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In 1964, St. Stephen’s led Landon by one run in the bottom of the last inning with the Interstate Athletic Conference baseball championship at stake. With one out, Landon loaded the bases. The next batter hit a ground ball to third base.

The St. Stephen's third baseman had a choice. Take the easy forceout at home plate or try to start a quick around-the-horn game- ending championship-winning double play. He picked the latter. But, in a split second of haste to get the throw started toward second base, he forgot to catch the ball. The grounder went through his legs untouched. Two runs scored. Landon won.

And we lost. Or rather I lost, since I was the 16-year-old third baseman. It was that rare situation where one person, faced with a routine play, botches it and turns his team's championship into defeat. On the long bus ride back to school, my only goal was not to cry from shame, anger. Not in front of the seniors.

In 40 years, I’ve remembered that play countless times. But the memory never returned more strongly than when reading about Good Counsel quarterback Reggie Gooch, who turned the wrong way last Sunday and pitched the football to nobody, costing his team an undefeated season and the No. 1 ranking in the Washington area.

One instant, it looked like Gooch’s team would score in the last two minutes to beat DeMatha, win its league title and clinch the area’s top ranking. At worst, from the four-yard line, Good Counsel could tie it at 30 with a short field goal.

But on second down, as 10 teammates ran to their left, Gooch inexplicably turned right and pitched the ball backward to a teammate who wasn’t there. He heard the option play correctly: “19 Lead.” But somehow it flipped in his head from left to right.

“I wish we could go back in time," Gooch said yesterday. “I wish my arm was 10 inches longer. I could pull the ball back. I wish [tailback] Jerron [Pearson] had seen me go the wrong way and tackled me.”

But time is a one-way street and sometimes a mean one. DeMatha recovered the fumble, ran out some clock, took a safety and won, 30- 29. “Things happen," said DeMatha’s coach, “that are unexplainable.”

“I just thought ‘right.’ I don’t know why," Gooch said. “Wow, I’m supposed to be the smart kid, the leader, the one who understands” the game.

And, though he may doubt it now, he is.

The 5-foot-61/2 Gooch is so small and his crouch so exaggerated that, when he takes the snap his face mask sits on his center’s butt, he seems to look up at the sky and his own rear end almost touches the ground. In a league of giants, many bound for college powerhouses, he is outweighed by 100 pounds at times. Yet the 18-year-old is a tiny star. Which made his blunder more excruciating.

For those at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, the sight of Gooch after his fumble was more heartbreaking than the play itself. Leaving the field, the slender Gooch, who had thrown two touchdown passes in the game and run 38 yards for another score, collapsed in front of the Good Counsel stands, lying face down in the dirt unmoving for several minutes.

“My body was so in shock. I couldn’t even control myself,” Gooch said. “I’ve always been the little guy that people said couldn’t do it. And I’ve always had to prove them wrong.”

Adding pressure, though he may not have known it at the time, was the memory of the death of his father a year ago. “Just before that play, I thought, ‘Come on, Dad, push us through this,’ ” Gooch said.

As he lay on the ground, Gooch’s favorite assistant coach implored him to get up. “You listened to me all season. Listen to me now. Get up and shake the DeMatha players’ hands,” Kirk Davis said. But Gooch couldn’t.

“I could barely hear, like he was far away,” Gooch said. “I felt like I disappointed him. But it just went in one ear and out the other. I couldn’t get up.”

You’ve heard of players being “picked up” by a teammate. That’s what Good Counsel’s Deege Galt did, carrying Gooch to the locker room, slung over his back like a dead-weight sack. Later, when the team left for its bus, a huge assistant coach carried Gooch on his shoulder, still prostrate like a puppet without strings.

Most of sport is not conducted on TV. It is intensely local — full of hope, but laced with the intense fear of failure since friends, family and entire communities are in the crowd. The Good Counsel-DeMatha game drew 12,500 fans. “It was a game for the ages,” said one coach. Memories born in such an emotional stew last a lifetime.

“I tell the players they’ll still remember plays in 20, 30, 40 years," Good Counsel Coach Bob Milloy said. He’s correct.

At such moments, after games, not in them, and in the worst defeats, not the best victories, coaches prove their true quality. For Milloy, 61, such a career-capping win would have meant so much that, he jokes, “they could just have stopped the team bus and dropped me off at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery on the way home."

Instead, Milloy threw a lasagna and sub postgame party at his house for the team. “It was like a friggin’ wake. But I’m really glad we did it," Milloy said. “Everybody came, all the parents, too.”

Players and families brought Gooch food and drinks, never letting him get his own.

“They kept telling me, ‘Everybody makes mistakes. . . . We couldn’t have gotten here without you.’ It really helped. They picked me up," said Gooch. "My mother said, ‘You have a lot of football left in you [in college]. Dad is proud of you right now.’ ”

Back at school early this week, e-mails and letters about the freak play stunned Milloy and Gooch. An alumnus, who owns a construction company, wrote to Gooch saying, “Something good will come of this. A lesson will be learned that will be helpful some day."

The father of the DeMatha center sent a handwritten note saying that, by the end, he was almost rooting for Good Counsel. “I got a letter from a man I wouldn’t recognize if he walked right past me," Gooch said.

By Tuesday, Milloy told Gooch, “It’s over with.” But of course it’s not.

“I try to get around my friends so I won’t think about it," Gooch said. “But I do. It pops into my head.”

And it probably will, occasionally, for the next 40 years. Next time you wonder how narrow the line is between victory and defeat, and how easy it is for athletes at any level to look foolish, remember Reggie Gooch. The dignity is in the risk they take, not the mistakes they make.