My high school football coach, Mr. Pfeiffer, reached 100 career coaching wins this week, so I texted to congratulate him. I told him that he would have gotten there much quicker if it were not for the 1997 season when our team won a total of zero games in the season. Coach Pfeiffer responded that the winless season was one of the most enjoyable years he had in coaching, and I told him it was one of the most enjoyable that I had playing. That season was the only one in which my high school played 11-man football (or, as it is more commonly known across the United States, "football") instead of 8-man football (which is a weird Corn Belt thing that is largely ignored elsewhere). However, adding those three players makes a world of difference, as our team found out.
I have tried to remember that season, and, like most of my memories, I can remember an overarching narrative (no wins), a few various scenes (shown below), and little more.
Our first game of the year was the closest. We might have lost by single digits, definitely not more than 20. We were playing a consolidated team that involved a direction, a county, and black uniforms. I believe it was the Northeast Fillmore County Raiders.
Later in the season, we took a very long bus trip to Ravenna, Nebraska. I don't know if that game was close. But the memory that is crystal clear is when our quarterback Jay Theis (who honestly should have his own 30 for 30) was being chased by enormous pass rushers, as he was every time he dropped back to throw. But this time, rather than take a huge sack, he heaved the ball in my direction. The referee on the other side of the field -- thinking that Jay had thrown the ball away to avoid the sack -- threw a flag for intentional grounding before the ball had actually hit the ground. However, a 5'10" 140 pound wide receiver with what could charitably called poor speed -- me -- swooped in and caught the pass and advanced it for a good gain. The referee sheepishly picked up the flag as the fans screamed that you can't have intentional grounding on a completed pass. I don't blame the official. I was hard to see me out there.
Just briefly on Jay Theis: he was the best athlete I ever saw in person. I played baseball, basketball, and football with him on basically a daily basis for seven or eight years. He would do truly amazing athletic feats like it was nothing. His knees then entirely fell apart when he was 17 years old. It was very sad, but unlike a real 30 for 30 like "The Best That Never Was" on Marcus DuPree, Jay never made bad decisions with his life or felt like things had been unfair. But I was there and know how good he was.
Back to the winlessness:
We are playing a team in red, maybe Stromsburg, maybe Red Cloud, maybe Hebron, maybe the University of Nebraska JV. We are, unsurprisingly, punting. I'm running down on coverage, and I see four or five of their players forming a line in the middle of the field running parallel to the side line. The punt is coming down on my right as I am running down, and the line of blockers is to my left. I know what is being set up because I can see it happening. The returner is going to run across the field, the line of blockers is going to crush us, and he will run for a touchdown. Seeing this, I run to the other side of the blockers to make the tackle where the runner will be, not where he is. The returner stays on the same side of the field (were too many of our players too smart? Seems unlikely.) and, I think, runs for a touchdown.
I always knew it was important to play smart, and I liked that in football you had the best opportunity to see things that could help you play better. On defense, I always tried to pick up tells and watch for tendencies that could help me make up for my lack of speed, size, athleticism, confidence, and determination. While I did not watch film, I did try to watch for keys before and during every play. I can remember a practice where we were scrimmaging, and I was on defense and a sweep was run to my side. However, because the end who was my assignment had run away from the direction of the sweep, I stayed with him. It was odd to leave the area where the play seemed to be going, but when the throwback pass occurred, I looked over and saw every that every other player on defense was far from the ball, except for me. And I have often thought about this play in other contexts when I wonder if I am right about something, even though everyone else seems to think otherwise. I had a reason for doing what I did, so I knew it was right to stick to my assignment. So whether it is life decisions or law decisions, I normally trust my instincts, and they have rarely steered me wrong. I'm not a contrarian by nature and I'm not advocating thinking with your gut instead of your brain, but I like to think that this experience in football has made it so I am not the type of person who would follow the crowd in the Solomon Asch conformity study. If I was in that position I would say the obviously correct answer no matter what other people had said because -- during that one practice, on some October day in the 1990s -- I ended up where the ball was, not on the other side of the field. (Of course, I may be overthinking it, which I did back in 1997 and still do today),
OK, back to the winlessness, once again:
I really cannot remember any other games. I think we played eight of them, but I have already related every game I can recall. I remember as the losses piled up, Coach Pfeiffer's pregame speeches started to center on a theme. The theme was: tonight we are playing a football game; this is an opportunity to win a football game; let's win a football game. As we continued to hear this speech, we started treating it as a mantra, repeating it at practice, and incorporating it into other aspects of our lives. (Now it's lunchtime. This is an opportunity to each lunch. Let's each lunch.). It was a back-to-basics analysis of the situation that, while humorous to us, was also inspiring. However, even with this mantra in our minds, we could not seem to, you know, actually win a game. I remember Jay Theis achieved some sort of overall yardage record, which was good. But I honestly don't know if any of the games after the first one were close. But I also know that we never gave up, and Coach Pfeiffer was a big part of that. We played hard every game, and that is why I can remember a winless season fondly.
That season was, for me, as I type here today, more than half a life ago. But I still take certain lessons from it. You can be dignified when facing long odds. You will, someday, laugh at your own misery. You will forget the details, but not the people.
I enjoyed our winless season. I thank Mr. Pfeiffer for coaching us, and I thank my teammates for playing. While we could not, in the words of Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap, "go to 11," I enjoyed the attempt.