Published: December 10, 2008 01:28 pm

Teams like this one are one of a kind

Mike Burke
Cumberland Times-News

Saturday’s state championship game in Baltimore played out to be a once-in-a-lifetime game; at least for me it did, as I know I had never been to a football game — a championship football game at that — at any level that played out the way the Fort Hill-Dunbar game did, with the Poets going 91 yards in the final 1:56 to secure the touchdown and the game-winning two-point conversion with just two seconds remaining.

For a number of reasons, I’d like to say I hope I never see another game like that one, and since I wasn’t covering the game for the Times-News, yes, I can say the greater number of those reasons are personal ones.

There have been better teams than this year’s Fort Hill team, maybe. There have been more talented teams than this year’s Fort Hill team, perhaps. But in my time I’ve never seen a team that defined team, family, friendship and love for one another more than this Fort Hill team did. And let’s not sell the Sentinels short either. They were a great football team, and they’re certainly one of my favorite teams of any kind, going all the way back to the days when I was a little kid beginning what would become a lifelong pleasure of following sports teams.

The ’08 Sentinels were a great example of how to stay together through tough times. They were the kind of team that former Cleveland Browns coach Blanton Collier had in mind when he said, “It’s amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit.”

Like so many of us, I’ve never been sadder over an outcome of a game in my life than I was on Saturday. And that’s because I’ve never admired or been prouder of a group of kids in my life than I am and will always be of the 2008 Fort Hill Sentinels.

It tears your heart out to see young people cry after they’ve done everything in their power, only to come up a little short. Yet while those tears that were falling on the Fort Hill side of the field at M&T Bank Stadium were tears of disappointment for not winning the state championship, you also had the feeling there was something more to those tears, because these kids are smart enough and deep enough to understand — win or lose — Saturday’s game marked the last time they would all be together as a team.

Naturally, if the Sentinels had held on to win the game on Saturday, there would have been the same kind of jubilation that was seen on the Dunbar side of the field. Yet don’t be too sure there still wouldn’t have been a tear or two shed — just as I’m sure there was by Dunbar — because championship games that conclude seasons tend to trigger what philosophers like to say is the melancholy that comes with the completion of our great projects. A sadness sets in because the journey is complete. The bond will live forever, but the togetherness will never be the same.

When you hear retired professional athletes being asked if they miss being a professional athlete, invariably you hear many of them say at some point, “I miss the camaraderie with my teammates.”

That’s normally the response of a player who was fortunate to play on a special team, and though they’re still just high school kids, you can bet every nickel you have every member of this Fort Hill team, for the rest of their days, will miss the camaraderie they shared this season with their teammates, because this was one special team. And much of the credit for that must go to head coach Todd Appel and his coaching staff.

I wrote in this space on the day Barry Lattimer resigned as the Fort Hill head coach last January that it takes a special cat to even want to be the Fort Hill football coach and an even more special one to thrive at it. As former National League umpire Ed Vargo once said of his job, “You’re expected to be perfect the day you start, and then improve.”

Just as it is impossible to compare this Fort Hill team with any other Fort Hill team, it would be impossible to compare the circumstances Appel, in his first season as the head coach, had to guide this team through to any other circumstance any previous Fort Hill coach had to face.

Frankly, I don’t know how the Fort Hill coaches did it. After the D.C. Dunbar situation unfairly put these players and their school in a very unfavorable national spotlight, it would have been easy to believe the Sentinels could crumble. But as we know, they grew stronger, and you must believe the way Appel and his coaches fostered the belief and the faith that these players already had in one another was the biggest reason they did grow stronger.

On the field and off the field, I’ve never witnessed a more impressive coaching performance; nor have I seen a more inspiring team. For this reason, I hope the Fort Hill players and coaches understand all they’ve accomplished for themselves and for their school, all they’ve provided to an even prouder community, and that they will accept our genuine gratitude.