MORE from our HomeTeam writers.
The once proud and formerly undefeated Largo football team, with the finest players in all of Pinellas County, stumbled out of the locker room Friday night like zombies.
Their heads were down. They carried pizzas, but weren’t going to be able to eat them Friday, that was for sure.
Maybe the next day. Maybe not.
Inside, Largo coach Rick Rodriguez didn’t have the words to explain the toughest loss of his career.
Do those words even exist?
Dropped passes on third down.
And with just seconds remaining, a miracle — a hook and lateral play so perfectly drawn up, so wide open, that of course the perfect pitch to the trailing Packer, and what was almost sure to be a touchdown, was dropped.
On this night, of course it was.
A 10-6 loss to Armwood that some called the biggest game in school history, the first loss after 10 straight victories, the first interceptions of the season will all linger for Largo.
What was there to explain, really?
“Seven turnovers,” Rodriguez said, and he shrugged.
He stood in the middle of his locker room, waiting for the last of his Packers to head out. He tipped his hat back, ran his fingers over his forehead and faked a smile.
Linebacker Harry Brown handed him a shirt. Rodriguez told him he could keep it. And Brown slipped away, to another room a few feet away and started wailing.
It was the sound of a wounded man who had played with his teammates since he was a little boy, the same guys through little league and high school.
This was to be their moment.
And now, that moment was over.
The walls shook as Brown continued to wail, loud and long.
Rodriguez tried to talk over it, his lips moving but his ears still hearing.
The whites of his eyes turned pink, and he kept taking to a reporter, who had long ago put away his notebook. His eyes turned red, and you could see his jaw go to steel.
Nearby, one of the parents helping clean up pinched the bridge of his nose to force back the tears, but Brown’s anguish pushed the wetness down his cheeks.
The sound cascaded down over the locker room and that said everything Rodriguez could not.
“This is the hardest part of being a coach,” he said, looking back to where the pain was coming from. “The hardest part.”
Rodriguez, with his best bet to win a state championship — and the first ever for Pinellas County — now gone, walked into his office and slumped into a chair.
Meanwhile, buses of happy Hawks pulled out of the parking lot and headed back to Seffner.
Quarterback Alvin Bailey didn’t pass the ball around very well against a stout Largo defense, but he was excellent at passing around praise to his teammates.
Defensive end Byron Cowart grinned as he talked about the great effort of the Hawk defense, about how hard it was to chase down Largo quarterback Juwan Brown.
“But we got him,” he said.
And running back Ronnie Cohen was bursting with pride after delivering some of the game’s biggest runs. He waved his hand to show the dislocated finger he played with the entire second half.
Armwood coach Sean Callahan was pleased.
But he is no stranger to pain. He has nursed his share of broken-hearted players, hugged them as they sobbed into his shoulder.
He looked across the field and knew that’s what was happening in the Largo locker room.
“I feel for those kids,” he said, familiar with the story about how long they have been together.
He said if he hadn’t had to play them, they would be the kind of team he would have enjoyed rooting for.
As I walked from the Packers’ now-empty stadium, past half a discarded pepperoni, I thought that was a pretty nice thing for Callahan to say, and maybe those words will make the Packers feel better today.
If anything can.
John C. Cotey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.