They need to hear you."
The juniors chatter loudly on the sideline the rest of the game. Marlowe walks up and down the sideline commending their efforts.
It's another kind of support, community and school support, that Marshall believes is the foundation of the program's strength.
That support takes many forms at Skyline, but one of the most visible is Mary Springer. She began her association with Skyline football when her oldest son, Jeramy Spenst, opted to attend Skyline High.
"She showed up in an old beat-up pickup truck and asked what she could do," recalled Steve Marlowe. The mother of four was going to nursing school, while caring for her wheelchair-bound husband. "She went down to the Pizza Hut and got them to donate 50 pizzas, and showed up with them in the back of that truck . . . . She's been with us ever since."
Now, 18 years later, she heads up the team's medical staff. After their loss to Logan last week, she entered a coaches' meeting choking back tears.
"I don't know if it would help or hinder, but I would be willing to show up in pads and a uniform," she said, wiping away the tears she couldn't contain. "Just know I'm here if you need anything."
It's hard being Goliath, especially when you don't feel like an unbeatable giant. Each year, they say they feel like underdogs no matter what the team's record is and part of what bonds them is the rest of the state's desire to see them lose.
"Everyone hates us in the valley," Marshall said. "I've had referees say, 'You win too much.' "
When winning becomes a way of life, the pressure to continue winning, no matter what the specific circumstances are, can be overwhelming at times. In fact, winning becomes more of a relief than a joy.
"It has felt like that over the years," Dupaix said. "Like just making it to the state tournament is not enough."
His players agree there is pressure.
"There is more pressure here because of our tradition," said James Johansen, one of this year's team captains. "We've won so many years. You don't want to be the downfall."
This year the team has struggled like never before. But talk of the dynasty dying is met with disbelief. One season didn't make them a powerhouse, and one season will not end it, they insist.
"Ask anyone associated with Skyline, and they'll say, 'Don't worry; Skyline will be back next year,' " Marshall said. "They're going to have faith until it's beaten out of them."
That faith hasn't completely vanished for the current season, and in fact it has grown stronger with the team's first-round playoff win over Region 4 champion Lone Peak 14-10 on Friday. The coaching staff constantly reminds each other that in 1998 the team went into the state tournament a No. 4 seed and ended up with a state title. With Friday's win, Skyline's first-round playoff win streak extends to 13, and Dupaix's playoff record is 53-26. He has won more playoff games than anyone else has even coached.
Following their loss to Alta three weeks ago, the coaching staff stood in a circle near the end zone discussing what went wrong.
"We just have to put them on our backs and carry them," Marshall told the others. "In every way, classroom, practices, we just have to help them more."
There is a belief among them that they can coach any group of players to a win; they just have to figure out how to reach them.
When they get back to the school after the Alta loss, they meet in their storied football field and each coach addresses the team. There is sadness, disappointment, even as the players fidget in the cold night air.
"I only know one answer," Dupaix said, "and that's to work harder. It's tough to do after a loss. Very tough. But we don't have time to feel sorry for ourselves."
In the coach's office Dupaix tells his assistants to get some sleep, so they can be back at the school at 8 a.m. to watch film of the loss and the next opponent; he asks only one thing of his assistants, "Keep it positive."
The next morning they gather to watch the film. Going through the game in slow motion, listening to the coaches point out what went wrong, and more often, what went right. Suddenly, a blowout doesn't feel like a blowout. A game that was lost by five touchdowns evolves into a game that barely slipped through their grasp in the dim light of the Skyline locker room. "You can never allow them to accept losing," Marshall said.Comment on this story
A few days later, meeting with the team's defense, he turns to war analogies when talking about causes that appeared to be lost."They act like we've never played football before," he said. "We know how it feels to get beat. We've been beaten by 50 points before. We know what it's like to lose. That's why we try not to do it very often . . . ."