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July 30, 2014

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high school football:

Canyon Springs players find shelter from life’s troubles in the shadow of a goal post

Over the course of a season, football players experience joy and defeat together, on and off the field, while learning life’s lessons

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Canyon Springs running back Donnel Pumphrey is lifted into the air by lineman Alonzo Pittman after a touchdown run against Valley Friday, Oct. 19, 2012 at Canyon Springs. Canyon Springs won the game 46-0.

Canyon Springs

Canyon Springs lineman Alonzo Pittman lifts running back D.J. Pumphry into the air after a touchdown. Launch slideshow »

Canyon Springs Football 2012

Their school, Canyon Springs High School on Alexander Road in North Las Vegas, near a pig farm whose stench lingers over the campus at times, is one of the poorest in the valley. This is the story of their football season.

Donnel Pumphrey sat on the empty sideline bench, his leg propped up, ice fastened around a swiftly swelling ankle. It was Senior Night, the Canyon Springs Pioneers' final regular season home game. The star running back had dominated opponents all season with moves that spun defenders around like hapless rodeo clowns. That’s when he wasn’t throwing his shoulder into their gut or just running away from them like they were stuck in a sand pile.

But on this night in early November, with fall settling down on the field, Pumphrey was out for the game with a high ankle sprain.

Although his teammates would prevail and send Canyon Springs to the playoffs, Pumphrey, a senior, reflected on endings.

His “eye black” — the smear of grease applied to reduce glare, or maybe just to look more menacing — was streaked with tears, like rainy mud down a hillside.

“I just want to be out on the field,” he said in his quiet, plaintive voice.

His teammates gave him some space — teenage boys don’t often cry in front of one another. His coach, Hernandez “Hunkie” Cooper, jogged over, quickly embraced Pumphrey and kissed him on top of the head.

Pumphrey’s tears about sitting on the sidelines were mingled with joy, and maybe nervousness. About an hour before the game, the night Canyon parents come out to watch their graduating sons play their last home game, Pumphrey became a father of a 7-pound girl named Maliya.

Pumphrey wasn’t the only senior roiled by conflicting emotions. Middle linebacker Tobias Carson’s mother is stricken with colon cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy. Lineman Fabian Leos hadn’t seen his father all season because he’s in prison. Unlike Pumphrey, though, they were on the field, their refuge.

Their collective experience epitomized the team’s, whose season was filled with joy, triumph, stamina and toughness, but also missed opportunities, pain and defeat.

Their school, Canyon Springs High School on Alexander Road in North Las Vegas, near a pig farm whose stench lingers over the campus at times, is one of the poorest in the valley. More than 75 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The Clark County School District named it a “turnaround school”, bringing in a new principal and some new staff this fall to try to raise student achievement, which has lagged behind the rest of a district often plagued by mediocrity. Canyon is nearly 90 percent black and Hispanic. Its athletes, the Pioneers, are sometimes derisively called “Thugoneers” by their suburban rivals.

However, the football players, in their game day shirts and ties, are leaders in academics, student government and other extracurricular activities.

The only thing missing? A state championship.

Monday, June 25

The season begins with an 8.6-mile run at 6 a.m. through the city’s roughest neighborhoods, morning heat rising off the asphalt. Coach Hunkie Cooper’s conditioning regimen is beyond rigorous. He stops and lectures his team — using a homeless shelter and then a cemetery as backdrops — on the dangers of being young and black or Hispanic, and about how he would steer them right if they listened to him, which is what they would do if they want to remain on the football team.

Coach Cooper Team Run

Canyon Springs High School football coach Hunkie Cooper teaches life lessons to his players on the first day of the practice season, Monday June 25, 2012. WARNING: Video contains graphic language.

Cooper, 43, is a legend to those who know Las Vegas Valley football.

He won a scholarship to UNLV and was a standout receiver before becoming arguably the best player in the history of the Arena Football League, while also helping his fellow players form a union and win a collective bargaining contract.

His message to his players is simple but drilled into them daily, sometimes hourly. Football will end. Then what? Be prepared — academically, socially, morally — to face the world. Don’t be a statistic, one of the 11 percent of black men between 20 and 34 who are incarcerated.

He requires grade sheets every Wednesday and stresses academics, extracurricular activities and volunteer work.

After an early junior varsity team meal in the school cafeteria that Cooper has served and cleaned up mostly by himself, wiping down and then folding up tables, he draws the players in a tight circle.

“Two of your teammates will be on the sidelines today," he says. "This is what happens when I get emails saying someone misbehaved in class.”

Then, “I can pick out my kids out of 2,600. How? Because you’re wearing shirts and ties. This is what you wear in the next phase of your life. This is what success looks like. Success is not a jumpsuit with a number on it.”

Friday, Sept. 14

The hard work and the talent are paying off. A playoff run is envisioned.

In the opener two weeks earlier against Foothill, to whom Canyon had lost by three touchdowns in 2011, Pumphrey carried the ball 10 times for 347 yards and five touchdowns, including scores from 91, 73 and 70 yards. Canyon won 47-6.

Now it’s Week 2. Canyon is hosting Cheyenne as the sun recedes, the nearby mountains turning a soft red as if lit by a distant fire. Canyon is again dominating behind Pumphrey’s running. At one point, he goes left, finds no running room, wheels around in a giant circle and zooms past a flat-footed defense for a long score.

Rayshawn Henderson, a defensive lineman and sometimes fullback known to teammates as “Worm,” is proving himself to be a nasty presence on the defensive line, 275 pounds and quick up the field. Carson is rock solid at middle linebacker while Isiah Carter owns the outside. Diamante Luna is a talent on offense, defense and special teams. The offensive line provides gaps Pumphrey needs.

Cooper’s son, A.J. Cooper, a small but determined and smart safety, makes an interception, and the score is 20-0 at the half.

After halftime, the game is mostly a lopsided snoozer, but then Cheyenne fakes a punt and throws a long pass to an open receiver. Pumphrey is back to field the punt. He sees the play developing, rolls up a head of steam — he runs the 40-yard dash in an NFL-caliber 4.4 seconds — and crashes into the receiver at the perfect moment, jarring the ball loose. It’s a highlight-reel hit, and later in the season, Pumphrey would say it was his favorite play.

The team is 2-0.

Friday, Sept. 21

Tonight, it’s perennial powerhouse Palo Verde, which plays an old-school, enigmatic offense, the single wing. Defensive coordinator Stan Davis has sent his players an essay on the single wing written by its inventor. He asks who has read the material, and only a few hands go up.

Davis is a laconic and witty veteran coach who played defensive back at Long Beach State before piling up countless frequent flier miles coaching college and pro ball, including the Cincinnati Bengals.

He’s like a Buddhist with two quiet mantras. One is, “Two clap,” after which his defensive charges clap twice.

“Two clap.”

Clap clap.

The other is, “Do you understand?” which is followed by “Yes, sir!”

It’s an effective technique for centering and quieting the mind, which is important because of the complexity and psychic noise of the game. The other team lines up in multiple formations, each yielding to innumerable potential run and pass options. Once the mental puzzle is solved, the players must win the physical challenge of force and momentum and the infliction and endurance of pain. The game requires a strange blend of intelligence and instinct, emotion and composure. And, of course, violence.

“Y’all seen the movie ‘Heat’?” Davis asks the defense. “There was the one guy with the information. And then the crew did the heist. I’m the guy with the information for you to be successful. Now we’re a day behind — I gave you the information from the guy who invented the single wing offense, and only three guys read it. Unacceptable.”

The coaches' warnings go unheeded, and Canyon loses a three-point game it should have won on the road. The offense fails to score twice inside the Palo 10-yard line while the defense gives up a 96-yard touchdown pass to a team that almost never throws the ball. Foolish penalties might have made the difference. Cooper is unhappy with the team, but he blames himself for not using Pumphrey more when the game was on the line.

Click to enlarge photo

Canyon Springs football players Stephone Revels, Fabian Leos and A.J. Cooper Thursday, July 26, 2012.

Despite the loss, it’s the best performance so far for Fabian Leos, a 230-pound offensive and defensive lineman and one of Cooper’s favorites.

Leos has the long, black mane and facial hair of a biker and looks and acts 27, not 17.

His family lost their home to foreclosure last year when the bank claimed to never receive mortgage modification papers. His father, who had already served a prison term, couldn’t find work and was arrested this year for a drug-related offense and again sent to prison.

Leos wakes early in their three-bedroom apartment and gets his three younger siblings to school before heading to the Canyon magnet program, the rigorous legal-studies track for high achievers that nearly half of all Canyon football players pursue.

“I’ve learned to set stuff aside and not let it affect you, so you don’t lose focus on what you’re trying to do,” he says. Football allows him that serenity. “When you step on the field, the whole world stops.”

Echoing the Canyon theology, Leos says football is a test of character.

He says his father, with whom he corresponds through the mail, has instilled discipline and a work ethic, but he calls Cooper a second father to him and his teammates, always there to help and encourage.

Cooper, Leos says, “helped me become more appreciative of what I have.”

Friday, Sept. 28

Canyon travels next to Liberty, known for its large and boisterous band and crowds and the smell of Polynesian barbecue in the parking lot.

The team struggles until the second half, when Pumphrey again takes over the game, breaking off a 72-yard scoring run and then returning a punt 47 yards for a touchdown three minutes later.

But the offense stalls, and the defense can’t stop Liberty’s talented quarterback Kai Nacua, and Canyon loses again, 23-20.

Friday, Oct. 5

The midseason slog continues. Canyon wins, but in lackluster fashion, 29-21, against a badly overmatched Silverado team. Pumphrey again scores on two long touchdowns, but four more are called back because of penalties, in which Canyon players illegally blocked Silverado players in the back.

For Cooper, these penalties aren’t merely foolish. They are immoral.

“It’s cheap, disrespectful and cowardly," he says. "It’s not what I stand for.”

He’s never been so angry with this team.

“You better get your mind in this thing. Talent without direction, talent without discipline, is nothing. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m not tough enough. Well, it’s done Monday. Get your Pedialyte and be ready to go,” he says, referring to a hydrating liquid often used for infants. In other words, they would do little at Monday’s practice but run.

As the team trudges off the field, a young linebacker/tight end who had snapped at Cooper on the sideline approaches his coach and apologizes, all, "Yes, sir," and, "No, sir." Apology accepted.

Cooper wonders if there’s something in his players’ tough upbringings that makes them unable to accept success, that makes them self-sabotage.

“These kids go through so much between the ages of 8 and 16 in our neighborhoods — the gunfire, the fights, the ambulances. It’s like: When everything is going right, something must be wrong,” he says.

Cooper knows this world. He’s from the Eastern Texas town of Palestine, one of nine children whose father — a veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam — died when Hunkie was 14. He was a poor country kid, hunting small game and eating every part of the pig. Instead of maple syrup, his mother would boil a little sugar and water.

“That’s why we all got diabetes,” he says as he laughs.

He fathered two children at 18, lost a scholarship to play junior college ball, worked in a slaughterhouse and got some help from a brother to get back to junior college, where his team won the national title.

After UNLV and his long Arena Football playing career, he coached in the league in Utah, but returned home to coach young men who he believed needed him and to be closer to his family. He has six children, including three in high school. His wife, Tiffany, has coronary artery disease that required massive surgery in 2010. She’s had 12 angioplasties and has six stents. He frequently tells his team about his devotion to her and her fragile health.

Cooper’s also the Canyon site coordinator for Communities in Schools, a nonprofit organization that provides extra resources for the district’s most impoverished schools.

Kids come in needing eyeglasses or a new pair of shoes or a dental visit.

A girl brings in her friend who is a teenage mother in need of diapers. He begins filling out paperwork to get her in the system and figure out how he can help her stay in school.

“Still with the dad?” he asks.

“No. He's with another girl,” she responds.

“He played you, didn’t he?” Cooper says knowingly, having seen it all before.

•••

Cooper earns $3,200 coaching. He works seven days a week, at practice and games, but also watching game film and strategizing; serving and sometimes cooking pre-game meals; washing dirty uniforms and socks; raising money; organizing the concession stand; and talking to players, parents and teachers. He estimates he’s spent $35,000 out of his own pocket since he started four years ago. Equipment, uniforms, protein mix, food, insurance for players who can’t afford it.

Players have to do their share in return, helping raise money by selling merchandise or working the concession stand. And they must listen and heed his lessons: Make good decisions; be respectful and responsible; have integrity and do what you say you’re going to do; go to college and support your family; and finally, give back to your community.

Click to enlarge photo

Canyon Springs head coach Hunkie Cooper watches his team play against Liberty Friday, Sept. 28, 2012. Liberty won the game 23-20.

Then there are the endless Hunkie-isms, the aphoristic wisdoms that blend his mother, Vince Lombardi, a Baptist preacher, a self-help guru and Yogi Berra.

Make the days count instead of counting the days.

I might not have a million dollars, but I know a million people.

Anybody who trips over the same rock twice should break his knee.

You don’t win by chance. You win by choice.

All we know is the struggle, and the struggle is what shapes our steel. And if we ain’t struggling, we ain’t livin’.

You can’t be broke if you don’t have no bills.

Friday, Oct. 19

It’s Homecoming Week, and in the nearly two months since the start of the school year, Canyon Springs High School has undergone tremendous change.

Early in the school year, a drug baggie was tossed in a urinal. But new principal Ron Guerzon and his staff have taken back the school from its formerly unruly students. Last year, he reports, Canyon was the most violent school in the district. There were 169 expulsions and 157 police incidents. As of homecoming, there had been just one police incident, and it involved a parent. Incidents requiring parents and suspensions are both way down.

Attendance has climbed from 90 to 96 percent, which means every day there are an additional 150 students in school.

Canyon teachers report that many students arrive at the school reading between the fourth- and sixth-grade level, which make the academic goals daunting.

In a more advanced junior English class, Luna and Henderson are tackling Ambrose Bierce, whose fierce descriptions of pain in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” might resonate for football players. “Keen, poignant agonies seemed to shoot from his neck downward through every fiber of his body and limbs.”

Down in the cafeteria, it’s time for the two lunch periods of roughly 1,300 students each.

Canyon football players are unfailingly polite, freely approaching visitors and offering a firm handshake and confident introduction. Eric Williams, a senior fullback, is always blessed with a ready, wide grin. He says the football program is a brotherhood.

Gerald Hardwick is a special-needs kid, a senior lineman, fiercely protected by teammates and coaches.

He and Williams shrug off their coach’s toughness.

“Yeah, he’s tough, but he’s preparing us for life,” Williams says.

Upstairs in an Advanced Placement government class, which will allow students to earn college credit, Lou Grillo is grilling his students on the Constitution. Stephon Revels, a soft-spoken running back and defensive back, has a good mastery of the subject matter, including implied and enumerated powers and the Bill of Rights. He’s eyeing Grambling State University.

Grillo gives up with a few minutes left as the band marches through the halls and plays and screams, “Canyon! We got spirit!”

The homecoming game, against Valley High School, is a breeze, a 46-0 victory.

Laura Willis, the assistant principal for athletics and activities, is on the sideline near the end of the game, pushing a carriage with her baby, Luke, swaddled inside.

Senior MLB Tobias Carson

Canyon Springs High senior middle linebacker Tobias Carson talks about the Pioneers upcoming football season

Carson, the short but powerful middle linebacker playing his final homecoming, approaches and peers inside the carriage. His face glows as if lit by moonlight, and he has a broad smile. He and Willis embrace.

Later, during a meal at Chipotle before which Carson says a silent prayer, he tells the story.

He has a twin sister, and their biological mother died from complications during birth. His aunt, who he refers to as his mother, has raised them. A tough but good mom, he says. His twin sister rebelled, and there was chaos in the home. At one point, his sister accused him of hitting her, and he was taken to juvenile detention. His grades collapsed.

He says Cooper and Willis stuck with him. Cooper made an exception to his own rule and allowed Carson to practice with the team despite his poor grades. He also stood with him before the judge and vouched for him so that, eventually, his record was expunged.

It’s worth noting how crucial this was to Carson’s future — young men who get caught up in the vortex of the legal system often never escape it.

As for Willis, “She was always there to help me out and look out for me.” She gave him a gift card to Chipotle for his birthday and brought a burrito to him after a wrestling match. For Carson, this counts for a lot.

“I’m just happy for her. She has a family now. I want to be like a big brother to her son,” he says, explaining the joy on his face when he saw baby Luke.

Although the turbulence at home has receded, Carson’s mother was diagnosed with colon cancer and is in chemotherapy while she also works nights as a personal care assistant to the elderly.

Despite it all, Carson’s grades have improved markedly, including a 3.7 grade-point average during the first quarter.

“If you stay humble, your blessings are going to come eventually," he says. "I pray on that.”

Carson’s serene demeanor does not fit with the domestic violence allegation but is also belied by his play on the football field — he’s at the center of a defense that has stiffened as the season wears on, growing more punishing with each game.

And yet, like Leos, he describes a calm that comes over him once the game begins.

“You can have all the problems in the world, but once you get on that field, the presence of the field will give you peace,” he says.

He hopes to play college ball and get a degree.

“It’s all about going to college and taking care of my family, and then I want to get involved in my community, help people who need help,” he says.

Cooper loves Carson like a son.

“He doubts himself, but he’s one of the best kids you’ll ever meet," Cooper says. "Compassionate. Caring. Humble. Those are the ones you fight for.”

Thursday, Oct. 25

Canyon has traveled to Green Valley High School. It’s another relatively affluent suburban school with an excellent and well-appointed band.

Overheard on the Green Valley sidelines: “We’re providing welfare for them.”

After starting out slow, Canyon is suddenly dominating the game, with Pumphrey scoring five consecutive touchdowns to put the Pioneers up by two scores.

Watching Pumphrey week after week running through and around and straight by defenders for long touchdowns, it is easy to take for granted how talented he is. He stops and changes directions so quickly that the field seems to tilt downhill for him.

Still, the game is tight, with Green Valley driving with the ball, down eight, facing fourth-and-long. The quarterback throws incomplete, but Carson is charged with a late hit, extending the drive. Green Valley quickly scores, and Carson comes off the field in a daze, rocking back and forth and staring into space like he’s just been in a car crash.

Cooper is outraged, less by the penalty than by Carson’s dejected attitude.

Green Valley vs. Canyon Springs

Canyon Springs Andrew Lewis reacts as Green Valley celebrates their last second, game-winning field goal Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012. Green Valley won 33-32. Launch slideshow »

“You gonna play, you play!” the coach screams at him before stomping off.

Leos is helmet-to-helmet with Carson: “You get your head together and get in the game. We need you one more time.”

The Canyon offense has the ball deep in Green Valley territory and merely needs to run out the clock but makes a series of mental mistakes. Green Valley gets the ball back and wins on a last-second field goal.

The nights have grown colder, and Canyon has now lost three games by seven points.

Friday, Nov. 2

Tonight’s Senior Night victory feels Pyrrhic, almost ominously so. Pumphrey is injured, and the team coasts, to the coaches’ dismay. Cooper is briefer in his criticism than usual, not wanting to spoil Senior Night, and if only because he has to run out to his other job.

After many Friday night games, he changes into a suit for his role as head of security at Act, the new nightclub at the Palazzo. He was recruited there from the Wynn. He insisted that he be allowed to bring 20 of his own people, including a coach and the team trainer. It’s a crazy way for a guy from rural Texas to make a living — coaching high school football by day, then spending the night working at one of the most exclusive clubs in the world. It’s serious business, though, with gaming licenses at stake, and he’s already advised management on how to close security gaps.

He leaves the club for home in the early morning and watches game film and exchanges text messages with Davis, the defensive coordinator. He checks on his wife, maybe takes a brief nap or sits in the bath, before it’s time to head to school.

His only aphorism that is probably not just untrue but also unhealthy: “Show me someone who is sleeping, and I’ll show you someone who isn’t succeeding.”

The week of Nov. 5

Canyon will play Basic High School at home in the first round of the playoffs.

The week of practice starts badly. Cooper and the coaching staff see mental errors, undisciplined play and even lack of effort.

In a long speech, which, as always, resembles a fire-breathing sermon from a country preacher, Cooper implores them to learn from their travails and find glory, referencing Romans 5:3-5: “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

It’s Thursday now, and Leos has been up since before 6, getting his siblings to school. Then school, practice, and now his minimum-wage job at Kmart to pay expenses and, when he can, help out at home. His job is taking returned merchandise back to their shelves. He and a co-worker take a massive dining room table and hoist it back on the shelf. Then he trudges off to his area, the toys section, where he straightens out sleeping bags and a row of bicycles that have tipped over. He’s exhausted. Although lately everyone’s hours have been cut, he had been working three days, and sometimes as many as five or six. Sometimes he and his other teammates have missed practice because of their jobs. Cooper could only suffer the absences in silence — he couldn’t possibly force them to choose between needed income and football, he says.

Canyon Springs vs. Basic

Canyon Springs Diamante Luna points to the sky after scoring the final touchdown against Basic during their playoff game Friday, Nov. 9, 2012. Canyon Springs won 37-15. Launch slideshow »

When Leos’ shift ends at 11, it will be 21 hours until the playoff game.

•••

Minutes before the Friday night game, Cooper asks the team, assembled in the cave-like locker room, to take a knee.

“Heavenly Father, we come to you with bowed heads and humble hearts,” he says.

He asks the Lord to protect both teams and their families.

“Father God in Heaven, we just want to say thank you again for giving us this great game that builds character and courage and integrity and dignity in young men that people don’t believe in," he says. "God, I leave it at your feet.”

After a rousing Lord’s Prayer, they scream and shout, warriors under God’s care, and they take the field.

By the second half, Canyon is in trouble, down a touchdown. Pumphrey has tried to play, but Cooper pulls him when it’s clear he can’t stop and start on his bad ankle.

But just as things are looking bleak, A.J. Cooper makes an interception. He is feeling his way up the field, about to be tackled, when he laterals the ball at the last moment to Diamante Luna, who scoops the ball off the ground en route to an 86-yard touchdown. The score is now tied.

Pandemonium! The defense whoops and yells and runs around in triumph — there’s nothing like being young and conquering the world with your best friends.

Cooper knows the game is within reach, and when the defense goes back on the field, he jumps in the faces of his offensive line: “You guys gotta take over the game! We don’t win up front, we don’t win! I tell you what: I see some cowards tonight! There’s some guys that are afraid! Defense is winning this for us, and we’re doing nothing for 'em. Go out there and kick some ass!”

When the offense gets the ball back, they follow Cooper’s command. The line gives quarterback Stevie Farmer time, and he throws a perfect 32-yard pass to Luna for a touchdown and the lead. They’re on their way to a playoff victory.

The week of Nov. 12

In the days before the state quarterfinal, at Liberty, Pumphrey is, as usual, in Cooper’s Communities in Schools office watching game film and then working on an Advanced Placement Literature paper.

Cooper loves Pumphrey like a son, but sons often don’t listen to fathers.

Cooper wanted Pumphrey to consider all his options when the college coaches came knocking. He wanted Pumphrey to look at Duke and Stanford and the Ivy League so that he’d be set for life whether he makes the NFL or not. Instead, Pumphrey orally committed to San Diego State without telling Cooper or even his parents.

The subject of Pumphrey’s new daughter arises.

Click to enlarge photo

Canyon Springs running back Donnel Pumphrey leaps over a teammate during their game against Green Valley Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012. Green Valley won 33-32 on a last-second field goal.

“He didn’t listen to me,” Cooper says of Pumphrey.

“I said, ‘Don’t do it,’” meaning mess around with girls. “He thought he was slick. Now he gonna be a good dad.”

Pumphrey sees his baby girl every day, made easier because he just passed his driver’s test.

This turn of events, being such a young father, isn’t discouraging, he says.

“I take it as motivational. I gotta make it for my family, and now I have a daughter to support,” he says.

He says he’ll teach little Maliya character: “Have good character. And remember, someone is watching you at all times. That’s something Coach Coop stresses.”

The team is loose and confident. Although he’s a tough man and a tough coach, Cooper can just as often double over in laughter with his players.

“This is the only time you can hit somebody in the mouth when the police won’t come after you,” he’ll say, using his most exaggerated pronunciation of po-lice.

In one of the final practices before Liberty, Cooper is composed with the team: “You have earned the right to be here. You went through a lot. You’re still here, you’re still standing. I know we’re ready.”

•••

It’s game night. The team is back at Liberty High, the scene of a close loss earlier in the season, and one of the few schools in the entire valley with anything approaching football pageantry. The band is robust and look sharp in blue uniforms. The school’s Pacific Islander demographics give the stadium a tight-knit, community feel, and the home crowd is out in force.

The Canyon team waits in the locker room for what seems like a long time, in relative silence. Game faces, or perhaps fear and anxiety.

“Why we so dead? Y’all ready to play?” asks receiver Michael Gayden, who had a rough start to the season but has come on strong.

Soon, the defense is barking like dogs, and the team marches to the field holding hands.

Liberty scores a touchdown on its first series, but then the Canyon defense holds, giving the offense multiple chances inside the Liberty 20 -- which the offense squanders.

In one particularly debilitating series, Canyon has the ball at the Liberty 8-yard line. Then Farmer is sacked. Lacking, as they have all year, a field goal kicker, Canyon is forced to go for the touchdown. Cooper sends in Joe Jackson, who is more athletic, to replace Farmer at quarterback. Jackson fumbles the snap.

At halftime, Cooper is irate at the two quarterbacks, a season-long frustration.

While always spirited, this time he’s allowed his anger about the quarterback position to boil over and get the best of him.

He decides if he’s going to have to endure mistakes, he’ll go with a younger player, the third-string sophomore Bradley Alexander.

The defense continues to hold with dominant play. Pumphrey, still injured, runs well but can’t get to the end zone.

Liberty vs. Canyon Springs Playoffs

Liberty quarterback Kaimana Nacua scrambles out of the pocket during their playoff game against Canyon Springs Friday, Nov. 16, 2012. Liberty won 10-0. Launch slideshow »

With Canyon down 10-0, the young quarterback is struggling, but Cooper sticks with him. Alexander throws three interceptions.

Late in the game, Carson picks up a blocked field goal and runs it deep into Liberty territory. Canyon has a chance to keep its hopes alive with the score still 10-0. Alexander throws another interception. The season is finished.

With tears in his eyes, Cooper tells the defense that it was some of the best play he’s seen in all his years of football.

“I’m embarrassed as a person. I’m embarrassed as a coach, that I couldn’t give you no support offensively," he says. "Notice I said, ‘I am.’ This is my fault. I didn’t have the offense prepared enough. I’ll take the blame.”

He goes on like this, tears streaming down his face, speaking over the sniffling and quiet sobs of his players.

“I’m not gonna blame nobody," he says. "I lost the game. Tell your parents. Coach Coop lost the game.”

One of the players has heard enough. Screw that, he says, shouting a profanity: “We win as a team, we lose as a team!”

A few players tearfully thank the coaching staff. And they say a prayer and begin to depart.

A.J. Cooper embraces his father and heaves with sobs: “You do everything for us! Everything! And we let you down!”

They’re just boys, really, most not old enough to vote or die in a war.

Cooper says after the game that the hardest thing is that the seniors were little freshmen when he took the Canyon job. They’re his kids.

“That’s it more than the pain of the loss. You saw 'em grow up, saw 'em develop. Go from average kids to spectacular students, to great athletes, to working in the community. You seen the progress," he says. "I know one thing. They’re ready for the next step of their lives, academically, athletically and socially. And if football isn’t an opportunity for some of them, I know they’re ready as men.”

But he wanted to give them a state championship, and he couldn’t give it to them.

“It’s not supposed to end this way," he says. "I’m crushed. I’m crushed.”

Postscript

On Thanksgiving Day, Leos visits his grandmother and Carson, and then goes to work at Kmart from 8 p.m. until 3 a.m. to get the store ready for Black Friday. Then he goes to the school parking lot and sleeps for a few hours before waking up for his wrestling meet. After he wins, he returns to Kmart to work some more.

Wrestling as a heavyweight and often 40 or 50 pounds lighter than the competition, he’s used his quickness, technique and stamina to amass a 12-0 record, as of this writing.

He hopes to continue playing sports in college, where he’ll study one of the sciences at Lewis & Clark in Portland, Ore., or the Colorado School of Mines, or UNR. Or maybe he’ll join the military to pay for college. He’d like see what the rest of the world looks like.

Pumphrey isn’t up to changing diapers, but he sees his baby girl every day. He has been named the Nevada Gatorade Player of the Year, the best high school football player in the state, after amassing 1,491 yards on 160 carries and 19 touchdowns.

Although San Diego State is still a top selection, he has an official recruiting visit at the University of Utah. UCLA is also in the mix. He’ll make a final decision early next year. He dreams of playing on Sundays. But he’ll study kinesiology in college because he knows football is not forever.

Carson is on the wrestling team and studying for his SATs in hopes that he’ll play football and continue his education at an elite university. His mother continues her course of chemotherapy treatment. Carson hopes to take his driver's test soon. Chipotle should hire him as a marketing executive as soon as he has that degree under his belt.

Coach Cooper has been getting a bit more rest, if not sleep. He’s watching game film and planning next season, excited about a talented roster and a year of conditioning and sharpened skills.

After the loss to Liberty, he sounded like he wasn’t even sure if he could return. Now, he says next year, when his son, A.J., will be a senior, could be his last.

Then he reconsiders: “That’s the thing. Now I’m attached to a whole new set of kids. I can’t walk away.”

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  1. Great story, and I don't even like sports.