As the Eastern Washington seniors walked off the field Saturday afternoon, they left behind a legacy.
And more than a few tears.
After a heartbreaking 35-31 FCS semifinal loss to Towson, teary-eyed seniors embraced as teammates for the last time, while others pondered the might-have-beens.
All-American cornerback T.J. Lee III tried to put on a brave face.
“It’s been a pleasure playing with all these seniors … I mean all of these guys,” Lee said.
Then he, too, couldn’t go on.
As seniors gathered in clutches in the locker room, almost inconsolable after their second straight loss in the FCS semifinals, it fell to coaches and underclassmen to put some perspective on a record-breaking five-year run by the senior class.
“These seniors have built this program,” junior linebacker Cody McCarthy said. “What we are able to do today is a lot of credit to them.”
The 23 seniors combined for 830 games over five seasons, including 396 starts. Thirteen of them finished as four-year lettermen and helped Eastern win an unprecedented three Big Sky Conference titles in four seasons, 27 of 32 Big Sky Conference games and 42 games overall the past four seasons.
“They mean everything to me,” sophomore quarterback Vernon Adams said after the game. “They won that national championship when they were freshmen. We were trying to get them back again,” Adams added, his voice trailing off.
Indeed, 18 of them were part of the 2010 national title team. In four years, they’ve played in almost a season’s worth of postseason games, including three this year.
Twelve players started at least nine games this year, five on offense and seven on defense.
After playing in Saturday’s game, five players broke the school record by playing in their 52nd game. That included kicker Kevin Miller, safety Allen Brown, offensive lineman Brandon Murphy, defensive lineman Will Katoa and defensive back Bo Schuetzle.
After the game, coach Beau Baldwin thanked the seniors for “helping pave the way for not only this year, but the path that has been paved since 2009. They help continue to make these strides, and we will be back at it again.”
“It is just hard right now,” he said.
But not for long.
Katoa, who had a fumble recovery Saturday, recovered his smile after a few minutes in the locker room.
“The season was magical, even though it ended early,” Katoa said.
“Just wait a couple of years, I’ll be back, tailgating.”