When Machines Bleed
The Sterling Heights Stevenson varsity football team was a well-oiled machine. Led by senior quarterback Mike Groves, it had steam-rolled through its regular season an impressive 9-0 and had been unscored upon in its first three playoff games. Braced for destiny, it prepared for the inevitable encounter with the South Lyon Lions in the Class AA state championship game. Stevenson had come into this season ranked number one in the state after its close loss in last year’s state championship game. With most of its skilled players returning back off of last year’s squad, it was the clear-cut favorite to go all the way this year.
Stevenson had built its reputation with points. A lot of points. Scoring an average of 56 points per game, its offense was more sophisticated than those of most of the smaller colleges in the state. In fact, ten of its players had signed letters of intent to go play football in college for schools such as Michigan, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Florida, USC and Syracuse. Mike Groves was Stevenson’s quarterback and its captain. A three year starter on varsity, Groves was the top-rated passer in the state and the future trigger man for the Syracuse Orangemen. While Groves was gifted with plenty of raw skill for the game of football he hadn’t always made the best decisions while under pressure. His success had made him a little arrogant but he was still basically a likable kid.
His backup Aaron Fuller, on the other hand, was almost his exact opposite. Fuller didn’t have nearly the same skill for the game that Groves had but his overall knowledge of the game was far superior. Fuller had viewed football the same as he did chess, putting strategy first and foremost. With a 4.0 grade point average in school Aaron had developed a reputation for being a thinker. On occasion throughout the season Aaron had worked with Mike on some aspect of his game and Mike was always better off because of it. The two had developed a good working relationship at Stevenson and Mike had regretted that he couldn’t take Aaron with him to Syracuse. Instead, Stevenson would be Aaron’s team to QB next year, a job that both excited and scared him. He had been far more comfortable on the sidelines next to the coaches where he felt he could make more useful contributions to the team.
Adam Conrad was Stevenson’s star wide receiver. According to his teammates he was destined to become the next Jerry Rice. Conrad was quick, agile and rarely dropped a pass. He had all the attributes necessary to play on the next level, which was exactly what he intended to do next year at USC. Having played for a team like Stevenson had helped him develop into the kind of player that could feasibly do well at Southern Cal. Keith Warner doubled as Stevenson’s fullback and tight end. He was strong and stocky and could easily pass for a linebacker. His versatility had brought a lot to Stevenson’s team this season and would likely bring a lot to Notre Dame’s next season. In addition to Stevenson’s many offensive weapons it also had a pretty solid defense. It had managed to hold its opponents to an average of only six points per game during the regular season and hadn’t relinquished a single point during the post season. It was clear that the defense had been hitting on all eight cylinders during the most important stretch of the season...the playoffs.
The Titans of Sterling Heights Stevenson had dispatched Lake Orion, Detroit Martin Luther King and Catholic Central from the playoffs on its way to the state championship game. Its win over King had probably been its most impressive as King was one of only three undefeated teams in the state at the time. King had gone unbeaten through the torturous PSL (Detroit Public School League) and was ranked number two in the state at the time. Stevenson won 35-0.
Stevenson’s opponent, South Lyon had a much different path to the state championship game. Like the Titans, the Lions were a perfect 12-0 (nine regular season wins plus three playoff victories) but differed in that it had experienced some close games along the way. Three of South Lyon’s wins had come in overtime. In fact, South Lyon had needed to go to double overtime in the state semifinal game vs. Lapeer West to advance to the finals. After awhile, the team’s motto had become Refuse to Lose as it seemed to always find a way to pull out the victory. Its matchup versus Stevenson had seemed like destiny to those in and around high school football.
The atmosphere was electric on gameday at the Pontiac Silverdome which was the site for the Class AA state championship game. Thousands of fans from both schools had made their way to the dome to witness the imminent slugfest between these two heavyweights. Each side had proudly showed its school spirit. There was a virtual sea of blue and yellow on the South Lyon side and blue and white on the Stevenson side. Fans wore T-shirts and baseball hats, painted their faces and waved pompoms to show support for their team. On the South Lyon side one could hear the song, “Welcome to the Jungle,” by Guns and Roses being played which had been adopted as the team’s new fight song over the course of the season. It had been only too appropriate since they were the Lions and Lions were suppose to be the Kings of the Jungle.
The closer to the field of play one got the more business-like people seemed to be. Down near the sidelines were journalists from the local newspapers and reporters from the local news stations. They had been scrambling amongst themselves to get last-minute interviews with coaches, players and even parents. One reporter had jokingly said that if South Lyon could manage to pull off the upset against Stevenson that some Lions would have finally found a way to win in the Silverdome.
The players and coaches, for the most part, had been doing their pregame warm-ups and been making their final preparations before kickoff. Their expressions were not ones that suggested they were just happy to be there. They meant business. Anything less than a state championship would be absolutely unacceptable.
During warm-ups Mike Groves couldn’t help but take notice of his counterpart on the opposite sideline. South Lyon’s quarterback Jason Graves had been warming up with his offense when his gaze met Mike Groves’. The two briefly sized each other up and went back to what they were doing. Something about Graves had really troubled Mike. He knew that he was probably a better all-around quarterback than Jason Graves. He also knew that
Graves wasn’t a football supergenius like his buddy Aaron was. Something else about Jason Graves had bothered him. Perhaps it was the way he had walked the sidelines as though he was just at any other game. “This is the damn state championship game, why isn’t he as nervous as I am?” he thought to himself.
Graves had seemed as if he were immune to pressure. He had what some coaches would call ice water in his veins. Maybe it was because he had faced pressure several times before this season. Mike didn’t know. All he did know was that it scared the hell out of him.
It was time for kickoff. Stevenson vs. South Lyon...undefeated vs. undefeated...#1 vs. #2...Groves vs. Graves. Stevenson in its navy blue home jerseys had won the coin toss and elected to kickoff hence they would receive the ball first in the second half. South Lyon’s return had brought the ball up to its own 45 yard-line. After two runs up the middle for no yardage, Graves dropped back and hit his favorite target Chad Bailey for a twenty one yard gain, bringing the Lions into Stevenson territory. A draw play for ten yards and a pass straight down the center of the field into the end zone had made the score 7-0 in favor of South Lyon. Lions fans went nuts.
“That was way too easy,” thought Stevenson head coach Pat Frakes to himself. Stevenson had already given up more points in this one drive than it had in the previous three games combined. It had also given Stevenson its first deficit of the entire season. Frakes wondered how his kids would respond in its first offensive series of the game.
Led by Groves, Stevenson’s offense took the field for the first time at its own 24 yard-line. He took the field as if he were a general leading his troops into battle. He was confident he could even the score and avenge the South Lyon touchdown. He was wrong. A run up the middle for no gain by Warner and two incomplete passes to Conrad had forced them to punt. Needless to say, Stevenson’s punter hadn’t seen very much action this season before now. The punt wasn’t great but hadn’t been his worst either. South Lyon would start from its own 48 yard-line.
As the Lion’s offense took the field again Mike’s eyes once again met Jason’s. What he had suspected before he had just confirmed then. Jason Graves was a better leader than he was. Even though he would probably go on to bigger and better things at Syracuse he would never be the leader Jason was. Jason’s overall talent for the game was enough to get him a spot on a team like Ferris State or Western Michigan if he really pursued it but nothing more.
He simply wasn’t that good. “Why am I letting this guy get to me?” Mike asked himself. “I can beat him. I know I can.”
South Lyon had nearly reproduced what it had done on its first drive. It went up 14-0 and was making it look easy. “This is starting to get out of hand,”
Coach Pat Frakes thought. “I’ve got to help these kids get it together before it’s too late.”
After another two drives by each team which produced no points, half-time had almost arrived. Stevenson had the ball at its own 16 yard-line with 23 seconds to go. It would have probably been smart to just take a knee and go into half-time to regroup but that isn’t how Mike Groves had seen it.
Desperate to cut into this South Lyon lead, he dropped back to throw a Hail Mary and was sacked. He had lost control of the ball and fumbled it on Stevenson’s own one yard-line. With 11 seconds left South Lyon called a time-out to set up a play.
Mike stormed back to the sidelines and threw his helmet into a barrel of Gatorade knocking it onto the ground. “God damn it!” he yelled. Jason Graves kept the ball on a one-yard QB sneak to put South Lyon up 21-0 at half-time. Stevenson’s season had begun to unravel.
Coach Frakes didn’t know what to say to his boys at half-time. He was genuinely shocked by the first half of play. He hadn’t thought any team in the entire country let alone the state of Michigan could get Stevenson down by 21 at half-time. With the performance he had seen in the first half by South Lyon he honestly didn’t know if his team could come back from this. Scoring 21 points in a half would be nothing. They had done that in nearly every game this season.
The problem would be scoring the 21 points it needed to tie the game and holding South Lyon scoreless in the second half. He did the only thing he could do in a situation like this. He walked over to his kids and gave them the same half-time speech he had given them at half-time of the games it had won prior to this. In those speeches he had told them to pretend like the score was 0-0 again and go out there like their lives depended on it. In the past it had been a way to keep his team from getting bored. Now it was plain and simply a survival technique. They needed to put that nightmare first half behind them if they had any chance of winning this game. The players had responded to this as good as could be expected but still looked stunned. “Now,” Coach Frakes said,
“Let’s go play some REAL Stevenson football!” as he led his team back out onto the field. Privately he wondered if what he had said would be enough. The two teams took the field again and were ready to resume. Having deferred in the first half, Stevenson would be receiving the ball to start the second. The kick was received by Adam Conrad who caught the ball and took off like a bat out of hell. He quickly zeroed in on an open alley and hit it. He was gone. No one on this field was fast enough to catch him from behind. 89 yard touchdown. South Lyon 21, Stevenson 7. The Stevenson sideline went bananas. It suddenly had reason to hope. Hopefully it wouldn’t be too late.
The ensuing South Lyon drive had netted a field goal. South Lyon 24, Stevenson 7. Stevenson had been happy it hadn’t been a touchdown but still hated giving up three more points. It still had a lot of work to do. With a renewed sense of confidence Mike Groves and the Stevenson offense took the field again. Three incomplete passes to Conrad had forced Stevenson to punt...again. “What am I doing wrong?” Mike asked himself.
“Why can’t I complete a simple pass?”
Sulking on the sidelines, Mike felt a hand tap him on the shoulder. It was Aaron. “What?” he snapped in anger.
“I think I have the solution to your problem,” he offered. “Its obvious they’ve figured out your usual passing style so the first thing you need to do is lose it. Don’t force something that isn’t going to work. This west coast stuff may work against those crap Macomb County schools but it isn’t going to work here. You have a tool. Use it. Adam’s faster than their defenders but you’re not giving him time to get any steps on them because you’re sticking with that short stuff. Start throwing deeper passes so Adam can use his speed.”
What Aaron had said to him made perfect sense and it just might work. South Lyon’s drive had ended just as Mike and Aaron’s conversation had. Perfect timing. They were getting the ball back. Wasting no time in implementing Aaron’s theory, Mike sent Adam on a deep route and hit him for a 63 yard touchdown reception. “It worked damn it. It worked!” he thought in excitement.
His father and Adam’s, who had become good friends through their sons, were looking on from the first row. They both jumped from their seats and embraced upon seeing the touchdown. Both men were bursting their buttons with pride as they watched their sons achieve high school football immortality.
Maybe there was still hope for Stevenson. With the third quarter all but gone after the touchdown, the score was now South Lyon 24, Stevenson 14. The Stevenson defense stepped up big on the next Lion possession, obviously motivated by what had just happened. It forced South Lyon to a three and out, getting the ball back for the Titan offense to cut even further into the South Lyon lead. Stevenson would do just that too as Groves again connected with Conrad, this time for 55 yards. The extra point got blocked. South Lyon 24, Stevenson 20.
Feeling the game starting to slip away, South Lyon began to run the ball more which was an excellent way to take time off of the clock. Time was beginning to become a factor for Stevenson. With only a little over a minute left in the game and no time-outs left, Stevenson got the ball back. Groves worked the sideline brilliantly, the team was as precisioned and disciplined as anything in college. Thirteen yards to Warner for a first down to the 40. Eighteen yards to Conrad for a first down to the South Lyon 42. Thirteen yards to Conrad for another first down to the 29. First and ten. Thirty-six seconds left. Groves throws a perfect strike, but the ball is dropped.
Second and ten. Thirty-three seconds left. The pass is incomplete. Third and ten. Twenty-nine seconds left. The pass is incomplete. Fourth and ten. Twenty-six seconds left. The pass is incomplete. The game is over. Groves dropped to his knees in horror, his heart in his throat. He had begun to wonder how it could end this way when he saw the most beautiful thing he had ever seen in his life pass right before him. A flag. Not the red, white and blue flag of the United States of America but something better. It was yellow and it had come from the back pocket of one of the officials. There had been a penalty. He waited for the call. It had been pass interference against South Lyon. The game wasn’t over. He would get one more chance. This time he wasn’t going to blow it. On the sidelines, Aaron Fuller was a nervous wreck. It wasn’t because of the tension of the moment but rather because he realized something the others hadn’t. Without any time-outs left he wouldn’t be able to share his revelation with the rest of the team. He could only hope Mike had reached the same conclusion on his own...
With the entire season riding on it, Mike stepped back to pass one last time. He zeroed in on his favorite target. To his surprise Adam had gotten open. Wide open. “Yes!” he thought. “We are gonna win this thing!” He fired. Conrad had been poised, ready to receive the ball that would win Stevenson the state championship. Groves watched the ball progress towards his teammate with unbearable anticipation. He was all set to jump into the air in celebration when he saw a white blur pass between him and Adam. The ball was gone! What had happened? He refocused and found a South Lyon linebacker cradling the ball. He fell to the ground as the final seconds ticked from the clock. The game really was over. Mike dropped to the ground like a ton of bricks, burying his face in the Astroturf of the Pontiac Silverdome. It was truly over. Everything he and his teammates had worked for all season long had been taken from them in one play. He thought back to all those early morning and late afternoon practices...all those blowout wins during the regular season and how high he felt after the King game. None of it mattered.
After several minutes of looking at nothing but the artificial grass beneath him, he rose to his feet. He caught a glimpse of his friend Adam with his helmet off, resting his head on the shoulder of his father. He was hugging him with all his might and crying as if he were a new born baby. Having seen his son in that much pain had caused Mr. Conrad himself to cry. He hadn’t been alone. There was pain all around him.
Walking back to the locker room, Mike had heard something that stunned him nearly as bad as the loss had. It had come from Jason Graves, the quarterback for the other team. He said nonchalantly to one of his South Lyon teammates, “I don’t know about you, but during that last play I was sweating bullets!”
Copyright © 2001 Mark Brittan