As I stood in the stands at Woody Hayes Quaker Stadium in New Philadelphia last Friday night, I watched as the Mogadore Wildcats football team slowly trudged off the field toward the locker room, their season over.
The Wildcats had just absorbed a 38-21 loss to Newark Catholic in the Division VI state semifinals to ruin what had been an undefeated season and a chance at a state championship.
Even from a distance, the hurt the Wildcats were feeling was evident: Heads down, hands on hips, deliberate footsteps, almost as if purposely trying to delay the inevitable of reaching the locker room and peeling off their green-and-white uniforms -- some for the last time ever -- and boarding the bus for the lonely, dark ride up Interstate 77 back to the village of Mogadore.
Behind those facemasks, in the distance, no doubt were tears rolling down the cheeks of high school kids who left it all on the field in the face of a powerful Newark Catholic team that was not going to be denied on this cold November night in southeastern Ohio.
I watched -- and I remembered. I, too, made that same heartbreaking walk with my Mogadore teammates. I felt the pain of losing in the state semifinals three years in a row in 1983, 1984 and 1985, one step from our dream of playing for a state championship.
Like this Mogadore team, our 1983 and 1985 squads were undefeated. Like this Mogadore team, our 1983 and 1985 squads were Associated Press poll state champions.
And like this Mogadore team, our 1983 and 1985 squads lost to Newark Catholic in the state semifinals. In '83, we lost to the Green Wave 28-21 in overtime at Fawcett Stadium in Canton. In '85, we lost to NC 42-28 at Crater Stadium in Dover.
So on Friday night, I knew exactly what the Mogadore players were feeling. I could feel it myself: Their dejection, their sense of emptiness, their pain of having their dreams shattered. The comparisons to '83 and '85 to this game were so similar it was downright eerie.
Yet there I was last Friday, sitting in the stands with Bill Evans, Joe Bell and Joe Simi -- all three of whom were standouts on the very 1985 Newark Catholic team that beat us my senior year in Dover. The next week, they defeated Delphos Jefferson 19-0 to repeat as Division V state champions.
Evans was a two-way lineman for the Green Wave, whom I went against all night in that state semifinal game in 1985. Bell was a running back, who ripped off several key runs against us, while Simi was a receiver/defensive back, who dominated the game with two interceptions and several huge plays on offense.
Along with my nephew Tim, I sat in the stands last Friday night with Bill, Joe and Joe watching the eighth playoff renewal of perhaps the greatest small-school football rivalry in Ohio -- Mogadore vs. Newark Catholic.
How did I get here? How did I end up sitting with the very Newark Catholic football players who ended our seasons, our dreams, our careers in the mid-1980s?
The answer: Matt Adorni.
Yes, of all people, it was the head coach of the Mogadore Wildcats who started me down this path.
Right after Matt took over as Mogadore head coach in late 2003, while doing a telephone interview with him for the story, Matt asked me if I had heard of a book called "Growing Up Green" written by a guy named Bill Evans. It was about Newark Catholic's 1985 state championship team, of which the author was a two-way senior starter and an All-Ohio defensive end, serving as the Green Wave's defensive captain.
I told Matt I wasn't interested, that even all these years later it was still too painful to read. I couldn't even watch the tape of the game.
He told me I needed to read it, that Evans was very complimentary of Mogadore in the book. So I bit the bullet and looked it up online. After careful consideration, I decided to email Mr. Evans and just tell him that I was a former Mogadore player who lined up against him on the offensive and defensive lines in 1985, never expecting to hear back from him.
Well, I did -- and for the past nine years, Bill Evans has been one of my closest friends. We email each other almost daily, usually talking about everything except football. My wife Kim and I have gone down to Newark to visit Bill and his wife Jo-Ella, and this past May the four of us spent a weekend at Cedar Point.
It reached a point long ago that Bill wasn't just the guy from Newark Catholic I played against. He was Bill, one of my best friends.
Over the past nine years I have also gotten to know Joe Bell and Joe Simi as well, mainly through email exchanges. Bell is a Kent State graduate whom I met in person a few times, while last Friday night was the first time I got to meet Joe Simi in person (other than sharing the field with him while he tore us up in the state semifinals).
All three are first-class individuals and sincerely nice people -- and all three were outstanding football players for one of Ohio's greatest high school football programs. Even so, spending last Friday night sitting in the stands watching the Mogadore-Newark Catholic game with them was something I couldn't have imagined in my wildest dreams 10 years ago.
I was devastated after our loss to Newark Catholic in 1985. I really thought we were going to be state champions, and it ended unceremoniously on a cold night at Dover's Crater Stadium on Nov. 23, 1985 -- the exact same date as last Friday's game, at a stadium less than three miles to the northwest of Woody Hayes Stadium in New Philadelphia.
I couldn't listen to certain songs on the radio that reminded me of that '85 game. I couldn't watch the game tape. I didn't even want to talk about any aspect of that game for nearly 20 years.
I had never forgotten the utter dejection I felt as I walked off the field in Dover that night, knowing I was going to take off my green-and-white uniform for the last time and board the bus for the lonely, dark ride up I-77 back to the village of Mogadore.
But as it turned out, our loss to Newark Catholic -- like the Wildcats' loss last Friday -- was not an end. It was just the beginning.
The beginning of a friendship I never could have foreseen as a devastated teenager.
But a friendship I truly value as an adult -- a friendship that never would have come about without our loss to Newark Catholic.