<
>

One game, but memories for a lifetime

They all remember. Sure they do. It hasn't even been a decade since Doylestown's Central Bucks West beat Erie's Cathedral Prep -- and dramatically so -- for a state football championship in Pennsylvania's largest enrollment class, so how could anyone forget?

But there's more to it than that. A legendary coach finished his career. Two fledgling filmmakers started theirs. A mammoth winning streak survived that frigid December night, even though the most heralded player on either team failed to make it out of the first quarter. And in the end, an unsung hero made the biggest noise -- bigger, even, than the future NFL star who played -- when the ball thwacked off his facemask.

Memories tend to be forged this time of year in Hershey, where four state finals are played over two days (as will be the case this weekend), in a 69-year-old stadium that stands next to the famous amusement park and across a parking lot from the arena where Wilt Chamberlain once scored 100 points in an NBA game.

But that game, that year -- 1999 -- was extraordinary, even by the lofty standards of championship weekend.

CB West, based in Doylestown (just north of Philadelphia), carried a 44-game winning streak into the final. It had won the two previous state titles, the second courtesy of a 56-7 blowout of New Castle in which junior fullback Dustin Picciotti rumbled for 238 yards and five touchdowns.

By that point, the streak had become something of "a double-edged sword," in the estimation of Mike Pettine, the Bucks' coach at the time.

"We never had to tell [the players], 'Hey guys, you've got to keep the tradition, you've got to win every game,'" he said recently. "Once the streak got rolling, kids didn't want to be on the team that ended the streak. As much as they felt satisfaction, some of those teams, I think the most notable feeling was relief that their senior class got through and they could pass on the torch."

Andrew Elsing, a senior defensive end in 1999, did not disagree.

"You don't want to let down your teammates," he said. "You don't want to let down your families and everyone that's there to watch. You know every team that comes out is gunning for you. You know you're going to get the best out of them. You have to give 100 percent every week. … You go out, and even though you're 10-0, 14-0 or 45-0 or whatever you are, there's a certain responsibility and effort you have to put forth."

"We never had to tell [the players], 'Hey guys, you've got to keep the tradition, you've got to win every game.' Once the streak got rolling, kids didn't want to be on the team that ended the streak. As much as they felt satisfaction, some of those teams, I think the most notable feeling was relief that their senior class got through and they could pass on the torch."
-- Mike Pettine

Pettine, who was in his 33rd year as head coach in 1999, saw to it that that was the case. Often described as a perfectionist, he had overseen another long winning streak -- 53 games, then a Pennsylvania record -- in the '80s. He had also won a state title in 1991, and in the '90s his teams fashioned a gaudy 121-8 record.

But unbeknownst to his players, he decided late in the fall of '99 to make that season his last. The golf course beckoned. So too did his grandkids.

Months earlier, he had reached another decision. He would let two young independent filmmakers, T. Patrick Murray and Alex Weinress, make a documentary of the season. They would have unfettered access, and were given only one condition by Pettine: Tell it like it is. Good, bad or ugly, tell it like it is.

The film, which would be released in 2002 under the title "The Last Game," was the brainchild of Murray, a Philly kid with deep football roots. His father, Francis, was co-owner of the New England Patriots from 1988 to 1993. His uncle, Jim, was once the Eagles' general manager. And the younger Murray, whose given first name is Tim, had played the game beginning at a young age, though he didn't play as much as he might have liked by the time he was in high school, at Episcopal Academy.

Murray, en route to California in December 1998 in hopes of making his mark in the film industry, had read in a Philadelphia newspaper about CB West winning its second straight title. His interest piqued, he wrote Pettine to propose his idea.

Then he waited. And waited. And waited.

"It was almost to the point where I felt embarrassed, I let it hang so long, when I got to them," Pettine recalled.

No sooner did he give the go-ahead, early in the summer of 1999, than an ESPN representative called with a similar proposal. Pettine said he had already made a commitment, and suggested several other programs as alternatives. ESPN chose one of CB West's rivals, North Penn -- coached by none other than Mike Pettine Jr.

That there would be dueling documentaries immediately upped the ante for Murray and his old college buddy, Weinress. The two 28-year-olds, operating on a shoestring budget, maxed out every credit card, tapped out every investor, improvised whenever they had to.

They would ultimately shoot between 300 and 500 hours of film over the course of the season, according to their own estimates. They were there for every practice, every game, seemingly everything. And while the Bucks were winning, week after week -- most of the time by lopsided scores -- the season was not without its rough spots.

"That team," Pettine said, "was most challenging."

There were some strong personalities, not the least of which was Picciotti, who as a junior had rushed for 1,969 yards.

"I don't know," Pettine recalled, "if Dustin always 100 percent bought into the team aspect."

He wanted his carries. He wanted to put up numbers.

"Obviously, I was young," Picciotti said recently.

He is 27 now, and days away from finishing up at a deputy sheriff's academy in State College. He will work in Montgomery County, which is also just outside Philadelphia.

Looking back, he said, "I had a great junior year, which kind of came out of nowhere. I always did really well in football, but after my junior year, everything hit at once. I got first-team all-state. I got All-American. I guess going into my senior year it was kind of like, boom, I have everybody looking at me. Obviously I had to produce. … I don't think it was as much to me like a selfish thing. It was like, I didn't want to look bad."

Ultimately, he did not. There is one moment in the film where Pettine strips him of his captaincy and benches him for the first half of a game -- Picciotti remembered that that was the result of an argument he had with the coach -- but late in the season the staff is shown raving about Picciotti's transformation into a team-oriented guy.

"I liked Dustin a lot," said Murray, who remains in Philly, where he is working on a book about his dad. "He's a controversial guy. He had attitude problems at times: You're 17 or 18, and you're the man. I understand some of Dustin's issues. There was pressure to perform, and the adulation. At the end of the day, I think he was a terrific person. He wasn't some lunkhead idiot. He's a very nice person. I believe in him, and I thought he got a bad rap a lot of times."

There was never any question about his ability. He enjoyed another big year in 1999 -- 1,678 yards and 37 touchdowns -- as the Bucks stormed through their schedule. There were two victories over the North Penn club coached by the younger Pettine (one in the regular season and another in the district playoffs), games Mike Sr. always found emotionally wrenching. There was a victory over an excellent Bethlehem Catholic team in the state semifinals, when CB West had to come from behind for the first time all season.

And finally, there was Hershey. But before the game against Cathedral Prep was six minutes old, Picciotti was lying on the turf, writhing in agony. Two defenders had tackled him as he carried out a fake off right tackle, while quarterback Mike Orihel bootlegged in the opposite direction. And as he was going down, Picciotti heard "a whole bunch of pops" in his right ankle.

He had suffered a third-degree sprain. His night was over.

"It was kind of hard to sit there and not be able to do anything to help out," he said. "I had memories the year before that of having one of my best games, I think, of my high school career. … It was extremely hard [to watch]."

The Bucks fell behind 13-7, and along the way saw two other running backs knocked from the game with ankle injuries of their own. Ultimately, fourth-stringer Bob Warden sparked a drive late in the fourth quarter. But CB West stalled after advancing to the Prep 6-yard line, and now the onus was on a Bucks defense that had performed valiantly but had given up two touchdowns, one on a second-quarter pass that wide receiver Ed Hinkel ripped from the grasp of cornerback Ted Kinyon in the end zone, the other on a 17-yard run in the third period by a running back identified as Demond Sanders in media reports. (That is, in fact, his given name. He is more commonly known by the nickname his family gave him years ago -- Bob. And he has gone on to considerable renown as a safety for the Indianapolis Colts.)

A missed extra point after Sanders' TD gave the Bucks a sliver of hope. As they dug in one last time, Pettine turned to his top assistant, Mike Carey, and asked if the punt-block was on. Carey assured him it was.

Pettine was asked recently what chance there was that such a stratagem might succeed.

"One in five," he said, "and that may be wishful thinking."

But that was the dice-roll the Bucks decided to take as the clock ticked under three minutes and the Ramblers lined up to punt. Hinkel, who doubled as the punter, stood 2 yards deep in his end zone and awaited the snap.

Murray, his battered camera in hand (by this point it was held together with athletic tape, he recalled), took up a vantage point in the back of the end zone, behind Hinkel. Weinress positioned himself on the sideline to the punter's right.

On the far right side of the defensive formation (i.e., the end to Hinkel's left), Elsing settled into his three-point stance. He was one of Bucks' most reliable players. Seldom, Pettine said, did he have tell Elsing something twice. Seldom did he lack for motivation.

"I might still be coaching if I had more guys like that," the old coach said.

Elsing had blocked a punt earlier in the season, against CB East, after which he plucked the ball out of midair and ran for a touchdown. But as Murray and Elsing showed in their documentary, Pettine was hardly satisfied with the senior's work in that phase of the game.

"You have more wasted effort than I've ever seen," the coach tells Elsing one day in practice. "You should be blocking half of these things."

Pettine then reminds Elsing to aim for a spot four yards in front of the punter. And that's what Elsing was doing after the ball was snapped to Hinkel.

The CB West player to Elsing's immediate left, linebacker Bryan Colahan, had crashed into the blocker on the far left of the Prep formation, allowing Elsing a free run off the edge. It was just a matter of whether he could get there in time.

Hinkel was about to kick. Elsing kept coming. And finally, just a few feet away from Hinkel, he made a headlong dive.

The punt struck Elsing in the facemask.

He tracked the ball down near the sideline, then stumbled 1 yard into the end zone, where he was engulfed by his jubilant teammates. And all of it happened right in front of Weinress, who captured the scene for posterity.

Weinress, who now works for a film company in Australia, wrote in an e-mail recently that it was one of the greatest clutch plays he had ever seen, on any level of football. Pettine, in another moment shown in the film, tells Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Bill Lyon after the game that "some force other than what I understand" tipped the balance in the Bucks' favor.

There was still the matter of the extra point, no sure thing in the swirling winds at that end of Hersheypark Stadium. But Bobby Tumelty booted it through cleanly. And the Bucks still had to protect their 14-13 lead over the final 2:53. But they did that, too.

"It was a pretty good way to go out," Elsing decided.

For him, and his coach. The victory, the Bucks' 45th in a row and the last of Pettine's 326, was the greatest in school history, in the estimation of the retired coach. He also called it a "scriptwriter's dream."

Murray isn't so sure about that.

"If you wrote it as a fictional film, you couldn't sell it," he said, "and you'd be called a bad writer, because it's so contrived. It strikes a balance between what is believable and what is unbelievable."

Pettine would latch on as an assistant at North Penn in 2001 -- something that didn't sit well with everyone in Doylestown -- working for one season under his son, and another under his successor, Randy Cuthbert, when Mike Jr. took a job as one of the Baltimore Ravens' video assistants. Mike Jr. became the Ravens' outside linebackers coach in '05, a position he still holds.

Now 68, the elder Pettine spends his time doting on his grandkids and fretting over three-foot putts. He regularly attends high school football games, and while he finds it relaxing to watch from the stands, he can't help but think along with the coaches on the sidelines, can't help but wonder how he might handle a given situation.

Carey, Pettine's longtime assistant, succeeded him as the head coach at CB West and extended the winning streak to 59, a new state record, in 2000. It wouldn't end until the state final that year, in which the Bucks faced Cathedral Prep in another thriller. This time the Ramblers won 41-35 in overtime.

Elsing accepted a scholarship to the University of Rhode Island, as did Colahan. The first game of their freshman year was a loss. So was the next one, and the next three after that.

"It was something that we hadn't been part of, losing a game, for a long time," said Elsing, who started at linebacker his last two years at URI. "It was tough to swallow at first."

But it was something with which they soon became familiar; only one of the four Rams teams on which they played finished with a winning record. Now Elsing teaches health and physical education in Rhode Island, and Colahan is back in school, getting his teaching certificate. Both have taken up rugby.

"I played football for 16 years," Elsing said, "and it's not something you just up and walk away from."

That is not an opinion Picciotti shares. He accepted a scholarship to Pitt shortly after his final season at CB West, and was regarded as the No. 1 recruit of the rebuilding Panthers. But he suffered a concussion in the Big 33 Game, an all-star game in July 2000 matching many of the top players from Pennsylvania and Ohio, and then another shortly after preseason drills began at Pitt.

He missed the first four games that season, and wound up rushing just seven times for 23 yards. A third concussion forced him to miss the entire 2001 season, and while he rejoined the team for spring drills in '02, he parted company with the Panthers in August of that year -- for good this time.

"Confidence-wise," he said, "I knew I couldn't play that position full out like I used to."

He resurfaced in 2003 at Rhode Island (where he roomed with Elsing and Colahan), carrying the ball 45 times for 198 yards before dislocating a hip. The following year he moved to defensive end and recorded seven sacks.

But that was it. There wasn't so much as a workout with an NFL team, much less the pro career many had once envisioned for him. And he's OK with that.

"There's certain things I miss," Picciotti said, "but it doesn't bother me much."

All that remains, really, are the memories. They will always be there.

Gordie Jones is a freelance writer in Pennsylvania.