A half-moon brightens the First Baptist Church overseeing East’s first semifinals practice. Two nights and a graveyard separate the Leopards from Rice-Eccles Stadium as the therapeutic sound of floodlights supplements conditioning sprints.
“Only four of you are practicing right now,” East coach Brandon Matich exhales. “You’re going to look back one day and miss everything about this.” Joe Tukuafu exhaustedly rests hands-on-knees to Isaac Valles’ encouragement. The pain is temporary. “You’re after something special — 10-10s.”
Ten yards and back. Hands to the line. Ten times. Matich yells, “Be great! Be great at everything you do!” Now fully immersed in nighttime darkness, warm breath steams upward while Matich patiently awaits the remaining players. “What you’re about to do is very special, and I hope you realize how important and how big this opponent is,” he jaws. “It doesn’t matter who it is because they’re in our way. We’ve had this goal since Day 1.
“On Thursday we take care of the ball and give a perfect effort for 48 minutes, and we show Olympus that they don’t belong on the same field as we do. They do not belong. We have waited too long and been through too much together to have them stand in our way. We show up, and we take their hearts early. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, sir,” the team harmonizes.
Kickoff approaches. The team arrives at the school hours beforehand dressed in black hoodies, sweats and beanies. Ula Tolutau exposes a freshly shaven block “E” above his ear while Tukuafu adjusts his Tongan tupenu garment.
“You have the greatest families and community support than any other school I’ve seen,” Matich says in the special teams meeting, “but only those people want you to win. Everybody in this state can’t wait for East to fail. They are waiting for that moment. There is a lot of hate for you. A lot of hate for you cheaters, you recruiters, you thugs — you’re no good. You know what we do? We wear black and embrace the hate.
“See you in 24 minutes,” Matich finishes, cueing Sione "Baby" Tuikolovatu’s portable tailgate speakers to Britney Spears’ “ Baby One More Time” as the team belts the lyrics.
Players assemble in threes as Tualagi Laupata raises the school flag to the go-ahead. Rap music overshadows car horns vocalizing encouragement down Guardsman Way and 400 South. Inside the dark mahogany lockers underneath the south end zone of Rice-Eccles Stadium, Matich emerges from one knee. “Offensive starters today for this beautiful afternoon, I’ve got a message for you and it’s the same every (dang) week: Take care of the football, execute and maul their (butt).”
East paraded into the ring 12 times without touching the ropes. It was about to receive its first cut. Olympus lingered like a stray alley cat refusing to leave, jabbing back down 7-0 with Chase Manning’s 17-yard touchdown. Then again after Laupata’s interception return, Manning evened things up at 14-apiece with a play-action heave.
The moment of concern revealed itself. East had fallen into its postseason spell of turnovers and penalties, but with one minute and 22 seconds remaining in the first half, East’s Avery Hopkins opportunistically corralled a muffed punt in the end zone to unplug the Titans’ spark.
The newfound advantage widened with a 10-play, 74-yard drive that culminated with a 1-yard push by Valles in the third quarter. The next play Lorenzo Manu grabbed his state-leading 11th interception and punched the Leopards’ ticket to the state championship game.
“Congratulations. You have one more game,” Matich says. “I’ve got to have special effort out of everybody. Guys, I’m so proud to be your coach. This game is our goal. We’ve been to the dance before, and we’ve had our hearts broken. Now we’re finishing the thing.”
Championship Monday begins with an unexpected voice — Kevin Elko, the “mental head coach” for the Alabama Crimson Tide. He’d spoken at a business conference earlier, and an East mother asked for his motivation. He obliged.
“I’ve got a message today for the East High Leopards,” Elko recorded. “Let me ask all of you a question. Why would a man climb Mount Everest? Why would they risk their life and go through all that pain? I think in every man and woman we like to know what we have and who we are. Don’t you want to know how high you can climb? I don’t think we were made to compare ourselves to others. I think we were made so unique that we can’t compare ourselves to anyone.
“How high can we go? How do you know the answer to that question until you give everything you have without judgment? I didn’t judge the score or what they did or the last mistake that happened — just judge how high you can climb. I think that’s why they do Everest.”
The practice concludes to a weakened buzz at the sight of Tuikolovatu grasping his knee. The senior leader gingerly limps after awkwardly folding during a non-contact squeeze drill. “He’s our best lineman — no question,” Matich says rubbing his eyes in frustration. “I don’t know how healthy he’s going to be. He had his knee brace on, so who knows? He’s a tough kid.”
Tuikolovatu’s assurances provide solace throughout the week. “I’m playing,” he grimaces. Surely enough, the mobility returns to his knee during evaluation drills days later. Trainers clear his participation as squalls of wind impede Friday morning title-game preparation.
Players swish cups of orange juice planted ahead of a memorial poster honoring the 1996 team’s 37-0 championship win over Timpview. In less than two hours the same opponent waits for the 2013 East Leopards.
Inclement weather ushers in busses. Players converse; others isolate in concentration. “Let’s go,” Matich instructs. The engine powers synchronously with his headphones. He pounds the seat, bobbing his head in tune when his phone vibrates. A black-and-white photo of his grandfather appears as he whisks away tears with his fingertips.
Matich manages to camouflage his emotions during pregame routines until he glances towards the scoreboard: 20 minutes. “I’m going to throw up,” Matich says reaching toward his pocket. “Gum?” he offers to nearby assistants. He keels over into the trash can cuddled against the wall.
It’s time. Matich wipes his mouth, redresses his pullover and enters the locker room to announce the offensive starters.
“Wide receivers No. 5, David Huntsman; No. 7, Joe Tukuafu.
“Left tackle No. 74, Big Texas, Michael Key.
“Right tackle, D-Mo, Dwayne, No. 77.
“Right guard, No. 52, Tennessee Suesue.
“Center, No. 56, Sione Mafua.
“Left guard, your anchor, No. 54, Sione Baby.
“Three-back, No. 10 — joystick, Preston Curtis.
“No. 1, Malakai Solovi.
“Quarterback, your leader tonight, No. 8, Isaac Valles.
“Your heart and soul, jumpin’ on your back, No. 2, B-Back, Ula Tolutau.”
He rests momentarily to assistant coach Gary Bowers’ list of the defense. Two minutes lacquer the notifying clock. Matich’s voice trembles: “I promise you this: Today the suffering ends. There is no more suffering for East High School. Today a new king arises from the ashes because today is our day. Today we stamp permanently our legacy in the lore of high school football in the state of Utah as the greatest football team that ever played here. Today we assert our dominance. I love you with all my heart — Leopards ready.”
East begins at its 35-yard line. Three minutes and 10 plays later the Leopards cap a 65-yard scoring drive on Tolutau’s plunge from 2 yards out, but miss the point after. The Leopards force a quick three-and-out, and on the following play Valles freezes a defender with a spin move and goes untouched for a 13-0 lead.
“I don’t think that can ever be a bad thing,” Matich said of the quick burst. “It just depends on how you sustain it. I think offensively we came out and did everything we needed to do.”
Moments into the second quarter, Timpview’s acclaimed defensive end, Isaiah Nacua, furnished the Thunderbirds’ first score when he sacked and recovered Valles’ fumble. “He was the read key,” Matich explained. “Because he was in a 5-technique and went down to an inside technique he was still the dive key. But Isaac thought that’s who we were going to block, which wasn’t the case. He wasn’t ready for him to fire in there.”
It was the first of 21 second-quarter points spurred by Timpview quarterback Britain Covey’s escape ability. He couldn’t be contained. Time and time again the undersized junior evaded sure-handed sacks and extended plays with either his feet or arm. Covey was brewing a championship performance for the ages, and down 25-21 at halftime he’d get the ball to start the second half.
“You’ve got 24 minutes and a lead and all your dreams come true,” Matich encourages. “You have to ball out with all your heart and soul. We do this together; we do this for each other.”
The Leopards appeared to stunt Timpview’s opening drive, but a roughing-the-passer penalty breathed new life into the possession. Five plays later the Thunderbirds found the end zone and a 27-25 lead. East’s two third-quarter series were marred by penalties — a personal foul and a false start — and again on its six-minute scoring drive in the fourth quarter. Another false start and the Leopards settled for a 28-27 lead on Isaac Anthony’s 19-yard boot.
Timpview loaded up on Covey after a 31-yard pass initiated its response drive. He’d rushed four straight times to paydirt. With two minutes and 52 seconds left, East’s 14-0 perfect season was now a five-point deficit. The Leopards had marched across midfield, but it was now fourth and 6. This was it. Valles dropped back and before he scanned the field Timpview buried him. Like a recurring sickness it had happened again.
The Thunderbirds swung their arms in jubilation as East bowled over in agony. “My brain wouldn’t let me imagine losing,” Matich said. “I couldn’t even force myself to thinking that. I was so confident.”
Silence torments the bus leaving nothing but the sound of tires on concrete. Matich strikes the same cushion he had hours earlier in despair. Curtis sobs into his face mask while Jake Baptiste comforts Christian Folau. “This is your team now,” he says. “You’ll always be my boy.”
One by one, players despondently file into the lockers, eagerly waiting for an antidote to their pain. “I can stand here all day; I’m not going to find the right words,” Matich grieves. “This is the toughest one of them all. I’ve stood before you in this circumstance way too many times. I wanted this for you and again we were so close.”
He collapses into his palms. “All I can say is, like anything in life, we’re going to stand tall and persevere. One thing is for sure — your football coach will always love you. That will never change, and I’m sorry I couldn’t get it done for you.”
Tears ballooning from his eyes, Matich seeks the wisdom of assistant coach Larry Eldracher. “Part of our journey together is not about winning and losing — it’s about becoming a man and you got a lesson in that today,” offered Eldracher, who won seven state titles in 19 years at Skyline. “It just barely went against us today. In my heart — 'til the day I die — I will always believe this was one of the finest football teams that Utah has ever seen. I’m very proud of you. Stand tall and we’ll move forward with class.”
Sorrow impairs the captains’ posture. Seniors reluctantly stay padded to prevent the inevitable. It’s over. Voices crack and throats clear. “Wow. That went fast, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Curtis says. “I’ll never forget this.”
Jager Chynoweth stands, his face smeared in eye-black. “We’ve all had a lot of (terrible) things happen in our lives,” he cries. “One thing I’ll always remember is a quote, ‘The righteous live in deep water.’ I know we all feel like we’re drowning right now, but we’ve got to keep fighting. You got to keep swinging, men. Thank you for giving me 14 weeks and being my brothers.”
Huddled together, the team proclaims “family” for the final time. Players collect their belongings and slowly loiter in separate directions. East failed. There’s no consolation prize for second place and eventually, over time, the Leopards will escape memory into the forgotten. But for those involved, an enduring legacy was engraved.
“It taught me how, if you bond together and become a family, that you can accomplish anything — even though we didn’t finish,” Baptiste said. “The only thing that’s on my mind is how much all of my brothers changed my life. I love this program.”
That afternoon 64 kids lost in the game of football, but prevailed in something far more meaningful. They overcame cultural and class differences, ignored misguided opinions, and implanted lifelong friendships. Against all odds, they banded together
And climbed Mount Everest.
Email: email@example.com Twitter: @phibbs_
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company