The scoreboard had already gone dark.
Hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of boisterous fans had made their way from the stands toward their Philadelphia homes or the buses heading back to Berks County.
And, Imhotep Institute Charter High School’s dreams of a football championship had been summarily ejected from Benjamin Johnston Memorial Stadium courtesy of a 35-13 loss to the Wyomissing Spartans on Saturday afternoon.
All that was left inside the Cedarbrook facility were two black balloons still tied to a railing behind the East Germantown team’s bench, a pair of sneakers that an Imhotep Panther had left on the sideline and head coach Albie Crosby.
His last action on the home field of a 14-1 Panthers team that shattered the Public League’s scoring record would be picking those shoes up to figure out to who’d forgotten them. Then, the first-year head coach would make his way toward the gates.
“Sorry about that,” he’d say to a group waiting near the stadium’s exit. “Sorry you had to watch such a stinker.”
They weren’t having it.
“Whoa. No need to apologize coach.”
“You did a hell of a job this season.”
“You did the Public League proud.”
And, an “I’m proud of you” sentiment from a stalwart West Catholic fan and member of a state-championship team from the 1960s who draped his arm over the shoulder of a coach who’d left his alma mater, where he served as offensive coordinator last season.
“Means a lot to me that you’re here,” Crosby said. “A whole lot.”
Grappling with defeat
Crosby would later confide that, from the minute the final whistle blew until Monday morning, he was hiding pain behind poker-face stoicism.
When he was addressing the team on the field after their last game of the season, urging them to keep their “eyes up” and take pride in a remarkably successful season, it was eating him up inside.
“I’ve coached worse games than I coached today, and we’ve played worse games than we did today,” he told the players. “We represented our city, and we represented our school, well this season. The whole city was behind us today. Yes it hurts, but sometimes, you’ve got to taste that nasty taste [of defeat before you succeed].”
The players, who linked arms along the goal line and recited their school’s “Affirmations,” would then hear from Imhotep cheerleaders. The girls shook disappointed expressions from their faces and offered a “That’s alright, that’s OK, we still love you anyway” salute.
Then, a Class of 1999 alum spoke up and, with tears in her eyes, said there wasn’t even a football team at the school when she was a student.
“Y’all make sure you hold your heads high,” she said of a team that got a raucous round of applause from the home bleachers, despite the outcome, when the final whistle blew. “You made history for me.”
Of confidence and pride
Saturday started with boisterous confidence. The pregame locker rooms were diametrically opposed scenes: In Imhotep’s, they let the wild rumpus begin; in Wyomissing’s, a silent focus permeated the air until the chaos from next door audibly interrupted.
Crosby and his team held faith that months of hard work meant the Reading-area team didn’t stand a chance.
In fact, a quote to that effect in a NewsWorks feature was used as both Spartans’ bulletin-board fodder and the centerpiece of a Reading Eagle article about the game on Monday. Crosby wasn’t having it, though.
That a reporter was on hand while he rallied his team, with words that everyone who has ever coached a football team has used, had nothing to do with the game’s outcome.
Syllables didn’t bulldog their way around the field tackling Imhotep star running back David Williams as a defender and rushing for nearly 150 yards, including a second-quarter touchdown, on the offensive side of the ball. That was Wyomissing’s bound-for-Notre-Dame star Alex Anzalone.
And, a paragraph on a website didn’t lead a deceptively slick offense featuring a 50-yard bomb and 46-yard touchdown pass. That was Corey Unger, a Wyomissing transfer student who eluded comprehensive scouting reports since he was eligible to join the team this month.
“They played really well. They just beat us,” Crosby noted of Wyomissing. “That’s the game of football.”
Of his 2012 team, he’d reiterate what he said pregame: “I’m proud of them. Just so proud of them.”
Then, Crosby added, “I hurt for our fans. We won 14 before we hit our first bump in the road, and we got a big bump in the road today. I’m so excited about our future here, though. I hope I’m in this same position next year to have this same conversation, but as the winning coach.”
A stepping-stone season?
Crosby wielded that same positivity on Monday, even though Wyomissing was the side preparing for next weekend’s state championship game versus Aliquippa in Hershey.
Answering his cell phone in the morning, he said his coaching staff had already broken down the game tape.
Sure, the pain still lingered, and he will be losing some big-name players to some big-name Division I-A college programs before the Panthers take the field in 2013.
That’s when he mentioned the whole poker-face shield in the context of wondering whether anybody could see how the loss had hit him.
That line of conversation then led Crosby to talk about how eight of 11 starters on offense and seven of 11 on defense would be returning.
You could see him smiling through the phone line.
“My offensive coordinator is sitting here with me right now, and he just said something very interesting: ‘We’re building a program here. That’s bigger than one game,'” Crosby said. “That’s what it’s all about. No, we didn’t win [the championship] this year, but we did a lot of great things.”
Then, before hanging up to speak with another in a long line of college-football recruiters who continue to make their way to Imhotep, he had one more thing to say:
“Please quote me on this: We are going to be great next year.”