The pass was caught. The ball was placed. The orange first down marker was just a few feet away.
Then, the strangest thing happened.
Nothing but seconds ticking off a clock, off a season, off a career, until there was nothing but zeros and rage and joy and confusion.
Robinson’s last gasp to pull off a drive for the ages fell unceremoniously short Friday night in a 24-20 loss to Tallahassee Godby.
Was it a foot short? Inches short? The width of a credit card short? Or was it short at all?
We will never know.
But the score is final.
And it is over.
• • •
I’m not going to bash the referees, though they probably deserve it for at least not measuring the ball or taking a second to check it out.
This was, after all, kind of a big deal, a Class 5A state semifinal.
And two teams had battled for 48 minutes in a terrific, tight game.
The moment, with five seconds remaining, warranted, well, a moment.
At a nearby McDonald’s, workers gathered with customers coming from the game, and here’s how the story will be told, today, tomorrow, next week: The Knights were cheated, did ya hear?
The Knights, who finished 12-2 in a heroic season, were the last team standing in Tampa Bay.
Plant’s Robert Weiner, Armwood’s Sean Callahan and former Jefferson coach Mike Fenton were all there Friday night: eight state championships between them.
How big was this game, this moment? The Armwood and Plant coaches ate a pregame dinner together — at the same table, I hear!
They were there to cheer DePue’s coming initiation into the state championship club. After all, considering he just happened to be retiring with the best team he’s ever had, it only seemed natural.
It was destiny.
And then it wasn’t.
The Knights couldn’t hold off a very big, very fast, very talented Godby team in the second half.
They had one last chance, and Zain Gilmore worked the ball downfield with passes to Martin Ruiz and Jahrvis Davenport, until the last one was caught a foot or an inch just short, or just past the first-down marker.
We will never know.
• • •
This we do know: there was rage.
DePue’s career was over, and his face turned red and he said many things to the refs he probably wishes he hadn’t.
Or, knowing DePue, maybe he meant it all.
Okay, he definitely did.
His players exploded in anger, the only way teenagers know, by screaming and yelling and crying and chasing the guys who caused the pain.
Then things settled down, and the sadness settled in.
“We’re going to do this right,” DePue told his team, when it eventually huddled for a final time, as Godby cheered a few yards away.
“We’ve come too far not to do this right.”
He made his players look up. He told them he was proud, and that he was no longer their coach, but their friend.
His words will mean something, one day.
• • •
John Taylor cried an angry cry as he gathered with his fellow seniors in an annual Robinson tradition, to say goodbye to their coach and walk off the field one last time to applause from the cheerleaders and fans.
It’s never been quite this painful.
But it’s tradition, and one that DePue is damn proud of.
When the coach motioned for Taylor, he didn’t want to come.
“All that work,” he howled.
“And a lot more work to do,” DePue told him, then pulled him in, absorbing his sobs.
This went on for five minutes, senior after senior, tears followed by more tears.
DePue smiled for Nahshon Simmons, the biggest boy out there, and let out a chuckle as if sharing a private joke that only the coach and player knew.
He squeezed Bruce Hector close, cradled Demetrius Page’s head, looked right in Carlos Duclos’ wet eyes.
DePue’s eyes were red and puffy, and he smiled through it.
This is how I’ll remember the guy, that ponytail, the Fu Manchu, the swollen red eyes.
Then the players picked up the coach and carried him off the field. When they set him down, he kissed his girlfriend, said a few more good-byes, let out a deep breath, and said to no one in particular:
“I’m done. I’m retired.”
The score was final.
And it was over.
John C. Cotey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JohnnyHomeTeam.