It is all over and done with now, only it is never all over and done with. What began more than 15 weeks ago ended in the cold and the rain at Byrd Stadium on Saturday night before about 3,000 people. That's all who showed up at the University of Maryland campus to see Timmy DeSantis of Springbrook and Tom Johnson of Churchill play in their last high school football game, the one for the Maryland Class AA state championship, the one they will hold on to forever.
DeSantis' team, the Blue Devils, scored its points in the first half and won, 10-0. When it was over, Springbrook Coach Bob Milloy found himself sitting on the shoulders of some of his players, struggling to keep his balance as they marched him across the muddy field. He might have given the crowd a pair of clenched fists and shouted something above the thunder of rain on the aluminum seats. But Milloy knows that coaching with dignity is a lot like trying to make a deep dive into a shallow pool. There is never enough cushion to soften the fall. And win or lose, there is always the fall.
He would thank his people and thank his wife, the mother of their three young children. Some things are given for no reason, some things taken away. He had won. He could go home now.
But who among them could understand what they had just completed? Before the game, Tom Johnson said he would carry two words into the contest: no regrets. In the end, he stood a long time on the tartan track, holding his face up against the night. His eyes were open to the steady drizzle, and he seemed reluctant to leave. Had he the power, Johnson might have called back both sides and played out one last series of downs before an empty stadium. And who would have won this time? There was no question who would have won.
He was a great, great player, his coach, Fred Shepherd, had said earlier in the week. And Johnson had prepared his own celebration a thousand nights before this one. But now he saw something quite different played out in front of him. All along, he had said he did not want to leave anything unfinished. He wanted to leave nothing undone. But it was, it all was. And there wasn't a thing he could do about it.
Timmy DeSantis had also enjoyed his own private vision of what winning "states" would be and feel like. He didn't even know Tom Johnson, although the two had competed against each other several times before and owned dreams that were not entirely different. Churchill had been Springbrook's biggest rival over the past 15 years and had beaten the Blue Devils, 10-9, in the last regular-season game of the year.
DeSantis and Johnson. They were just two good boys who liked to think of themselves as men and who believed their greatest burden was bearing up to separate but identical traditions of school pride and promise. This game had brought them together, yet held them apart. It was only high school football, but how could anything be so big?
Tom Johnson once thought he might be big enough to play college football.
That was back before August three-a-days at Churchill, before he lost more than 20 pounds and eased into his regular playing weight of 170. When Coach Shepherd began writing letters for those senior players interested in playing college ball, he asked for their academic records. Johnson, an offensive tackle, never bothered putting his together.
He started telling people he planned to attend Bucknell University in Pennsylvania after graduation. As far as playing went, he knew his limitations. He would study business management.
All decked out in his gear before the Springbrook game, with his arms and hands taped and covered with pads, and his jersey splattered with flakes of grass and mud, Tom Johnson looked less menacing than overdressed. As a rule, Shepherd never publishes the size of his players in the souvenir program because he figures the opposing team sees only the four or five big guys and disregards the remaining 58. Shepherd said doing this can put his team a touchdown or two ahead before the game starts. And Johnson, who was never one to second-guess the coach, always knew this to be true.
It was not uncommon for Johnson to play football in his sleep the week before a big game, and to dream about it so vividly that he would wake with the taste of bloo works and works and works and works. He's a yes-sir and no-sir kind of guy. He can take on a person bigger and better than him and wear him down and beat him. And all because he's got a heart."
Tom Johnson used to be superstitious, at least a little. He thought it would bring him good luck to wear his old junior varsity practice jersey under his shoulder pads. But he changed his mind when he became a senior. He changed his mind about a lot of things when he became a senior.
"I decided that since I wouldn't have the chance to play anymore," Johnson said, "I would take nothing for granted. I want to leave the field knowing I did everything I could. I want to come away and look back on it and know that I contributed."
One day, somebody told Timmy DeSantis last week, he will take off his letter jacket and send it off to the dry cleaners. It will come back in a plastic bag, and he will see it stuffed into the corner of a closet at home. Twenty-five years down the road, he will pull it out and smell moth balls and wipe the dust off the plastic bag. Then he will put it on and discover that it doesn't fit anymore. The jacket will be the same. But he won't. Timmy DeSantis will have grown into Timothy DeSantis. And he'll stop to figure that this is how time works.
"People say things you do in high school stay with you the rest of your life," DeSantis said. "And I know that's got to be true. I can remember every play of the Seneca and Churchill games, the two we lost. I can tell you about the cuts on my hands and the bruises. I know about the little twitch in my leg. The other day Greg Burkhardt called to talk to my brother, and I answered the phone. He'd played for Springbrook last year. 'Tim,' he said, 'I'd give my left leg to be able to play in the states. You don't know how lucky you are.' "
Last winter, DeSantis trained when there was snow on the ground. He and one of his buddies had run in the rain, too, and worked out at the Nautilus place and at school. Once or twice, somebody had asked him why he was killing himself when the season was eight months away, and he had said, "Don't you know? That's football."
When he first got into high school, Timmy DeSantis joined the Springbrook ROTC because, he said, "discipline is the way I like things." And he never much minded the work football demanded. He believed that with sacrifice came a million possibilities, and he fashioned his reputation among his friends by giving up everything for the greater good of the team. He was an offensive lineman, and he knew what that meant. It meant that your picture in the school year book showed a boy of only 165 pounds sitting on the end of the bench with a towel draped over his head and a stream of blood leaking from his right nostril.
Before the game, DeSantis went down on one knee in the locker room, not far from the door. It was a small room crowded with red cage lockers and a maze of water pipes crossing the ceiling. When the idle chatter started, DeSantis kept quiet. He would save it for later. The guys were carrying on in their own little language. It sounded like a bunch of dogs barking and made no sense unless this was the last football game you would ever play.
Then Coach Milloy came in. He always said something before the games, and DeSantis knew he never lied, never shaded the truth. Why is it you always feel like laughing and crying when looking at the end of something? Why can't a good thing go on forever?
"Somehow or other we got here," Milloy was saying with a strong, hard voice. "I've said all I can say. During the course of the year, we've been as high as you can be and as low as you can be . . . You've seen it all. And it's all even now. Everything is."
The coach pointed to the open door and the night and the field beyond. "We ain't losing tonight!" he shouted and kicked off the roar. "We ain't losing tonight! We ain't losing tonight!"