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For this team, winning is just showing up

Avella, Pa., may have lost every football game this season. But the team was triumphant in just being able to field enough players – including, occasionally, a female cheerleader.

By Rudy DicksContributor / October 28, 2008

Gridiron pluck: The Avella team, here playing its last game of the season, was once down to only 10 healthy players. But the team perservered and made it through the season – a Knute Rockne tale of American grit.

Christina Kelley/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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Avella, Pa.

On a drizzly Friday night at Avella High School, several hundred fans linger – shivering – to watch the end of the final game of the season. With Burgettstown threatening at the Avella three yard line, junior linebacker Nathan Carl defends his goal line as if it were the Alamo, cracking a running back head-on for a two-yard loss. But it’s a brief reprieve. One play later Burgettstown scores, making it 40-0.

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It’s the lowest point total an opponent has scored against Avella in the last seven games, which isn’t much of a moral victory. But the team isn’t giving up now. Not when the squad could have easily done that back in midseason, when Avella was down to only 13 healthy players and a cheerleader convinced the coach to let her join the team so it wouldn’t be forced to forfeit a game.

So Avella grinds its way downfield, and sophomore Jared Magon scores with 3:02 left in the game.

A few students behind the bench begin to chant: “Put Anastasia in.” After the kickoff, coach Frank Gray does just that, sending in junior Anastasia Barr, the captain of the cheerleading squad, point guard on the basketball team, member of the track team, and now defensive back on the football team. Barr moves up for a running play and makes a tackle. The fans erupt as if they were watching the climax of the movie, “Rudy.”

“I was crying,” she says later of her chance to play. “I have so much pride in this school. This is something I’m going to tell my kids one day.”

This is not a story of the feminization of football in the rumpled hills of western Pennsylvania. This is a story of perseverance and pluck by an entire team. In tiny Avella (pop. 3,700), winning has taken on a different meaning: It isn’t about the numbers on a scoreboard at the end of the game; it’s about just showing up and making it through the game.

Teams need 11 players on offense and 11 on defense. Though some talented athletes will play both ways in high school, most programs carry at least 30-man rosters. Avella at one point was down to only 10 healthy players. Yet all year a core group of players has managed to show up, creating what is a classic Knute Rockne tale of American grit.

“The kids that are left are warriors. They are tough as nails,” says Gray. “They go out there every day knowing we’re up against overwhelming odds, and they get beaten, battered, bruised.”

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It’s perhaps appropriate that such fortitude flourishes in Avella, a farming community near the West Virginia border. Passion for football in Western Pennsylvania burns with a red-hot glow to rival the steel mills that once thrived in the region. Legends such as Mike Ditka, Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, and Joe Montana – all of whom grew up in the area – are local icons.

Another local legend, this one mythical, is Joe Magarac. He was a steelworker strong enough to twist iron bars with his bare hands, a tireless worker devoted to his job. In a final act, he immersed himself in a caldron of molten steel to create beams and girders for a new mill.

While Avella doesn’t have any Joe Montanas, it does harbor the spirit of Joe Magarac. As the team dwindled in size this year, the squad knew that staging an upset wouldn’t be their greatest achievement. Surviving would be. In its nine losses, after all, the team was outscored 417-62.

“Every week we’re playing powerful teams,” says Gray. “These kids just keep coming back, and they will not quit.”

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