Friday night lights shine bright
Last weekend, I learned sometimes a game is more than just a game.
Along with a few thousand of my high school’s alumni, students, staff, boosters, parents and all-around fans of football, I attended the Indiana High School Athletic Association’s Class 5A State Championship. It was a cool and rainy Friday night. Thankfully, the game was held indoors, in Lucas Oil Stadium, where the Indianapolis Colts play.
And the retractable roof remained closed.
My alma mater, New Palestine High School, played Fort Wayne Snider in a new class this year. We won the 4A Class championship last year, a feat that had not been accomplished in my 1,000-student school’s history. We went into that game as the state’s top-scoring team, and finished 15-0 for the season. That success bumped the New Pal Dragons up to a new class.
Flash forward to this season.
In 2015, we experienced an equally successful run for the state championship. Going into the state final, we were undefeated at 13-0. Our quarterback, senior Alex Neligh, was among the state’s leading rushers and qualified as a finalist for Indiana Mr. Football. Past winners of the award include former Colt Darren Evans and Rex Grossman, who has played for the Chicago Bears, Houston Texans, Washington Redskins and Cleveland Browns.
Like Indiana Mr. Basketball, it’s quite the honor.
I don’t know Alex personally, but there is two degrees of separation between us, sort of like that Kevin Bacon theory. You’ll have that in a small town. His late grandmother Linda worked with my mom and they were friends. My mom enjoys going to the games, too, so it was special for her to see her friend’s grandson excel and take our small Hoosier town to new heights.
Cue that John Mellencamp song about growing up in Indiana.
In the first half of the state final, New Palestine trailed Snider 42-21 at the break. After a regular season of overpowering practically every opponent in our new 5A class, including schools that were double our enrollment, the Dragons seemed a little shellshocked. Snider’s talent was obvious, but that didn’t mean we were ready to accept defeat.
I would have loved to hear the half-time pep talk from Coach Kyle Ralph.
Whatever he said, and the calls that followed on his part, worked like the script of “Rudy.” It was magical. That half of football has since gone down in Indiana high school history as one of the greatest comebacks to date. From state and national press — including the New York Times — to Hoosiers around the water cooler, the masses seem to be talking about the New Pal-Snider game last Friday night. In Hollywood-high school-sports-movie fashion, it was a real barn burner.
Think “Hoosiers” on a football field.
Multiple touchdowns by our quarterback and an impressive 62-yard TD pass to Dragon Duke Blackwell were just a few of the highlights of a second half that kept everyone in the stands on their feet and my heart racing. I hadn’t cheered that much at a high school game in 25 years.
And it felt amazing.
With 8:34 minutes in the fourth quarter, Neligh scored to give New Pal the lead for the first time in the game, at 49-42. The crowd went wild, and I realized I hadn’t jumped up and down that much since having a C-section four months ago. I was so excited, I didn’t even feel it.
No pain no gain, as they often say in sports.
Snider returned with a 65-yard touchdown, and the game was tied at 49. There was even more jumping up and down on the Dragon side. My hands were shaking like I was about to go in for a root canal. With a little over four minutes to go, Snider went up 56-49. Neligh promptly answered, making it 56-55.
The whole stadium crowd was on its feet.
Then Snider blocked our PAT, and things got really tense. New Pal scored again with a minute to go, but our two-point conversion failed, and the score was 61-56. Only eight seconds remained in the game as Snider’s drive to the end zone, along with a two-point conversion, proved fruitful and the clock ticked away to zero.
Final score: 64-61.
There were few dry eyes on the sideline and in the stands, especially as Neligh was awarded the much-deserved Eskew Mental Attitude Award. The game was certainly a heartbreaker, but it was also an inspiration to those fans who love football like me. And my mom. Most in attendance can agree it was a hard-fought game that proved no matter how unlikely a situation – in sports, arts, and life in general — comebacks are always possible. Winners don’t always have the winning score. And a game is sometimes more than just a game.
Especially for a small town on a Friday night under the lights.
April E. Clark hopes New Pal quarterback Alex Neligh wins Indiana Mr. Football. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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