SPRINGFIELD — With about six minutes left in Saturday's IHSA Class 5A football semifinal against Washington, Sacred Heart-Griffin faced first-and-goal from the 2. The Cyclones led 44-14 and were just 6 feet from hitting 50.
For four straight plays, quarterback Gabe Green mercifully took a knee.
Showing Washington the kind of compassion its community of 15,000 has felt since a tornado tore through town Sunday, Sacred Heart-Griffin coach Ken Leonard saw no reason to make the longest week of these teenagers' lives any longer. So Leonard passed up a touchdown, scoring points for sportsmanship that made an even bigger statement about his team.
"It was a classy thing to do,'' Washington coach Darrell Crouch said. "What a gesture of respect.''
On a bitterly cold day when temperatures dipped into the teens, similar signs of warmth were everywhere the Panthers looked. Sacred Heart-Griffin arranged for seven buses to transport Panthers fans for the 70-mile trip from Washington. On the way, fans from Washington's rival, Morton High School, lined Washington Road to wave good luck. Before the game, a 10-yard-wide, homemade sign in the Sacred Heart-Griffin student section proclaimed: "God Bless Washington.'' Afterward, volunteers served hundreds of Panthers parents and fans a catered dinner inside the school.
A triumphant week for the human spirit around Washington, Ill., ended with a 44-14 loss for its high school football team. But players likely will remember the love that surrounded them more than the score. Years from now, they will recall the way residents in their town rallied more than the reasons their offense didn't. They never will forget the role a football game played in helping their families and friends begin to heal.
"We wanted to win for them,'' senior running back Casey Danley said.
Alas, Washington didn't because happy endings are for movies and novels. But the collective effort illustrated what makes high school sports so important in places like Washington. Games and seasons unite towns toward a common cause and bring people of all backgrounds to the same place with the same purpose, in this case a brief respite from the reality they will confront together too.
"Get everyone away from looking at all the destruction for a few hours,'' said Brent Kuhlman, who wore an orange "Washington Strong" T-shirt over his jacket.
That was Brad Stewart's goal when he packed 12 people into his motor home, which included seven Washington classmates of his daughter, Jordan Guedet. Stewart, 36, says he hasn't missed a game since the Panthers won the state title in 1985.
"I don't want to say athletics are the heart of our town, but they're a definite vital artery,'' Stewart said. "We've all been in it endlessly since Sunday, digging each other out, finding sentimental items of your neighbor's. To get away from it is awesome.''
Nobody in the Washington crowd of nearly 3,000 fans thinks anything that happened during three hours Saturday will make it easier to rebuild the houses reduced to rubble. But they took solace in knowing the experience reinforced a solid foundation for young kids from a small town raised to believe what people do for others can make a big impact.
"Our time at practice and the time out there today is the only time all week these guys didn't have to deal with everything going on,'' Crouch said. "Football was the most normal thing we had this week.''
Sacred Heart, the superior team deserving of its spot in the state finals, scored first less than four minutes into the game and never really felt threatened. Emotion didn't carry Washington early as much as sustain the Panthers when they fell behind 23-7 at the half. They scored on their first offensive play of the second half to pull within 23-14 and were driving with 4:35 left in the third when quarterback Colton Marshall lost a fumble at the Sacred Heart 32. That was Washington's last real threat.
Marshall hung his head walking to the sidelines after the fumble and wiped away tears from his eyes postgame after hugging his mother, Shelly. The senior leader was one of 10 Panthers players who lost his home and is living in a hotel or with relatives.
"There have been a bunch of us going around saying, 'We're not homeless — we're just missing a house,' " Shelly Marshall said, forcing a smile. "At some point the shock wears off, you're numb and you joke or you're going to lose it. It has been such an emotional week.''
It included an outpouring of kindness from strangers and celebrities, from anonymous volunteers sifting through debris to White Sox special assistant Jim Thome and Bears Chairman George McCaskey visiting. It ended in a 30-point loss that was hard to tell as a sea of orange broke into a loud chorus of "WASH-ING-TON!'' as the final seconds ticked down.
At midfield as the opponents traded hugs and handshakes, Leonard gathered both teams and leaned on Washington junior Jimmy McCaughey's shoulder pads as he spoke.
"I want to thank you guys for playing your tails off,'' Leonard said, quoting a Bible verse from Joshua on strength and courage. "Washington, we're going to win (state) for you guys.''
Washington players nodded in approval before dispersing to find their families and take pictures for posterity. As Crouch brought his team together to address it for the final time in uniform, Panthers parent Dave Dingledine's voice cut through the wind.
"You guys made Washington proud!'' Dingledine yelled.
Nobody throughout the state could disagree.
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