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Playoffs bring back old memories

 

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Ten ago years today, people were sporting Z. Cavaricci jeans and BUM Equipment sweatshirts, Poison and Warrant were still considered cool and I was on a bus to Sidney for what was at the time, the biggest event of my 17-year old life.

Much has changed since then Thank God. Z.Cavaricci jeans and BUM shirts aren't worn anymore, well except by some people in Great Falls, Warrant and Poison are only cool on VH1's Behind the Music and thankfully a playoff football game hasn't been the biggest event of my lifetime.

But don't think for a moment it wasn't important. It was. As I look at pictures and glance at newspaper clippings from that day, my stomach churns with anger and regret. It feels much the way it felt 10 years ago.

I am not one to sit and reminisce about a past I can't change. But this week as the current Ponies prepare to face Bigfork, the memories fill my head, occupy my thoughts and haunt my dreams.

It's funny really. I went to college longer than most doctors and I can't name you half of the professors I had along the way. But I could name every member of the varsity football team my senior year and Sidney's top players as well. To most people it seems so irrelevant, so pointless now. But back then, it was my whole world.

We had a season much like this year. With 16 seniors, we were expected to be one of the top teams in the old Central A. However, like this year, we lost our first two games of the season. With our conference consisting of eight teams and only three advancing to the playoffs, we hadn't dug ourselves a hole, we dug ourselves a canyon.

But as with most high school teams, confidence and winning are contagious. A key goal-line stand early in the following week's game against Livingston seemed to infect us with confidence. We never looked back, stringing together six consecutive wins and clinching a spot in playoffs by defeating Dillon on a last second blocked field goal.

It set up a showdown with the Sidney Eagles in the first round of the playoffs. Sidney at the time was a dynasty in Montana football. The Eagles had won six consecutive state titles, while going undefeated during that span. They were a tradition.

All of that didn't matter to us. Tradition to a high school student is tacos every Tuesday, and where the turnaround on the cruise is.

We fully believed we could beat Sidney. Why not? When you're in high school, you're invincible. We were going to win, there was no doubt in any of our minds. It didn't matter how much film we watched and how good Sidney looked on film. We were going to win.

Newspapers around the state were saying that it was the state championship game being played in the first round. The winner of the game would invariably win the title.

It was 10 years ago today, that I started feeling nervous. An eight hour bus ride with 50 nervous guys doesn't help either. Let's just say it wasn't difficult to be nauseous.

The bus ride from hell ended and we reached that burgeoning metropolis that is Sidney. We practiced, ate supper and watched film, all of which ended about 9 p.m. That left an excruciating amount of time before we played almost 20 hours before kickoff. It's not like any of us were going to sleep more than a few hours that night. Time limped by.

Back then, I listened to a Walk-man instead of a portable CD player. I had one tape with three songs on it. It had Phil Collins, "In the Air Tonight" repeated over and over on one side and Tom Cochrane's "Lunatic Fringe" and Guns-n-Roses, "Welcome to the Jungle" played over and over on the other side. I listened to it non-stop until we got on the field. It's a wonder I can listen to those songs today.

When game time finally rolled around, I remember looking at all the stands Sidney had at their field and thinking there is no way they'll fit them. I was wrong, people kept coming. It wasn't just Sidney fans, there was enough blue there to fill up one side of Blue Pony Stadium. Even my best friend and current coworker George Ferguson made the trip. My hands shake just writing this.

We scored early on a long touchdown pass. Sidney answered as their mammoth tailback Corey Johnson on a 6-yard touchdown run. It was the seventh yard of his run that I remember the most. I was about three yards deep in the endzone and Johnson's touchdown had already been signaled. At 6-feet 230 lbs., I wanted no part of him. Yet, for good measure Johnson lowered his shoulder and proceeded to knock me back somewhere by the goalpost. George said it's still the funniest thing he's ever seen on a football field.

Things get a little fuzzy after that. My chin was gashed and the rest of the game is fairly hazy, but I know I had to tackle Johnson a few more times which was like tackling a Geo Metro. We lost 20-13. It was a game we should have won.

Unfortunately, I remember every minute after the gun sounded. I felt like somebody punched me in the stomach and there was a football lodged in my throat. It was over. The culmination of four years ended as quickly as it started.

No matter how real my dreams seemed in the weeks following the game, I couldn't go back and change it. For people who have never played football, it is possibly the truest form of a team game. It's total dependency on your teammates. There is a bond built because of it. You win, you lose; you cheer, you cry; you sweat and you bleed together.

I sit here and wonder now. Was there something I could have done different to change the outcome? Could I have run just a little faster, or hit Johnson just a little harder? It's been so long I don't really know. But if I could go back and change it, I would without a second's hesitation.

If there is one piece of advice, I have for the Ponies on Saturday: it would be to not find yourself 10 years from now wondering the same thing, or thinking what if. Play hard enough so that 10 years from now you could look back and know that win or lose, you did everything you could.

Play as if it's the last football game you'll ever play in your lifetime, because it just might be.

 
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