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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”