Football Writers Association of America 2004 BEST WRITING CONTEST

Kalani Simpson, Honolulu Star-Bulletin

The final minutes before kickoff, the final huddles before running out into the night:

"Remember how it felt to win last year?" says a Kalani High School football player, exhorting his teammates as they gather around, shuffling, the way football teams do before games, like bulls ready to take to the Pamplona street.

"It felt good," one of them answers. "Real good!"

But that was Sept. 22, 2000.

On this night, Friday night, the Falcons would lose to Kalaheo 65-7, to make it 24 in a row.

Kalani Simpson
Honolulu Star-Bulletin
Age: 33
College: Dana (Neb.) College (played NAIA football)
Background: Simpson came home to Hawaii to become the Star-Bulletin's sports columnist in 2001. Previously, he'd worked as managing editor at Nebraska Sports America magazine, where his pieces on Husker football won FWAA third-place awards for feature and column writing in 2000, and at tiny papers in Nebraska and Iowa, covering "Hoosiers"-style high school sports. His wife, Jen, puts up with living 3,800 miles from her beloved Cornhuskers.

The ride home was a deathly silent one, as the bus seethed through the East Honolulu night, the air inside thick with sweat and hurt. It was an angry bus, an injured one. This was a team that felt losing in its stomach and in its heart, did not accept it, was not used to it. Would not tolerate it. No, not even after 24 straight.

It isn’t easy playing football for Kalani. It seems that it's always been this way. The coach, Greg Taguchi, played here and thinks the Falcons may have won one varsity game in his four years. Friday night, he suited up 28 varsity players out of an enrollment that hovers around 1,000. All of them played; all of them needed to.

If you were making a movie about a team that went 0-24, the cast would look a lot like this: These guys are undersized (most of them) and unpolished (all of them), with a few characters mixed in, just for fun. You know the guys who say they never played football because they were "too small"? Here, the 130-pounders play. You know the one scrappy underdog on every team who is short on size and/or talent and/or athleticism but is all effort, all heart? Coaches always say, "If only I had a whole team of those guys ..."

Taguchi does have a whole team of those guys.

Oh, they make all the mistakes losing teams make. They freelance on defense. They drop easy passes. They miss blocking-scheme adjustments. They run when they should stop and stop when they should run.

No, they're not good football players.

But they keep coming. They're playing football, playing in a situation many would consider hopeless, but they keep playing. They're football players. They keep coming back. It isn't easy to keep coming back.

The Kalaheo team walks by. And keeps walking by. And keeps walking by. The line seems to last forever, and some of them are BIG.

Weren't they 0-8 last year?

"Yeah, but that was in the Red," Taguchi says. Now the Mustangs have dropped down to the lower White division, where Kalani was winless. "It's like night and day between our two leagues," Taguchi says. "It's like night and day."

The pregame speech comes in the dark, on bleachers behind the backstop of the baseball field below Kaiser's stadium. A sprinkler Sh!-Sh!-Sh!-es a few feet away, and the national anthem drifts down from above.

"Believe in each other no matter what happens," Taguchi says. "This is all we've got right here.

"You are Kalani football."

And then they walk up the stairs, toward the sound of the band and out into the light. On the first play from scrimmage Jason Leong — and this guy can't weigh more than 140 pounds in uniform — makes a tremendous stick, and the Kalani sideline goes nuts. On the second play, Kalaheo completes a 32-yard fade.

And it's on.

Somehow, these guys look even skinnier in full pads. It's overwhelming how overmatched Kalani is at every position. After every play a Falcon is holding a body part in obvious pain. After the second series two-way lineman Jason Deguzman, a captain, is out. Shoulder. He goes back in.

And this much is obvious, too: This could be the toughest team in the state.

A Falcon makes it to the sideline, collapses to all fours, heaving, thinking about throwing up in the long-jump pit. A helmet to the stomach. One play later the same thing happens to another guy, but the trainer is still busy with the first, so the second is told just to lie down next in line. Two teammates side by side, writhing in pain in the grass.

They went back in.

They all did, time after time, down by touchdown after touchdown, they kept throwing their bodies back into that game.

They have no business playing football, but they do. They dive at extra points down by seven touchdowns (they would block two).

In the final seconds of the first half two 15-yard penalties have Kalani knocking on the door. Finally, Preston Pires lofts a long ball just as he is hit, and Jared Diseria makes a great diving grab as time expires. Touchdown!

The big man, Shane Pfeiffer, comes bounding off the field: "Give me some love, baby! Give me some love!"

"We got the momentum back!" somebody yells.

It was 33-7.

At halftime Taguchi tells them, "Quit looking back at the scoreboard. That's my responsibility."

This is the other side of high school football. Somebody loses. Sometimes you lose a lot. That's the hard part. It's easy to get up for winning. It's easy to stay up when there is some tangible evidence for believing something can be done.

Taguchi wants to teach these guys about life, win or lose. He thinks they'll be better people just for having played football, just for having been on this team. He believes in the experience of playing football. Learning from it. That's the most important thing.

But later, in his office, he admits to wanting more. "I want to give these guys the feeling of knowing how it feels like to win," he says. "Of being on the other side of the ball for once."

In the second half, denial sped away with every Jacobe Akiu touchdown sprint. They would lose again. All that was left was to keep fighting, to keep throwing their bodies out there again and again and again. To keep playing football.

Blane Tanabe picked off a tipped pass and ran. The defense came off the field screaming.

At that moment they felt it. At that moment, they knew.

In the darkness, they cruised down Kalanianaole Highway toward home. "Alma mater," a voice says, and the boys begin to sing. It was low, somber, dignified, the familiar ritual soothing the still fresh wounds of yet another loss. This is high school football. They are football players. The song was light on melody, heavy on bass, and stopped just as the doors opened. It was 24 straight now. The state's toughest team got off the bus.


Comment from the judge, Shawna Seed: Writing so evocative you can almost feel the humidity, smell the sweat and hear the alma mater as the bus rumbles through the night.

• Second place: John Canzano, The Oregonian
• Third place: Tom Dienhart, The Sporting News
• Honorable mention: John D. Lukacs, Special for USA Today; Dan Raley, Seattle Post-Intelligencer