Jacob Meusy held it together as the seconds ticked off the clock of a homecoming game that appeared won, but somehow slipped to defeat in the final minutes.
He held it together as he reprimanded a teammate who had thrown his helmet as tears ran down his face – angry, the player said, at his lack of playing time. Meusy told the teammate to shape up and grabbed him to line up and shake the hands of the celebrating players from North Central who had just beaten them.
But outside Joe Albi Stadium, Meusy, one of the Rogers High School football team’s five senior captains, nearly collapsed on the front of the school bus. A few other players were working to hide tears, but Meusy couldn’t hold back any longer. He let them fall.
What if you tried as hard as you could and still lost, he wondered aloud, as teammates sought to comfort him with understanding pats on the back.
“We just want to win.”
But a win has not yet come this year for the Rogers football team. It’s familiar territory for a team that has had one winning season in the last 39 years and hasn’t had more than two wins in a season in a dozen years.
And the losing streak has continued past that close homecoming loss. On Thursday, against Ferris, Rogers players “got their asses kicked,” as coach Matt Miethe described it in the locker room afterward in speech that was intended to be as frank as it was comforting.
Rogers is again 0-4 nearing the season’s midpoint, tied for last place in the Greater Spokane League.
Both Shadle Park and Central Valley defeated the team by multiple touchdowns. Then for homecoming, the game labeled by Miethe as “our Super Bowl,” Rogers competed. By the end of the game, linemen were cramping, limping off the field but demanding to stay in the game. The players, even the ones who didn’t play a down, were losing their voices.
Still, when the game clock expired, Rogers had lost again – this time by just a single touchdown, but another loss nonetheless.
Back in the locker room, after a silent bus ride back to Rogers, Miethe told his players he was proud, that he loved them, that they’d “left it all out on the field,” that he wouldn’t want to be in any other locker room.
Discipline with love
There is a constant struggle, a long-running discussion among the coaches about how to deal with this team.
The players gel. They like one another. They listen. At 0-4, a time when past Rogers teams have experienced player exodus, only two of the 45 players who started the season have left.
But the coaches are dealing with teenagers who can be late to practice, roll their eyes at a coach’s critique, perform poorly in the classroom, be cocky or lackadaisical. They can be infuriating.
One player, who coaches believe has a potential college career ahead of him, took to Twitter to question referees for calling him out of bounds on one of his kick returns against Central Valley. Game film proved him wrong, and to his credit, the sophomore took his lumps and tweeted a picture of his foot out of bounds.
Defensive coordinator Ben Cochran told players that a team that loses by 42 points has bigger problems than officiating.
Miethe knows there are players on his team struggling at home. Sometimes there’s no father figure there, or they’re beset with other issues often associated with poverty. The coaches say too many players hear cursing and yelling at home – they don’t need it at school, too.
On the other hand, a tough home life can’t be an excuse to ignore laziness or bad behavior. Players with drama at home need to learn coping skills that may help them get to college one day, or keep a job, or stay calm in a disagreement. And so, as the season has progressed, Rogers coaches have been more likely to call out individual players, usually with: “You’re better than that!”
But they temper those statements with frequent reminders that the players are loved, that they’re still family.
At halftime of the Ferris game last week, already down 35-0, Rogers coaches huddled outside the locker room waiting for Miethe to give direction on what to tell the outmatched players.
“I think the effort isn’t bad,” assistant coach Tony Moser said, echoing the consensus of the assistants. And so Miethe said the message had to be positive. They couldn’t win this game, but if they could win a quarter, maybe they could build enough confidence to win later this season.
He told the players to “be different,” not to pout, to play as hard as they can, try to have fun and to prepare to win another week.
After the game, Miethe told players in the locker room that when they keep coming to practice and showing up, “you become one of my kids. I hurt for you like I would my own kids.”
Assistant coach Andrew Durant understands the importance of never giving up and serves as a real-life example for the players.
Durant was Rogers’ starting quarterback for three years in a row until graduating in 2008 and never won a game. But, he says, even knowing what he knows now, he’d do it again even at the risk of playing all 28 of those games without a win.
“For me, it was more of a humbling experience, more of a spiritual journey,” he said. “You definitely learn how to face adversity.”
Durant got an academic scholarship at Whitworth University, where he experienced his first football win as a starting quarterback.
It’s hard to lose by six touchdowns, but as these players learned at homecoming, it’s harder to lose by one.
As the players quietly, slowly, one at a time, left the locker room, walking past Miethe in his office after the loss to North Central, the coach and Cochran, the defensive coordinator, considered the couldas and shouldas of the game.
Miethe had a throbbing headache and knew that he, like his players, was heading into a weekend of regret.
“It will definitely hurt through the chest through the weekend,” he said.
Music was thumping into the hall from the homecoming dance in the gym next door. Like most players, Meusy skipped it. He grabbed a bite to eat with his mom and went to bed. He usually spends his autumn weekends watching football on TV, but he found it too painful.
“Every time I saw a football game, I would think of what we did wrong,” he said the next week.
The seniors on the team have experienced losses in many football games, but this was easily the hardest of their careers because they believed until the end that they would win. And North Central has become Rogers’ biggest rival in the past few years.
“I went home and didn’t want to talk to anyone the rest of the night,” said Dalton Waggy, another senior captain.
But on Monday, Meusy, Waggy and the other seniors were back in Rogers’ health room to watch game film. There was new urgency to the season having lost to North Central, the team picked to finish second-to-last in the Greater Spokane League. Miethe still believed that his team “left it all out on the field,” but armed with digital video uploaded to Hudl, the website the team uses to share footage of its games, he and other coaches found too many mistakes. They led a brutal film session pointing out the errors. If they want to win, Miethe told his players, they have to improve and work even harder.
Every week before the team’s bus trip to Joe Albi Stadium, Miethe gathers the team in the wrestling room for his final thoughts. His theme the first game was that underdogs can win. The next week, his focus was having fun. He played a clip from the Spartan battle film “300” before the loss to Ferris. Before the North Central game, Miethe urged his players to do their best to create a special moment for homecoming.
“When you go out there, guys, and you put it all on the line – every single bit of your energy – and you’re willing to throw it up in the air and say, ‘I’m in, I’m all the way in,’ it does take a toll. And the reason that sometimes guys don’t do that, the reason they’re hesitant, is because it hurts too much if it doesn’t work,” Miethe said. “You see guys all the time walking off the field all emotional after a win or a loss. Typically, you can tell by the demeanor, just by the look on their face, how much they put into that week. How much they put into that night.
“Guys, tonight, just give it everything you got.”
A week later, on the bus ride back to Rogers after the team’s fourth loss, the gloom from the blowout was already lifting. There was chatter. There was laughter. Miethe joked with assistant coach Scott Word in the seat across from him about 1980s sitcoms.
Lying across the seat behind Miethe, Meusy was smiling, laughing at his coach and strategizing with teammates about Rogers’ next opponent – University High School, the team with which it shares last place.