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.
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Soft-spoken, with rimless glasses and hair that dangles over his ears, Gray looks like a typical high school history teacher, which he is, after a career as a social worker. He has taught at Avella for 25 years, but he hadn’t coached for nearly 30 years until the kids coaxed him into taking over the program this season.Skip to next paragraph
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The challenge could have intimidated anyone. Avella has won three Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League championships, but that was half a century ago. While the high school has around 200 students, it had only 22 players two years ago. In the previous five years, the team had won only two games. Worse, few people seemed to care.
“Losing has been accepted here for so long,” Gray says. “It’s a whole culture that’s just been accepted.”
Gray has fought as hard as his players. About 38 kids signed up for football in the spring, but many failed to comply with his mandatory conditioning rules or were sidelined by muscle strains. “Plus, a few more quit because it was too tough for them,” he says.
It wasn’t long before parents tried to tell Gray how to run his program. “I just said, ‘You know what? I don’t even hear what you’re saying, because I’m not running any popularity contest. I’m going to play my best 11 players. I don’t care what your last name is or who you are around here or how much money you have or don’t have.’ ”
He had 19 players for the opener at Geibel, which won, 40-8. When the Avella team trudged off the field, some kids declared they would hang up their cleats. That’s when Gray made a goal line stand of his own. “I said, ‘You quit, huh? OK, let’s all turn your uniforms in when we get back. You’re a bunch of losers. You’re quitters. Fine. You guys have just decided to end the Avella football program.’”
No one stepped forward, so Gray issued another dare. “I said, ‘Then you suck it up, and don’t you ever come off that field again with your helmet off and your head down.’ ”
Gray would lose a few more players, but he knew he had a core he could count on. With only two seniors and two juniors on the varsity team, he had to use the junior high players to stand in as an opponent in practice.
Avella was down to 13 players at mid-season when Barr, the cheerleader, asked to join the team. “She didn’t want the team to have to forfeit,” Gray says, “because if we forfeit they’ll hit us with a sanction and kick us out of the league for a year.”
Not only the football program was in jeopardy. The school takes great pride in its band. Neil Gossett, a 6-foot, 6-inch sophomore, plays lineman and trombone. Mitch Spencer, a senior and outstanding wrestler, plays snare drum. Both shuck their shoulder pads at halftime and play with the band.
“If the football team folds, that means the band’s basically done, too,” Gray says.
The Avella players weren’t competing to make TV highlights or to earn scholarships. They were playing for something else. “I love football,” says Carl, a guard and linebacker. “Having 11 people doesn’t stop me. It doesn’t stop anyone else on the team, either.”
And the players had a special incentive. “We’re just keeping something going for future players,” says senior Mike Lowe, a tackle and linebacker.
Teachers and the administration have been supportive. Opposing players have shown respect and compassion. Gray credits the players’ parents for their kids’ work ethic. But schoolmates joke about the team.
“They don’t even care,” says junior Jesse Noble, who plays quarterback, running back, and cornerback.
But the kids never stopped believing. Avella was down to 11 players for its next-to-last game, against unbeaten Clairton, a powerhouse. Fearful of their sons’ safety, a half-dozen parents asked Gray to forfeit.
“To forfeit that game when we can field a team would be to defeat everything these players have been taught up to this point,” Gray explains. “And we’re not afraid of anybody.”
Clairton scored 50 points in the first half. With Noble hurt, Gray had only 10 players to use in the second half. Avella held Clairton’s subs to six points for a 56-0 final.
“Even at Clairton, we were having a good time,” Lowe says. “I’d say this was the best time of my life right now. I’ve never had this much fun on a sports team.”