It is just after 7 a.m. on Aug. 9, and the only sound at Quince Orchard High School is cars rumbling by on Darnestown Road. A white moon, which was full the night before, rests in a cloudless blue sky. The Cougar Dome field is coated in dew from a passing storm and still untouched by the spikes of cleats and expectation.
Soon, cars roll into the parking lot, and out come the players, one after another, rubbing the sleep out of their eyes, carrying equipment and the anticipation of a new season. Quince Orchard Coach John Kelley, fresh off a three-mile morning run, surveys the group of boys in the school’s band room. Senior quarterback Doc Bonner, sitting front and center, cracks jokes while scrolling through his iPhone. Two players are one minute late and need to do 50 up-downs as their teammates laugh and count out each one.
It’s the first official day of practice but feels more like a reunion of lifelong friends. Friends who got fresh haircuts only to have their heads covered by shined, unscratched helmets. Friends who are about to spend four months together and will be forever linked by this point of their lives.
“All right, listen up,” Kelley says, and 55 pairs of eyes meet his.
As another high school season begins around the country, football is both a unifying sport and a mirror for a divided nation. Participation is declining at the youth and high school levels. New head-injury studies raise skepticism about the game’s long-term health effects. The sport will once again become a political battleground as the fall unfolds, no longer a relied-upon refuge from debates over policy and patriotism and peaceful protest.
But football remains stitched into Quince Orchard, a public school that draws students from an area stretching across Gaithersburg and North Potomac in Montgomery County, Md. The school was built in 1988, and the area, once filled with rolling farmland and abandoned mansions, has since evolved into a suburb of Washington, with chain restaurants and a mix of housing communities. So much has changed, yet football hasn’t. Not here. The kids keep trying out. The bleachers always fill on Friday nights. The coming season will show the sport’s pull, its problems and why it has stuck around in this community, as something for players, coaches, parents and fans to grip onto, connecting the past to the present, and the present to an unclear future.
“Football will always be football,” Coach Kelley said. “It means too much to too many people to ever go away.”
The first practice of the season ends just after 5:30 p.m., with the players dragging their bodies through a round of half-field sprints. Their faces are red. Their breaths are heavy and heard. Before they go inside to peel off their sweat-drenched clothes, Doc Bonner steps into the huddle and looks at his teammates.
“If you’re not giving effort, why are you here?” he screams, eyes lit up, voice and body shaking. It is a question they will all confront in the coming months. Why? Why will all of them, the sons of doctors and soldiers and gardeners, white, black, Hispanic and Asian, come here every day to chase victories that can only define them for so long? Some of them have dreamed of wearing this uniform since they were kids. Some have nothing better to do. The game gives all of the boys a chance at something as they grapple with pressure, plot their futures and try to figure out a world adults have not been able to.
“If you don’t want this, go home now!” Doc yells. “This is your team! You sweat for your teammates. You die for your teammates. These are your brothers, man!”
They inch closer, raise their fists in the air. Doc counts to three, and they all yell, “Family!”
“I only have one more shot at this,” Doc says to himself, quietly, after breaking from the huddle and leading his team into the school. And as they limp toward the locker room, a countdown clock on the wall ticks toward their first game against Bethesda-Chevy Chase: 23 days, 56 minutes, 16 seconds . . . 15 . . . 14 . . . 13 . . .
More than a quarter-century of football brings John Kelley to his long, skinny office off the school’s lobby, legs stretched out, fan blasting in his face on a humid August afternoon, nine days before his fourth season opener as the Cougars’ head coach. The 36-year-old would probably sleep here, on the worn leather couch, if it weren’t for his wife and three kids waiting at home around the corner, just a Hail Mary pass from the practice field. He is, after all, the coach who held scout-team film sessions when he was a student assistant at Maryland. His tan Toyota Sequoia is a laundromat on wheels, filled with shirts and pants and visors, all black and red and white. He could spend hours talking about old football scores, some settled and others that will nag at him forever.
In the 1998 state final, a 7-6 win delivered back-to-back titles while he was playing at nearby Seneca Valley: “We blocked the extra point.”
In the 2011 state final, Old Mill’s two-point conversion sunk Quince Orchard in overtime: “There was holding.”
In the 2012 state final, a jump ball in the end zone pushed Wise past the Cougars: “We were winning the whole game.”
And last year it was a 42-7 state championship loss to Wise, a football power from Prince George’s County, a game Kelley only talks about through a pained smile. But his eyes widen as memories pour out of his mouth. He leans forward in the small folding chair. He taps both feet against the floor. The analog clock above his head is frozen, the hands stuck on 11:43.
Then he stops and sighs.
“Ten years, it’s been a while,” he says, nodding to the last time Quince Orchard won a state title. But Kelley is 32-6 in his first three seasons as head coach. He is sometimes criticized for having players who transfer to Quince Orchard, as moving to attend a different public school for athletic purposes is a discouraged practice. But he is never charged with not caring enough.
He regularly cuts the Cougar Dome grass himself, folding the wiry frame of a former Division I college defensive end, thinned by time, onto the school’s rusting riding lawn mower. He helped start a youth football program in North Potomac he hopes will feed into his team one day. Quince Orchard’s participation is steady, even rising some years, as many high schools across the country confront declining numbers.
“The funny thing is,” Kelley, who also teaches at Quince Orchard, tells his team during one practice, “once you leave high school football, it’s not the same. High school football is different. It’s grass roots, down to the bottom. The community, everything. Everyone loves you. You put on that Quince Orchard jersey, that means something, right? You should cherish that.”
High school kids play football to make friends or stay out of trouble or, maybe, earn a college scholarship. At Quince Orchard, Kelley says, they keep coming out because the Cougars win. Period. Everything except the last game of the season, though Kelley and his staff think that may change this fall. Doc, the best quarterback in school history, is back for one more run. The offense has size and speed. The defense has an experienced front and a ball-stealing secondary. But that all remains hollow, a bunch of educated hope, with just another day of training camp ahead.
Soon Kelley snakes through the school’s hallways on his way to practice, answering questions as he goes: Did Desmond turn in his medical form? “I’ll check.” Is September 23 a good date for the coaches dinner? “Don’t see why not.” Are your guys drinking enough water? “I got it, I got it.” But he never stops moving. It is the pull of practice that gets him through each school day. It is the pull of Friday night that gets him through each week.
Once Kelley pushes through double doors and into a sun-soaked afternoon, the pep band practices for the first time. The drummers give a heartbeat to the coming season. “Here we go!” Kelley yells. “Great day to get better!” He slides on dark sunglasses and sees his players screaming in a huddle, knocking into one another. He jogs to the middle of the field and throws himself into the fray, a man ramming himself against padded teenagers in a cloud of dust, blowing his whistle repeatedly.
“When the band starts playing,” Kelley says, breathless, stumbling out of the pack, “you know it’s time for football.”
All Doc Bonner wanted was to sleep in for a few hours, but now his phone is buzzing and he is, reluctantly, half awake.
“Hello,” Doc says quietly, so his two younger brothers, sleeping in the bunk bed a few feet away, don’t wake up, too.
“Doc!” shouts Dartmouth Coach Buddy Teevens. “It’s game day. Good luck against Bethesda-Chevy Chase tonight!”
They talk for a few minutes before Doc pushes himself out of bed, starting his last, first high school game day just after 8:30 a.m. Dartmouth has been recruiting him hard. In a few hours, Army Coach Jeff Monken will wish him luck in a Twitter message. Close to 10 Division I schools are after the arm that rifles passes into tight spaces, the legs that carve up defenses, the A student. And it all makes Doc, the oldest of four kids in a family that has struggled financially, a slinging, scrambling sign of a better future.
“I want it so my parents don’t have to ever worry about money again, because it’s been hard,” Doc said. “You’re providing for your family. That’s always been the goal.”
Before he walks downstairs for breakfast, and before he runs for the first touchdown in a 55-7 blowout of Bethesda-Chevy Chase that night, Doc stares at the tattered white jersey hanging by the door of his room, the jersey emergency medical technicians scissored off his body after he was knocked out of the state championship loss to Wise last December.
With Quince Orchard trailing 35-7 toward the end of the third quarter, Doc scrambled to his left, was struck helmet-to-helmet by a Wise defender and was left motionless on the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium field in Annapolis. Coaches and trainers rushed to him. His parents, Linard and Latoya, hopped down a five-foot ledge and onto the field. Their son was blacked out for a moment and could not move his arms or legs. Doc remembers waking up to the sound of his mother, dropped to her knees in fear, crying next to him.
After about 15 minutes, they put Doc on a stretcher and raised him into an ambulance. A few blocks away a helicopter airlifted him to the Shock Trauma Center at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. He had never flown before. His family packed into their silver 2003 Ford Expedition, and Linard sped 29 miles to the hospital, their eyes tilted skyward to try to spot Doc.
He was in and out of consciousness in the helicopter and unable to say his name clearly. When his family got to the hospital, Latoya rushed to the desk and asked for Kendell Bonner.
The only patient they had on file was a John Doe.
“I was so scared at that point. It was him, but he wasn’t able to tell them his name,” Latoya recalled. “You know this stuff can happen in football, but you never think it will happen to your kid.”
He was diagnosed with a concussion and had lingering shoulder soreness that kept him out of offseason training for a month. He and his parents were grateful it wasn’t worse.
Latoya gave birth to Kendell Bonner when she was 17 years old in Edenton, N.C. Linard was also 17 and worked a number of jobs to support Latoya and their son, but Edenton offered few career opportunities. Linard and Latoya saw young men joining gangs instead of going to school. They moved to Maryland when Kendell was 4 years old, hoping for a life Edenton couldn’t provide.
That was when Latoya started having heart problems and her son never left her side. They gave him a nickname after he told Linard, “I want to be a doctor so I can make mommy feel better,” and “Doc” stuck. The Bonners hid any financial burdens from their growing family. When Doc was 6, the lights shut off because the electricity bill was late. They ate dinner in the dark and slept in the basement together, escaping the summer heat. Linard promised that would never happen again. He was working as a security guard at the time and often chose between buying his kids new clothes or having enough groceries to last a week. But he did save up to buy a $30 college-sized football that barely fit in Doc’s 7-year-old hands. Linard called it an investment.
“We never had the chance to save up for a college fund, because a lot of your life you spend paycheck to paycheck and trying to stay afloat. Doc will lift all of us because God gave him a gift, and that gift is football,” says Linard on the afternoon of the season opener, making a lunch of baked beans and turkey burgers in the kitchen of their North Potomac row home. Doc sits on the staircase around a corner, quietly listening to his dad talk about all that Doc means to the family. Linard and Latoya are not working because of medical issues, and the family lives off savings and disability checks.
A week after the Cougars beat Bethesda-Chevy Chase, they are down, 7-0, on a cool evening at Blair. Doc stalks the sidelines, screaming at his offensive line. Recruiters from Dartmouth and Towson watch him. Linard and Latoya are two rows up in the visiting stands and see their son kick over a metal chair in frustration.
“You need to listen to me! We need you!” Doc screams before taking over on the next possession. He runs for two big gains, all 6 feet and 190 pounds of him slicing deep into Blair territory, and finishes with a 16-yard rushing touchdown up the middle, Quince Orchard’s first score in a 34-7 win. He jogs back to the sideline without much celebration, grabs the chair he kicked over and sits down to catch his breath. Senior offensive tackle Mike Fierstein settles in next to him and offers a subtle fist bump. Doc taps Mike’s helmet to get his attention, and Mike turns to see two bulging eyes behind Doc’s red face mask.
“Mikey,” Doc says in a near whisper. “They can’t stop me.”
The fourth game day of the season starts before first bell, with a group of dads standing over five buckets of paint just after 7:30 a.m.
Steve Wong, backup quarterback Eric’s dad, organizes the volunteers as kids walk into school with melting Starbucks Frappuccinos. Aaron Derwin Sr., father of free safety Aaron II, begins painting white numbers beyond the hash marks. Pete Moyer, right guard Logan’s dad, pushes a sprayer across the field to create yard lines. Sheldon Feuer, who no longer has a kid on the team, mixes red and white paint. Their task each Friday morning is to turn a big rectangle of Bermuda grass into a football field.
“We’re going to be here for a while, I may need more than a half day off from work,” Wong says at about 9 a.m., rubbing his forehead while scanning the empty Cougar Dome, which is not actually a domed stadium. They do not finish for nearly three hours.
Inside the school lobby, a long line of students, all wearing red, wait to buy a $3 ticket. The Bullis game is a rare chance for the Cougars to test themselves against a prominent private school. Bullis tuition costs more than $41,000 per year, and Cougars players joke about those kids’ “big mansions” and “fancy cars.” The Quince Orchard community is economically diverse, with townhouses, sprawling apartment complexes and houses with front lawns and two-car garages. Bullis also has no restrictions on recruiting, and public schools are rarely favored against top private school teams.
The Cougars wear their jerseys in school, and the cheerleaders are in uniform by early afternoon. Principal Carole A. Working is in all red, from her glasses to her shoes. Quince Orchard has close to 2,000 students, nearly half white, about a quarter Hispanic and a few hundred black. Not all of them care much about football. But hundreds make up the Red Army student section each game, and discussion of the Bullis matchup fills the hallways. The Cougars are coming off a 63-8 win at Clarksburg and have lost four home games since Kelley took over in 2014. Only four. How could that change tonight?
“This has an important part in the culture of our school,” says Working, who became principal in 2006. “Friday nights are when we all come together. It’s a community-building tradition, and the football team is at the center of that.”
Once school lets out, Kelley wades against the sea of students pouring into the parking lot. By the front entrance, junior linebacker Johnny Hodges, junior wide receiver Brendan McGonagle and junior offensive lineman Jack Williamson lean against a concrete wall, talking to girls. Kelley walks up to them, raises his pointer finger and leans in close to say to each player, “We have a game tonight! . . . We have a game tonight! . . . We have a game tonight!”
Kelley keeps pushing through the crowd, a grin tugging at the sides of his mouth. Johnny, Brendan and Jack laugh and go back to their conversations.
“Football just takes so much time and energy, I always think today is the day I tell Coach Kelley I quit, I’m done, I want to focus on school and other stuff,” said junior left guard Mark Echiverria. “But then you get to Friday, and it’s like, how could I ever give this up? There’s nothing like Friday.”
The Cougars’ pregame routine starts with an on-field walk-through at 2:30 p.m. Next is a team meal of pasta, red sauce and Caesar salad, prepared by the same moms each week, in the cafeteria. Defensive tackle Desmond Johnson leads a team prayer during warmups. Then it’s down to the locker room, where the players pack into the tight space, turn off the lights and yell rap lyrics while their eyes adjust to the darkness. At first they cannot see a thing. Then they can make out the outline of the teammate across from them. Then, as the playlist switches from one song to the next, 55 pairs of white pupils dot a black canvas.
Then Kelley bangs on the door, the lights flick on and each player drops to one knee. Kelley kneels in the middle of his team, places his hands on the tile floor and delivers the same pregame speech ending with, “But most importantly we ask that when this game is over, each and every member of this football team can honestly say . . . .” And after a short pause the whole room yells, “That I did my best!”
The Cougars rush onto the field to “Enter Sandman,” its crawling guitar riff igniting the home crowd. But the energy is soon snatched by Bullis as the Bulldogs find a rhythm on the ground and take a 21-7 lead into halftime. The visiting crowd across the field rings small cowbells and chants, “This is our house!”
The Cougars score first in the second half. Bullis answers with a touchdown. Quince Orchard scores again, and a four-down stop by the defense sends the coaches leaping along the sideline. Now the cowbells are quiet. The Red Army stamps on the metal bleachers. Down eight, Doc scrambles all the way to his left, wheels around at the Bullis sideline and, as he moves right to mend a broken play, finds a streaking Brendan McGonagle for a 72-yard touchdown that forces thousands of fans to cheer as loud as they can. The Cougars convert a two-point conversion as Doc helicopters into the end zone to knot the score at 35. He leaps onto a metal bench, pumps his chest and screams “Let’s go! We’re not done!”
But the euphoria is soon replaced by despair. Bullis scores on its first possession of overtime. Quince Orchard, after scoring itself, lines up for a two-point conversion that ends with Doc facing pressure and throwing the ball out of the back of the end zone. The Cougars drop to their knees in tears. Some Bulldogs, overcome with emotion, do the same. The Bullis students run onto the field and dance on the red “QO” painted at the 50-yard line, and the scoreboard shows what no Cougar thought possible when the day began: Bullis 42, Quince Orchard 41.
The players filter off the field and into the arms of parents, or friends, or girlfriends, and finally into the dark of the emptying parking lot. Senior place kicker Evan Judge, mad about the field goal he missed in the game, stays in the Cougar Dome to knock 40-yarders through the uprights. Junior safety Nahiem Howell refuses to take off his pads.
And as the crowd thins, junior linebacker Aaron Green ducks into the stairwell that leads back down to the locker room. There he sits by himself, staring at his phone, shaking his head over and over at a touchdown throw he gave up in the fourth quarter. The only sound in the empty school is broom brushing against concrete, another Friday night passed by.
Once home, Doc showers before climbing into the family Expedition with his mom, dad and three younger siblings. They start a 500-mile drive to Hanover, N.H., at around midnight and arrive for Doc’s official visit to Dartmouth just after 7 a.m. Linard drives the whole way, even after Doc, dozing off in the back seat and feeling each hit he took in the Bullis game, offers to take the wheel as dawn nears and the New England mountains take shape.
The family loves the campus, especially the library with its tall glass windows and study spaces that are sandwiched between bookshelves. They watch Dartmouth beat Holy Cross in overtime at Memorial Field, and Doc is ready to verbally commit by Sunday morning. As he tells Buddy Teevens he is coming to play for the Big Green, with a swinging handshake in the hallway outside the coach’s office, Linard’s eyes start to water. He drove Doc up and down the East coast, searching for offers and opportunity, sometimes sharing a bowl of food from KFC when money was short. And now his son, a son of Edenton, is going to an Ivy League school to play quarterback and study accounting.
“It means the world to me to do this for them,” Doc said. “I feel like this is my job. To make my parents proud and then provide later if I can. They deserve it after all their hard work.”
The same night Doc and his family left for Dartmouth, President Trump stood on a stage in Huntsville, Ala., and rekindled a culture war that soon consumes football across the country. His comments about protesting NFL players come 13 months after Colin Kaepernick, one of six African American quarterbacks to start in the Super Bowl, first didn’t stand during the national anthem before a preseason game to protest police brutality and racial inequality.
The country was suddenly split on football, of all things, and the conversations surrounding demonstrations by NFL players, coaches and owners made their way to Quince Orchard. The Cougars never discuss protests as a team, and while Kelley says his office door is open if anyone feels the need to talk, no player visits. But it is discussed in quiet conversations in the hallway, over texts at night, or at practice, such as when Mike Fierstein and assistant coach Darnell Evans stood side-by-side on the edge of the field that Tuesday.
“Some things you just do,” Mike says. “And one of them is stand for the national anthem.”
“But you have to realize, this has been swept under the rug for so long, man,” says Evans, the Cougars’ defensive backs coach and one of two black varsity assistants. “I’m glad Kaep did it, because it brought awareness to it.”
“I know,” Mike answers. “Black people don’t get a fair shake, and it’s not right.”
“Think about it, Mike, segregation was not that long ago, so you have to think about the message,” Evans says. “Maybe you don’t agree with kneeling, but do you hear the message now?”
“Yeah, I understand it more,” Mike says. “And I definitely think it was a good thing that it came up. I do.”
Doc discussed these issues with his dad while growing up. Outside of Quince Orchard, he has felt discounted as a black quarterback, his leadership and throwing ability put into question before he even steps on the field. He knows the disadvantages he will face as a young black man upon entering the real world. But a debate about football, the American flag and the support, or disrespect, of veterans tugs at two sides of him. He has family members in the military and would not kneel himself. “But it’s a good thing because this country is not equal” Doc says. “It’s just reliving history again, and that’s something we need to talk about.”
In the Bonners’ basement, in a tight hallway connecting the staircase to a cozy family room, a Pan-African flag is draped inside an American flag on the wall. This, Linard says, is because the Bonners are African American and proud of both heritages. He points to each color on the flag to tell its meaning. The red panel represents the blood of slaves, the black panel is for the faces of the African people, and the green panel is for the African fields, symbolizing hope.
And that is why, when Linard spreads out the green flap, a photo of Doc is taped to it.
On the third Saturday afternoon of October, a day after Quince Orchard beat Wheaton, 43-13, to improve to 7-1, a small group of players are at Uncle Julio’s in Gaithersburg for post-practice Tex-Mex food. They talk about Friday’s win, how anime comics are low-key cool and whether it’s better to take selfies or mirror pictures with your girlfriend. They all agree selfies are way better, and they pick at the enchiladas, tacos and tortilla chips, all coated in guacamole and salt, that cover the tall wooden table.
“Yo, did you see that Wise only beat Eleanor Roosevelt 21-14 last night?” says senior defensive back Brayden Allemong, staring wide-eyed at his iPhone.
“They’re not as good as last year,” says Matt Steinwandel, who was a Quince Orchard ballboy from fourth to eighth grade and is now a junior wide receiver. “We can beat them.”
From August to December, they all spend six days a week together, in school, lifting weights, in the band room watching film and at practice into the early evenings. Sunday is often spent icing Friday night’s wounds and scrolling through Snapchat or Instagram. They constantly chat about girls, but few actually date. Sometimes a player is exclusive with a girl — talking to her, but not really together. But most of the time it’s just talk. A lot of talk.
Now the familiar mile markers of the season zoom past. Homecoming comes and goes. So does Senior Night. So do blowout wins over Kennedy and Paint Branch and Einstein and Wheaton. The players balance SAT and ACT studying with homework. For seniors, there are college applications due Nov. 1, then real-life decisions to make.
But for now there is the upcoming Northwest game, one of the biggest football rivalries in Montgomery County. Northwest is just four miles away, and many of the players went to middle school together before splitting off for ninth grade. They played on the same youth teams. They go the same parties. They like the same girls.
“I hate these dudes with a passion,” senior linebacker Tyler Terry says of Northwest, the team that knocked Quince Orchard out of the playoffs in 2013, 2014 and 2015. “I mean, they’re my friends, but not during football season. I don’t even say ‘what’s up’ if I see them.”
Four thousand people squeeze into the stands and line the track and pack the sidelines Friday. The Cougars, after falling behind 17-7 in the second quarter, methodically work ahead with rushing touchdowns by Doc and sophomore running back Marquez Cooper. Fans are still waiting in line for tickets as night falls and halftime comes and goes. Quince Orchard seals a 38-29 win on Aaron Derwin’s second interception of the game, and the senior is still holding the ball, high and tight, as the final seconds run off.
As Northwest leaves the Cougar Dome, Kelley is already telling his team that the win means nothing. They will almost definitely see Northwest again in three weeks, in the quarterfinals of the playoffs. Celebrate tonight, he tells them, then forget it by the morning.
“Three weeks from now is all that matters!” Kelley yells as the players gather for a team photo, shifting their smiles through the crowd of cameras and iPhones. “I will burn this picture! Three weeks!”
John Kelley is the last coach left at school, bundled behind his desk watching film, listening to a Brothers Osborne album on repeat as Saturday morning turns into Saturday afternoon.
Another matchup with Northwest is six days away, as the Cougars finished the regular season with a 60-21 win at Gaithersburg and sprinted past Einstein, 62-0, in the first round of the playoffs. The Cougars are 10-1, and Doc finished the regular season with 20 passing touchdowns and 11 more on the ground. Brendan McGonagle will soon set school records for receiving touchdowns and receiving yards in a season. The defense is clicking.
This is the time of year when Kelley reminds his players how special all this is. Wearing the jersey to school on game day. Running alongside childhood friends into a packed stadium. Having nothing to worry about except high school football and the next down. He doesn’t expect the boys to realize it. He never did while he played. But that’s why this matters so much to everyone else. The coaches, the parents who sit in the same seats every game, the dads who paint the field or work the grills, they are all trying to feel like they are 17 years old again, in some small way. Maybe it was football, or ballet, or playing the violin. Everyone has something they loved until life got in the way. This is how they relive that, if only for two hours a week.
“The faces change every year, it’s always a new group of players and parents and fans,” Kelley says. “But I always get to come back and see what the game means to everyone, and I think that’s why it’s still so important here.”
He soon heads home to spend the rest of Saturday with his wife and kids. Molly is 7, Brooklyn is 5 and Brady is 3, and they’re maybe realizing that daddy works a lot from August to December, that he’s on his laptop more, that the garage is filled with too many shovels and a broken treadmill, clutter he won’t clean out until the spring. “John is the same guy I knew in high school. The exact same,” wife Jill says as Kelley kicks a pink soccer ball with Molly in the front yard.
They met when Kelley was a sophomore at Seneca Valley, playing on both sides of the ball and a year away from the first of back-to-back state championships. Jill was a cheerleader in the grade below him. Now Jill brings the kids to each game, setting up a picnic blanket along the track, and the four of them cheer on the coach.
Late next Friday, coaches and parents head to Quincy’s Bar & Grille in Gaithersburg, a post-playoff-win tradition. Waiters rush Bud Light bottles and glasses of wine into the restaurant’s dining area as a cover band plays hits from the 1970s and ’80s by the bar.
They are celebrating a 31-20 victory over Northwest that pushed Quince Orchard into the state semifinals. It was also the last time this season they all gathered in the Cougar Dome. The last time the parents came early to mark their seats with old beach towels, the last time smoke drifted off the Grill Shack beyond the far side of the bleachers, the last time public address announcer Lee Faris narrated a Doc Bonner performance — “another looooong run for the Doctor” — heard through nearby neighborhoods.
And it was nearly the last game of the season, with the Cougars trailing 20-17 after three quarters, until Doc and Marquez Cooper ran for touchdowns in the fourth. Aaron Green’s second interception sealed the game. Now the parents at Quincy’s pull up directions to Waldorf, Md., where the Cougars will face a 12-0 North Point team next week. They order 50 wings, half covered in barbecue sauce and the other in Old Bay seasoning. But one person is missing as the crowd swells to 75 people.
“Here he comes, here he comes,” says Mark Steinwandel, father of wide receiver Matt. And when Kelley walks in moments later, a shy grin on his face, the whole place erupts in cheers.
Those cheers are even louder at North Point, as Quince Orchard opens up a 26-point lead in an eventual 40-21 win. After Doc catches a touchdown pass from Brendan McGonagle on a trick play, one of Doc’s five total scores in the game, the traveling Red Army chants, “We want Wise! We want Wise!” In Prince George’s County, the Pumas ran onto the field through a banner that read “Not Your Average Pumas,” after an Eleanor Roosevelt player called them “pretty average” in the lead-up to the game. Wise wins in a rout, setting up a state championship rematch.
Quince Orchard boards two school buses back to Gaithersburg, and the ride starts with laughter and celebration until players drift to sleep within 20 minutes. Quarterbacks coach Paul Belkin scribbles offensive schemes on the back of a notepad, using his iPhone for light, and offensive coordinator TJ Changuris leans across the aisle to look. Maybe, if the Cougars line up this way, the defense won’t recognize the tight end. Or maybe stacking receivers could work.
They keep rumbling up Sam Eig Highway and toward a familiar objective: Beat the team that never loses.
The first practice of the last week of the season is crammed with Wise-themed inspiration, shouted over the house music Kelley blares to prepare his team for elevated crowd noise.
Special teams coordinator Aaron Moxley: “There’s going to be a guy across from you. He’s going to be good. But he’s not Superman.”
Offensive line coach Chuck Oswald: “There isn’t a tomorrow after this one. Those guys aren’t expecting a lot from you. Show them.”
Kelley: “You are the better team, gentlemen. Start believing that.”
Wise has now won 41 straight games, back-to-back undefeated seasons with a state title at the end of each one. Senior defensive back A.J. Lytton is committed to Florida State. Junior wide receiver Isaiah Hazel has offers from Maryland and West Virginia, among other major programs. They have 300-pound players on the line, on both sides of the ball.
Quince Orchard’s roster is a bit more lean. Doc is going to Dartmouth. Tyler Terry verbally committed to Monmouth at the end of November. A handful of seniors are trying to play in Division II. But many are in their last week of football, after meeting each other at their first youth practices almost a decade ago, watching film during lunch periods, lifting all those weights. One more week. The juniors still have another year. The sophomores have two. And the freshmen, well, they have a lifetime.
“It doesn’t feel real that in just a few days it will all be over. Football will be over,” senior defensive tackle Bryan Ramos says at the end of Tuesday’s practice, staring at a field that went from green to pale yellow as the temperatures dropped. “It’s like we have two options now. Win, and you talk about it forever. Or lose, and you think about it forever.”
Doc has been waiting for this game since last December, ever since that third-quarter collision left him lying on the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium turf. Since the spring, his phone background has been a photo of the Wise player standing over him at the end of the play. On Thursday night, he hangs out on the staircase at home in front of a small sign that reads, “QO Cheer Loves Doc!” It was taped to the Bonners’ front door the day before the season, when the cheerleaders covered each senior’s front yard with shaving cream and toilet paper and Saran wrap. It has hung up inside ever since.
“If we win tomorrow, I’m going out after the game,” Doc says.
“What did you say?” Latoya, his mom, answers from the kitchen.
“I was asking for permission to go out if we win tomorrow,” Doc says with less confidence.
“I didn’t hear the asking for permission part!” Linard, his dad, cracks, and the whole family laughs.
Doc shakes his head, smiling, and walks to his room to repeat his night-before-the-game routine one final time. He fishes his white jersey off a hook above his bed and starts setting up his uniform on the folding chair by his closet, just beneath the white jersey that was cut off his body the last time the Cougars faced Wise.
The scissored-off jersey is a reminder of a loss, sure, but also of football’s dangers and how a dream, how everything, can be taken by this sport if two players collide the wrong way. Doc felt that. His parents did, too. But they accept the risks as part of the game, and Doc doesn’t believe in playing scared, even as words such as concussion and head injury and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, keeping showing up in the news. Football will be football, for one more high school game and four more seasons at Dartmouth, and Doc will have to protect himself.
The gold practice shirt, the one he’ll never wear again, is balled up on the floor at the foot of his bed. He stuffs browned white socks into his black cleats, drapes his shoulder pads over the back of the chair, balances his black helmet atop the shoulder pads and, once everything is in place, steps a yard back to get a good look.
“One more game in a Quince Orchard uniform,” he says. “That’s crazy.”
Just after 2 p.m. Friday, two coach buses follow a police escort out of Quince Orchard and, before setting down the highway to Annapolis, take a quick detour.
“You may want to open up your shades, guys,” John Kelley suggests from the front of the bus. When they do, they see students from Rachel Carson Elementary lining a long stretch of sidewalk that winds through the school’s parking lot. There are hundreds of kids, maybe some future Cougars among them, holding signs, jumping up and down, screaming encouragement.
“This is so damn cool,” Kelley says as he gives a thumbs-up to his wife’s first-grade class. Aaron Green mouths “Wow” as he pushes his nose against the window. And in the middle of the crowd is a row of 17 kids, each holding one letter of an important message: BELIEVE IN YOURSELF.
“Most guys are going to play 12 minutes, and that’s 12 minutes for the rest of your life,” Kelley barks three hours later as the team gathers in the visitors’ locker room for a pregame walk-through. “That’s 12 minutes for the next 60 years of your life. You guys have been playing football since you were 7 years old. Your parents support you, your friends, everybody in the community, you owe it to them, for those five seconds, to go as hard as you physically and mentally can.”
It all happens so fast once the game kicks off. The Cougars get a big red-zone stop on Wise’s first possession, as Aaron Green makes a diving tackle to prevent a touchdown. He injures his left arm while hitting the turf, has it wrapped in a soft cast and plays the rest of the game. Doc breaks off a 50-yard run. Quince Orchard pushes ahead on a short rushing touchdown by Marquez Cooper. Wise ties it, then scores again to take a 13-7 lead.
The Cougars score on the first possession of the second half, with Doc finding Brendan McGonagle on a crossing route, to go up 14-13. Linard Bonner, eyes wide, smile wider, embraces the students sitting next to him in the first row. Kelley and offensive coordinator TJ Changuris bump shoulders before listing instructions into their headsets, raising their voices to compete with heightening crowd noise.
The Cougars carry a 14-13 lead into the fourth quarter, and their fans go crazy. They believe. They are all 12 minutes away from Quince Orchard’s first state title in a decade. Twelve minutes for the rest of their lives.
But then the Cougars punt. Wise takes a five-point lead. The Pumas score again and again and again and Kelley gnaws on two pieces of pink Extra gum and Doc, his breath visible in the cold night air, looks at the clock on the big screen and . . . tick . . . tick . . . tick . . .
The Cougars lose, 38-20, in the final hours of the first day of December. As the Pumas celebrate their 42nd straight win, with their crowd chanting, “Three-peat! Three-peat! Three-peat!,” the Quince Orchard sideline is quiet aside from scattered sniffling. The Wise band blasts music while the Quince Orchard band packs up. Wise’s fans dance as members of the Red Army, their face paint already chipping away, fix blank stares on the field. Offensive tackle Mike Fierstein, eye black smeared by sweat and tears, can’t take his eyes off the frozen scoreboard. Green, left arm hanging at his side, walks to the stands, and his dad, Zane, leans over to kiss his son’s forehead. An X-ray later showed that his arm was broken from the first quarter on. Doc goes up to each senior teammate, shakes his hand and says, “Hey, this was fun.”
“Be proud of everything,” Kelley says, his team huddled around him one last time, as he holds the runner-up plaque. His voice is raspy and cracking, and for a moment it is drowned out by cheers from across the field. “One thing you’re always going to be is a Quince Orchard Cougar. Always.”
Just after midnight, as the bus waits to make the last left onto Quince Orchard Road, as players stir awake and crinkle snack wrappers into their pockets, the driver turns to Kelley.
“What game was it tonight?” he asks.
“It was the state championship,” Kelley responds.
“So the loser goes home?” the driver asks as the light turns green and the bus rolls into the intersection.
“Well, the winner goes home, too,” Kelley says through a faint smile. “No matter what, you go home.”
They park in front of the school, and the players file off without talking much. They trickle into the parking lot, one after another, rubbing the sleep out of their eyes, carrying equipment and the uncertainty of whatever comes after football ends. They scrape December frost off their windshields. They flick on their white headlights. The Cougar Dome is dark and empty, those lights off until next fall, and the countdown clock outside the locker room is shut down for the winter.
But in just a few months it will start ticking again. Next season isn’t too far away.
Design and development by Virginia Singarayar.