Episcopal and Woodberry Forest will meet for the 104th time on Saturday afternoon in what is believed to be the oldest high school football rivalry south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Countless returning grads from both proud Virginia prep schools will be among the 6,000 expected in Orange, Va., for this annual rite of autumn, with talk of past touchdowns and tackles dominating so many fried chicken and barbecue tailgates before the 2 p.m. kickoff.
For most of the seniors on both sides participating in a traditional matchup that is always referred to as "The Game," it likely will be the last time they put on the pads and lace up their cleats. And for the parents of many of those players, Saturdays in the fall also will never quite be the same.
Ever since the Woodberry place kicker, a lad named Taylor Shapiro, decided to make the switch from soccer to football after his freshman year, his mother Vicky and I have been regulars at his games. We've agonized over losses, exulted in victories and held our breath any time a player on either team has failed to bounce up after the occasional injury on the field.
In February, I will cover the 31st Super Bowl of my career. I've been to championship events in any number of sports over the 35 years I've been at this newspaper, including the 1980 Winter Olympic "Miracle on Ice" American victory over the Soviets in Lake Placid, N.Y. And yet, when asked what event I've enjoyed the most, I can honestly say it's an easy answer: any time my youngest child has played.
Football was the last sport I could have imagined him trying in high school. In ninth grade, he was 5 feet 6, weighed about 135 pounds and played for the freshman soccer team. I was a bit taken aback one day after soccer season had ended when he asked, "Hey dad, you think I could kick a football?"
"Let's go find out," I answered, and over his Thanksgiving break, we tried it at the closest set of goalposts -- a nearby junior high field. After a rough start, he made far more attempts than he missed in that 30-minute session. I still had my doubts, until a scrimmage at Sidwell Friends the summer before his sophomore season. That day, against a live rush, he nailed three extra points, and it looked as though Woodberry Forest had itself a new kicker.
In his first season, Taylor bonded with his holder, J.B. Wilson, a lanky wide receiver and punter from Flat Rock, N.C., with a strong leg and hands of pure gold. Over the last three years, I've seen J.B. yank high snaps out of the air, field one-hoppers from his center, and almost never fail to get the ball down in time for his kicker. Up in the stands, the Shapiros and Wilsons, Nancy and Jim Bob, have also become great friends for life.
That first year, Taylor only attempted one field goal. Well, sort of.
On this occasion, the snap was sky high. Taylor sprinted back to the loose ball, picked it up and tried to run. Well, sort of. Three players hit him from every direction, resulting in a 20-yard loss. His parents were simply thrilled that he managed to stand up.
Junior year was a pure joy, kicking for a team that was loaded offensively and lost only one game. Taylor hit several field goals and 98 percent of his extra points, and if memory serves, didn't miss against Episcopal in the season finale.
This season has been more of a struggle. Woodberry lost three of its first four games, but has come into Saturday's game on a three-game winning streak. In one of those wins, against Sidwell Friends, Taylor had to make a tackle for the first time in three years when a kickoff return man broke free and headed toward the sideline.
He flew over the ball carrier's back, grabbing his face mask and wrestling him down and out of bounds. Enough yellow flags flew to make a dining room table cloth, but Taylor was mobbed by his teammates for preventing the touchdown. Even the cheerleaders were impressed.
"That's-Our-Kick-er," they chanted rhythmically, along with the giddy students in the bleachers.
A week later came the highlight, so far, of Taylor's football career.
The game was at St. Christopher's of Richmond, the unbeaten and top-ranked team in the state private school rankings. Woodberry trailed 13-7 and faced third and 16 from its 22 late in the game -- it looked grim. But when the call came in to the huddle from bold head coach Richard Wright, I'm told there were smiles all around.
First came a pitchout from quarterback Sheldon Alexander to running back Robbie Battle, who headed toward the right side on an apparent sweep. But Robbie stopped, wheeled around and threw the ball back to his quarterback on the other side of the field. While all this was going on, J.B. Wilson was streaking downfield, wide open when Sheldon's pass hit him in full stride for a 78-yard, game-tying touchdown with five minutes left.
It got even more dramatic a few seconds later. Somehow, J.B. managed to catch his breath and get those velvet mitts on the hold, and Taylor bombed the extra point through the uprights. Woodberry 14, St. Christopher's 13. One defensive stand later, and 14-13 was the final score.
As the parent of the kicker, you always dream about your child winning a close game with his foot in the final seconds. It's happened once in three of the most enjoyable football seasons I've ever experienced. Maybe it will happen again Saturday in The Game, probably Taylor's last as a kicker, but hardly the final time he will whack a ball at an inanimate target. He's been riding horses since he was 6 and a couple of years ago, he took up polo -- the sport he hopes to play in college.
Here we go again.