Reality hit quarterback RichardMounce during pregame warmups.
It punched linebackerMalcolm Wilson in the gutduring halftime.
On Oct. 25, Blythewood’sseason was finished, withouthope for parole.
Tears streamed down players’ faces. Theyhugged and slapped high-five and said goodbye.Blythewood, which defeated Eau Claire36-6 to finish the regular season 10-0, had beenperfect. Off-field events made the Bengals’season imperfect ... and cost them the chanceto defend their Class 3A championship.
“We always knew it was coming,” Wilsonsaid of the final game. “It was always in theback of our heads. But at halftime, everybodywas like, ‘We’ve still got to win this game.We’ve still got to beat these guys. We’ve got toget that last one out of the way.’ And after that,that’s it. It’s over.”
Blythewood’s season is over because playerspracticed in full pads in May, before SouthCarolina High School League rules allow. TheBengals were placed on probation, which eliminatedthem from playoff consideration.
In late July, players participated in a fullcontactpractice, before such practices are allowed.
Some believe the violations were honest mistakesmade by first-year coach Reggie Shaw. Some claimignorance. Others, including some players, say theyknew what they were doing was wrong — but didit anyway because coaches instructed them to.
Shaw resigned in August, sixmonths after he replaced formercoach Jeff Scott and nine monthsafter the Bengals won the Class 3Achampionship in their first seasonof varsity play. Some players’ trustin coaches was tarnished amid thecontroversy: the violations, mediascrutiny, unsuccessful appeals,Shaw’s resignation and thecobbled-together staff thatreplaced Shaw, and that adefending state champion thatgoes unbeaten has no chance todefend its title. So they played forpride.
“We had the choice to bow ourheads and keep worrying abouttroubles and the past,” juniordefensive end Justin Andersonsaid. “But we were like, ‘Nah.We’re just going to go ahead andgo 10-and-oh.’”
When the final game wasfinished, players came to termswith all they had experienced.
They endured a season of disappointments.They endured fivemonths of ultimate irrelevance.
They endured one final weekknowing the countdown hadnearly expired — and their seasonwas ticking away.
MONDAY, OCT. 22 | FOUR DAYS TO PLAY
Players spent the weekendrelaxing and reflecting. The Fridaybefore was senior night at Richland2 Stadium. Twenty-four players were introduced, many withtheir parents, before kickoffagainst Lugoff-Elgin. Some playerssmiled. Some cried. ReceiverCharles Wright told his father,Charles Sr., he would score onBlythewood’s first play. He did, ona 79-yard reception.
Four touchdowns and 37minutes later, Blythewood won37-22, and seniors slapped handswith fans a final time.
On Monday, it is back to work.Players and coaches hit the practicefield after school. They cramtheir heads into helmets and pullon shoulder pads and jerseys.Then they block and tackle andrun until their tongues go dry.
About an hour after practice,Charles Wright and twin brotherChris play video games and thinkabout their final game, the followingThursday.
“All this work, we’ve got to havesomething to look forward to,”Charles Wright says. “We don’t haveany rewards. Coach (interim coachGeremy Saitz) says he’s going to getus something at the end of the yearfor all our hard work or whatnot. Hehasn’t told us what that is.”
Part of players’ reward is wearingnew road uniforms Thursday.
They are white with dark blue trimand were purchased in 2005, whenBlythewood had only a JV team.
The school did not order enough,so they sat in storage while playerswore old uniforms. Keepingthem in storage is a disappointmentcoaches will not stack ontothe pile.
“The seniors have been lookingat them for three years,” assistantcoach Ryan Johnson says.“They’ve always wanted to wearthem.”
The Wright twins spend part ofMonday evening discussing whatwent wrong in May and August.
They discuss their reasons forworking hard. They use words like“fun” and “pride.” Then ChrisWright uses a word not often usedto describe the end of a seniorseason: “relief.”
“We won’t have to worry aboutit anymore,” Chris says. “It wouldbe nice to go (to the playoffs), butyou can’t change their minds. I justhad a good little hope that we wouldgo back to the playoffs. When wewere denied, it was just somethingI didn’t have to worry aboutanymore. It’s sad, but that’s it.”
TUESDAY, OCT. 23 | THREE DAYS TO PLAY
Athletics director Vince Lowrytold them to speak from the heart.It was eight days earlier, the daysix Blythewood players appealedtheir probation a second time.
Players stood before the SCHSLexecutive committee Oct. 15 andpresented reasons the school’spunishment should be overturned.
Each player spoke to the16-member committee. QuarterbackMounce said he believedplayers were being punishedunfairly. He said players deserveda chance to defend their championship.
After the 50-minute presentation,which also included remarksfrom Lowry, principal Keith Price and Richland 2 superintendentSteve Hefner, committee membersprivately discussed the appeal for45 minutes. They returned, facedBlythewood’s representatives andraised their hands to show howthey voted.
Back at the school, senior linebackerRoss Kistler was at lunchwhen his cellphone displayed atext message. It came from teammateKevin Keith, who was amongthe players at the appeal. Kistlerread Keith’s message. It was ashort one, but it summed up theendgame of Blythewood’s last hope.
“No,” the message stated.
Kistler responded to themessage and asked what hadhappened. Moments later, Keithsent another text message.“11-5.”
That was the vote of the executivecommittee. Nearly threemonths earlier, the committeedenied a Blythewood appeal by a7-6 vote. That one was close. Thisone was a landslide. Regardless,the decision had been made andupheld: The Bengals were bannedfrom the playoffs.
Kistler read the second textmessage and finished his lunch.Practice began in about four hours.They were practicing for two finalgames ... but nothing else. Insteadof Blythewood’s season beingdecided in a loud stadium alongsidefriends and teammates, 16strangers decided it in a quiet room.
“At first, it was hard to believe,”Kistler says. “I was kind of angry.I don’t know. Not really at myselfor anybody else, but just howthings had turned out for oursenior season. It was hard to goout there and practice.”
A week later, when Oct. 23begins, there is something different.
It is bittersweet. It is final.Hope has been deflated, but so hasthe team’s uncertainty. Playerspractice on this day. No player quitafter the second appeal wasdenied.
WEDNESDAY, OCT. 24 | TWO DAYS TO PLAY
The countdown is nearing itsend. Today is Blythewood’s finalpractice, but it is pouring rain.Weather forces the Bengals inside,where they watch film andperform a walk-though. Theylisten as coaches give instructions,same as always.
They listened May 10, the daycoaches instructed players to dressin full pads. They listened in lateJuly, when coaches told them practicewould be full contact. Carryingout both sets of instructionsviolated SCHSL rules. On Aug. 2,less than a week after the secondviolation, Shaw resigned. In thenearly three months since, Shawhas become one of the Midlands’sports villains. Some fans andparents and players blame him.Radio hosts and message-boardposters have blasted him.
The fifth rule on the first pageof the 2007-08 SCHSL handbook’sfootball section is titled “PracticeInformation,” which outlines datesand regulations regarding practices.Shaw, an 11-year SouthCarolina coaching veteran, hassaid he did not realize the teamhad broken rules.
One Blythewood assistantcoach said a member of Shaw’sstaff called the SCHSL in May andleft a message to ask whetherpracticing in pads was allowed.
The coach, who did not want to beidentified, said no one from theSCHSL responded.
SCHSL commissioner JeromeSingleton said this week he isdubious of that claim.
“Anytime we get a call from aschool, we return a call,” Singletonsaid. “Not normally — anytimewe get a call. Maybe he’s justthrowing something out there.”
Still, some Blythewood playersand coaches believe Shaw madean honest mistake . . . both times.Mounce, who will play in nextmonth’s Shrine Bowl, said he doesnot blame Shaw.
“It was unfortunate, but I knowit wasn’t purposely done by coachShaw,” Mounce says.
Bengals offensive coordinatorEric Wilson, who says he maintainsa friendship with Shaw, saysthe violations were unintentional.
He says Blythewood players arenot the only ones who suffered asa result of Shaw’s mistakes.
“This thing has been extremelyhard on him,” Wilson says. “Everyonewants to vilify him. But it killshim every day with what happenedto those kids. I still talk to him, andit breaks him in half.”
Attempts to reach Shaw, nowthe strength coach and assistantathletics director at Ben Lippen,were unsuccessful.
Still, some Blythewood playersblame Shaw for Blythewood’sabbreviated season. Some will notmention Shaw’s name becausethey prefer to avoid negativity.
Some are angry Shaw’s new teammade the SCISA playoffs.
At least one player said theMay rules violation was not a caseof ignorance. Charles Wright saysseveral players were injured, socoaches suggested they wear pads.Asked whether players knew theywere breaking rules, Wright says,“sort of, kind of.”
“We knew it was wrong, but itwas like, we were doing it to, like,protect players,” Wright says. “Alot of us were getting hurt duringspring practice. He (Shaw) said,‘Put pads on.’
“I think it was (the right call).A lot of people think it’s not. Allwe did was listen to what coachwas saying, and we got punished.He went to a different school orwhatnot and doing what he had todo, and we still had to deal withthe punishments.”
Charles Wright’s brotheragrees.
“You can’t say nothing oryou’re going to be kicked off (theteam) or something,” Chris Wrightsays. “We just do what the coachtells us to do. It ruined our wholeseason just because of somebodywho made a decision.
“I feel like we got cheated.We’re getting held up for a decisionhe made. He went on to adifferent school and went to theplayoffs. I don’t think that’s all thatfair.”
THURSDAY, OCT. 25 | FINAL DAY TO PLAY
Before kickoff, players gathernear a goal post at BoldenStadium, a facility Eau Claireshares with other Richland 1 schools, and slap one another onthe shoulder pads and prepare fortheir final game.
Three years ago, Blythewoodwas an offspring of Ridge Viewand Spring Valley. Those schoolshad become overcrowded, and anadditional school in NortheastRichland was necessary. Playerszoned for the new school bondedimmediately, and football was theirchance to show off. After a yearon the junior-varsity circuit,Blythewood became the first SouthCarolina school to win a footballstate championship in its firstvarsity season.
Now, here they were, preparingto say goodbye. But first, somework remained.
The Bengals dominate EauClaire, which entered with a 2-7record, hardly a challenge to ateam that had won 23 consecutivegames. By the fourth quarter, thescore no longer is reason forconcern. Some players celebrate,and some prepare goodbyes. Someplayers stand silent on the sideline,and some jump and dance as if theplayoffs and championships layahead.
Assistant coach Tim Garifalonhugs senior linebacker Wilson, andthe coach walks away to cry alone.Two players dump a cooler’s icycontents onto Saitz, who gives asubdued smile.
The clock expires, and so dothe careers of Blythewood’s 24seniors. Some will play in college.
Some will never touch a footballagain. Mounce, who said a nightearlier that Blythewood’s finalgame would not be “that big of adeal,” cannot hold back tears asSaitz finishes his postgame speech.
“It kind of hit me before thegame; I was just looking out oneverything,” Mounce says. “I waslike, ‘Dang, we’re not going to playtogether again.’ With time runningout, it just hits you, that you’re notgoing to play again.”
A group of seniors gathers atthe 40-yard line and huddles afinal time. Linebacker Chris Colemanlifts a hand and touches eachplayer’s head.
“I’m touching greatness,” hesays. “I won’t wash my hand afterthis. I just touched greatness.”
Then the seniors disperse.
Some smile as children run ontothe field. Some watch as underclassmenthrow footballs back andforth. Some have trouble leaving.
“We’re a family on and off thefield. This is very hard time, veryhard to say goodbye,” Wilson says.“We love football so much aroundhere. Nothing can keep our footballspirit down. Even if this wasthe last game of the playoffs, thestate championship game, youwere going to see this.
“We could’ve gone the otherway. But we chose not to. We keptlifting weights, we kept goingstrong, we kept practicing. Nothingwas going to keep us down.We were going to play these 10games, because that’s all they gaveus, and we were going to win themall.”
Wilson stops and looks aroundthe field.
“This is an emotional game,” hesays. “It’s the last field I’ll ever playhigh school football on.”
Then he picks up his helmet bythe facemask and walks away. ForWilson and 23 other seniors, thecountdown has expired. Blythewood’scontroversial season is finished, even if it is incomplete.