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Poly left at a loss

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All through the night before what everyone was calling "the biggest game of his life," Manuel Wright, a 6-foot-7, 315-pound defensive end for Long Beach Poly -- the No. 1-rated prep team in the country -- couldn't sleep.

Hershel Dennis
Hershel Dennis ran for 161 yards, but it still wasn't enough for the Jackrabbits.
Each time he would nod off and begin to dream, he'd suddenly jerk awake, wondering, "Am I getting a sack?" and "Are we winning?" and "Where's the quarterback?" At 5 a.m., Wright gave up and turned on SportsCenter, played a little of the video game "NFL 2K1," then finally decided to break down some more De La Salle game film. He broke down two entire games. By then it was early afternoon, time get over to Poly High, give thanks to God, and get dressed for the game ahead.

For Wright and his teammates, the pregame rituals started hours before kickoff for Saturday night's game -- Long Beach Poly vs. No. 2 Concord De La Salle and its 116-game winning streak.

Game of their lives
Jennifer Allen spent much of last week at Long Beach Poly High School, taking Page 2 behind the scenes of the Jackrabbits' preparation for the big game with De La Salle. Click here if you missed her pregame report.

Pregame, the Poly players did what they always did. Tight end Marcedes Lewis paced from locker room to coaches room to film room, chanting "Chillin' like a bug, chillin' like a bug, chillin' like a bug." Running back Hershel Dennis put on his good luck green-and-blue-plaid boxers. Safety Darnell Bing had his 2-Pac "'Hit 'Em Up" going on his head as he chatted with a pretty, highly lip-glossed girl on a picnic bench outside the locker room. And across the picnic patio, in the shade, beside an SUV pumping out steady rap, the team's unofficial hair-braider was braiding up the heads of the Jackrabbits.

Winston Justice, after turning his "mind off" the entire night before, now had his mind turned on. Sporting small, wire-rimmed eyeglasses, the 6-7, 300-pound defensive end sat only inches from the TV screen in the coach's film room, watching De La Salle score another touchdown. The coaches' room had a deep-fried flavor in the air. Earlier that day, players had enjoyed their pre-game snack: deep-fried shrimp.

In the training room, quarterback Brandon Brooks enjoyed a long session of ultrasound. Trainer Tabitha Romero was giving Brooks his dose of muscle-relaxing vibes, while Brooks, who the day before was too shy to even utter a word into the microphone at the pep rally, now spoke freely. "Last night, I dreamed I had a couple of runs. Tonight, I picture myself running a lot," Brooks said. "I'll have a clock going on in my head. I'll give myself three seconds, and then I'll run."

When offensive coordinator Merle Cole III walked in and informed Brooks that he had recently told a national reporter that Brooks might well be the "the best quarterback in the state," the otherwise modest Brooks replied, "That's no pressure! Next time, say the best quarterback in the nation!" Coach Cole just shook his head, and Romero laughed.

Long Beach Poly players
Manuel Wright, far left, with Poly teammates Darnell Bing, Marcedes Lewis and Brandon Brooks couldn't quit thinking about the showdown with De La Salle.
Later that afternoon, Romero did what she always does for Brooks. She wrote the names of those closest to his heart -- Paula, his late mother, Ella, his late grandmother, Kirk, his late assistant coach, and Regina, his late godmother -- along the inside of his passing arm. And then, she taped up that arm so that no one and nothing could smear out their memory come game-time.

Only minutes before departing to the stadium, Brooks sat in a chair in the coaches room, answering an assistant's questions regarding a De La Salle's formation known as "The Thunder Set." Brooks answered swiftly and correctly. The coach appeared pleased. Then the coach spoke to Brook's offensive linemen. "Early on in the game, we're going to expect some honest answers from you guys," the coach warned his lineman. "We're going to ask, 'Can you block these guys?' "

Ready for Judgment Day

"Anybody have an extra ticket?" a 50-something guy asked, weaving between the "POLY-SATURATED" tailgating cars in Veteran Stadium parking lot. Hands in his pockets and a USC golfing cap on his head, the guy looked slightly lost. He kept walking around asking, "Anybody have an extra ticket?" One guy was offering a ticket for $50. On eBay, two tickets had sold earlier this week for $165, the USC guy said. Even $50 sounded too high, he said. But he admitted he was desperate. "I'm from USC, you know?" he said, alluding to the 1-4 Trojans. "I'm interested in seeing some good football."

Damon Jenkins
Damon Jenkins blocks a PAT attempt by Poly kicker Jeff Hasting in the second quarter.
Inside the stadium, leaning against the chain link fence that lined the field, 7-year-old Myles Mendez stood with his father. "This is the future of Poly," his father proudly said, rubbing the head of his 5-foot, 94-pound son. His father then casually mentioned his son's Poly Pop Warner stats for the day -- one TD as a QB; four sacks as a DE.

Out on the field, the two opponents warmed up. Poly players got deep leg stretches from girl trainers; De La Salle players performed a series of highly-synchronized stretches to the short, clipped rhythm of a coach's chant. While Parliament's "Flashlight" boomed from the loud speakers in the Poly section of the stands, a De La Salle trainer walked the field with a screwdriver in hand, stopping to tighten screws on several players' helmets.

Journalists stalked the sidelines. "In every game of De La Salle's streak, they've scored three touchdowns. And in every game but one, they scored four touchdowns," one said. Another wondered, "De La Salle hasn't had a lot of close games. How will they react if it's close?"

Someone else wondered where the all-boys school got its female cheerleaders.

On the tartan track lining the field, Jonathan and Jessica Jackrabbit, the Poly team mascots, held up signs and urged all to "Hop Wit' Us!" Some 200 Poly High boosters filed the stands, many dressed in "JUDGEMENT (sic) DAY, Jackrabbits Vs Spartans" T-shirts. Before the game even started, several thousand Poly fans were already waving and clapping their "GO POLY" yellow baton-shaped balloons.

Once the game was under way, it was clear that the cheering squads of both teams would be in continual -- and loud -- competition. When the Spartans fans, many with hair dyed green yelled, "Here We Go, Spartans! Here We Go!", the green-and-gold clad Poly fans yelled back, "Here We Go, Poly! Here We Go!" And, at various times throughout the three-hour battle, both bands played that feel-good American marching band tribute -- the Notre Dame fight song -- as if this was their very own signature tune.

On the field, the Spartans took the lead early -- and never let it go.

Maurice Drew
Maurice Drew, center, was the biggest star on Saturday night, scoring four touchdowns for De La Salle.
As he scored De La Salle's first touchdown, running back Maurice Drew did a forward flip into the end zone -- and was immediately penalized 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct. Fifteen yards on the kicking team. "Block That Kick" delirium followed. The extra point wasn't blocked, and De La Salle was on the board 7-0.

Poly fought back with a field goal, but De La Salle responded with another touchdown, and then it was Poly's turn to score again. On second and goal from the 2-yard line, Brooks went in on a quarterback keeper. Confetti filled the air, and the De La Salle fans stared up at the swirling stuff in awe, as if they had never seen another team celebrate a score before against their mighty Spartans. And maybe they hadn't.

But the cheers went silent when the crowd realized that Brooks was still down, motionless, on the goal line. Poly players huddled for a prayer on the field. The band stopped playing. When Brooks came off the field unassisted, there were cheers from both sides of the stands, and later, when a Spartan lay on the field, the Poly cheerleaders told its community of fans, "Let's have a prayer!" And the entire Poly squad held fists to air, bowing heads, until the player hobbled off the field.

Deep in the second quarter, when Drew scored the third of his four touchdown for the Spartans, someone in the press box proclaimed, "It's the Maurice Drew Show!" and laptops were opened and writers began predicting the following day's lead. One reporter typed, "De La Salle not only defeated the Jackrabbits, but reaffirmed its status as a program in another dimension."

Halftime, the Long Beach Fire Department held out empty boots, strolling the stands for loose change for the widow and children's fund in New York City. One fireman, seeing a face from the past, yelled out across a row of fans, "Poly, 1978?" After a Jackson Five medley, the game continued.

Poly fans still held hopes high in the third quarter, with Poly, trailing only by a touchdown at 21-15, on the De La Salle 30. But on fourth and 12, Brooks fumbled the snap, and did not recover the ball.

Poly fans continued to cheer along with the cheerleaders, who, as the clock neared 10 p.m., were growing hoarse and slightly out of tune. Late in the fourth quarter, Long Beach firefighters took a seat on the grass behind the endzone, and then Drew scored his final touchdown, and some of the fans started to head home. As the game ended, with De La Salle on top 29-15, Brooks slipped on a Judgment Day hat, lowered it over his eyes -- to protect himself from the lights, the press, the result -- dropped his head into his hands, and wept.

The aftermath

Under the stadium, outside the home locker room doors, Tabitha Romero was sobbing in a coach's arms. Out on the field, the De La Salle band played on, and Spartans fans were singing, "Hey, hey, good-bye!"

It hurts. I'll probably go home and cry about it.
Poly coach Raul Lara

"I think some of our kids grew up on the field tonight," Poly assistant coach and trainer Robert Shock said. "God has a plan for us. He wants us to learn. And move on."

After a while, a few players tried to move on. They trudged out of the locker room, followed by their head coach, Raul Lara. The coach walked out to the field, and under the bright stadium lights, took the usual postgame Q and A. "We tried. We tried. We tried," he said.

This was his third game of the day. Earlier, he'd seen his 8-year-old daughter Jazmin win a soccer game, and he'd watched his 6-year-old son Emanuel tie in a flag football game. At first, Lara didn't even seem tired, as he calmly answered all the technical questions of the game. But when he was asked how he was feeling, the rookie coach, with just four Poly games under his belt, said, "It hurts. I'll probably go home and cry about it. It hurts."

"We played our hearts out," running back Hershel Dennis, who had 161 yards on 20 carries, said while standing beside his coach. "We played our hearts out, and that's all that matters."

Across the field, Manuel Wright was walking with heavy and slow steps. Earlier, he had talked about what he would be telling his teammates if they should lose. "If we lose," he had said, "everybody's got to pick their heads up, and go on to the next game." And only an hour after the game had ended, that's what the team was already trying to do.

"We're going to live and fight on," Marcedes Lewis said. Lewis did not have his usual broad smile. His commemorative hat appeared too small for his head. But he forged forward. "It's not like we lost to a roody-poo team," he said of the Spartans, who are now at 117 wins -- and counting. "They were legit." And then, obviously hugely fatigued, Lewis dropped his brave pose and said, "I don't have any more comments. I'm done."

"It's not like we lost to a roody-poo team. They were legit."
Poly tight end Marcedes Lewis

It was after 11 p.m. The stands were empty. Poly co-principal Shawn Ashley paced the track. "Next week?" Ashley asked. "It will be business as usual at Poly. We'll return to education. We do that too, you know." His remarkable cheerfulness faltered, though, when he recalled how many passes wide receiver Derrick Jones, only a sophmore, had dropped.

Coach Lara is on record that Jones, a former Junior Olympian, will someday play in the NFL. But on Saturday night he dropped three key passes -- a deep throw on Poly's first play from scrimmage, another in the end zone, and one in the red zone late in the game, when a few more points on the board might have lifted the team's spirits. "God bless him," Ashley said of Jones. "God bless him."

As the night dragged on, more and more Jackrabbits slowly made their way out of the locker room and onto the field. Some were still wearing their helmets, others headphones, and some were talking with Spartans about the incredible plays they made. The players would wait another hour or so until the team bus took them back to Poly High. Some time around midnight, after showering and changing into their street clothes, the players would share a cold sandwich supper with boosters in the school cafeteria.

Long Beach Poly clock
Time stands still at Poly, where the school clock forever reads 9:35.
It would be too late, and too dark, for the players to notice or even stop to read the sign that has hung in the school's quad for as long as the school has been winning state and league championships. The sign sits just above the school's broken clock, where the jackrabbit's arms are stuck at 9:35. The sign's lettering is oxidized bronze, dating back to another time, and another place in Poly history. But the words could speak of the meaning of this night in all these players' lives:

"We live in deeds, not in years, in thoughts, not in breaths, in feelings, not in figures on a dial."

Nor on a scoreboard.

Jennifer Allen, the daughter of longtime NFL coach George Allen, is the author of "Fifth Quarter: The Scrimmage of a Football Coach's Daughter" (Random House 2000).

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