A trophy for Coach Les
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on November 7, 2011 1:46 PM
Coach Gilbert Baker holds up the game ball before the Neuse River Youth Football League semi-final game. Baker constantly reminded the Rosewood Little Eagles to play for, "Coach Les." Coach Les Williams died while serving in Afghan-istan.
Coach Kevin Getchell rallies his team during the league championship game. The Little Eagles started their season with a 26-0 loss, but then went on to claim seven victories.
The Rosewood Little Eagles get fired up for the Neuse River Youth Football League Championship game. Although they did not bring home the championship, the team had a miraculous run -- in part because of their determination to win for their former coach, Les Williams, who died while serving in Afghanistan.
MOUNT OLIVE -- Kevin Getchell lowers his head and pulls his hat down over his face when the tears start falling.
It's not like him to show this kind of emotion in front of his players.
It's only happened once before -- when the Rosewood Little Eagles gathered at the graveside of the man they dedicated their season to shortly after he died in Afghanistan.
Perhaps that is why they took their second loss of the season so hard.
Just making it to the team's first-ever championship game didn't feel like enough.
They wanted to win it for "Coach Les."
But as a group of 9- and 10-year-old boys wiped their eyes, the man who filled the void left when their hero fell was quick to remind them just how remarkable their unlikely run to the title bout was -- how proud they had made their community, families and the man most believe was on their sideline through it all.
They had lived up to Les Williams' many mantras -- giving "110 percent" until the end; never giving up.
"I can't even talk right now," Getchell said, moments before the team gathered at the 50-yard line to pose for photographs with the Neuse River Youth Football League Runner-Up trophy. "I'm so proud of you guys. Don't ever forget that you are the best Rosewood Mighty Eagles team ever. Ever."
The journey to Thursday night's game was about far more than football.
It was about overcoming the kind of adversity no parent ever expects their child to be faced with before his 10th birthday.
Angie Lancaster can still see her son, Trent's, face the night she was charged with telling him that his mentor wasn't coming home from his latest tour -- at least not the way they hoped he would.
"Trent, he was devastated when he found out. He cried for days," she said. "Coach Les was such a great inspiration to all these boys. He was a mentor. They looked up to him. They thought so much of him. So to have to tell him that Coach Les had died, it was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do."
And she can still see her little boy put on his Little Eagles jersey before Williams' funeral.
"He wanted to go and it was something I felt like he needed to be able to heal," Mrs. Lancaster said. "But it was still very hard."
So when, after losing their first game to the Mount Olive Hurricanes 26-0, the team started winning, she couldn't believe how the boys had picked themselves up.
"I kept thinking, there's no way we're gonna keep winning. Can we keep this going?" Mrs. Lancaster said. "I mean, some of these games have been hard. I just kept thinking, there has to be something -- somebody -- watching over us. I know Les is looking down -- smiling and telling these boys to give it 110 percent.
"They talk about him. They wear the patch. They just know he's watching over them -- and that he'd expect nothing less; that he would be disappointed if he knew anyone quit."
Little Eagles organizer Stuart Kornegay has the same explanation for the team's unlikely run.
"I have felt his presence this whole season. I really have," he said Thursday just before halftime. "You know, it's funny. When we play at home, I'm the last one to leave -- the guy who turns off the lights -- and you can just feel him there. He's been at every game. He's here now."
"I mean, these boys were down. They had lost their mentor. They had lost their hero. And that's why they're here right now. They knew he wouldn't expect nothing less. You know, I've been doing this Little Eagle thing going on 15 years now and this is something special right here. It really is."
To those who have helped the boys cope since their lives were forever changed back in January, the real winner of Thursday's game was never in question.
"This is the dream season. There's no other way to describe it," Mrs. Lancaster said before kickoff. "I never thought they'd be here. So no matter who walks off that field the winner tonight, I think all those boys are champions. They have been through so much this year and to be here at this game ... they deserve it."
"Win or lose, we've already won," he said. "We've already won."
And even though the final score evoked tears and heartache, Getchell said the fight his team waged for 32 minutes against the only team they had lost to all season was proof that they had left everything out on that field.
"We teach '110 percent' and we teach 'Don't give up,' and today, they just fought their hearts out," he said. "You know, sometimes it goes your way and sometimes it doesn't. Our goal was never to be 7-2. This season has been more than what we expected -- more than we ever dreamed of.
"I never thought we'd get here and these kids, with their hard work, they did it. They gave it everything they've got."
And they had done it for something far more powerful than the feeling that comes with holding a championship trophy.
So before they walked to the 50-yard line to accept the cup they had fought through so much to grasp, Getchell told the boys to form a circle around him -- to belt out, in one voice, the answers to the questions Coach Les used to pose.
"What's the first rule of tackling?" Getchell yelled, looking down into the huddle.
"Hit," the boys screamed.
"Second rule?" Getchell continued.
"Grab," they replied.
"Third rule?" the coach then said, in the stern tone his predecessor was known for.
"Lift," his players belted back.
"110 what?" Getchell asked.
"Percent," the boys cried.
"110 what?" he repeated.
"Percent," the team, again, replied.
"Never what?" Getchell concluded.
"Give up," the Little Eagles vowed.
And for Kornegay, the man who said that every Rosewood team -- for every season -- would play for a man who gave so much to the community he dedicated much of his life to before his death, their last answer is what really matters most.
"I guarantee you ... for their whole lives, you're gonna see these kids going at it the whole time. Nobody is gonna quit. Les wouldn't permit that," he said. "I know that right now, he's smiling somewhere. I just know it."