Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

Changes in the air

In Football, Long form on August 23, 2011 at 7:28 pm

Every time Mehlville athletes came in first, they wore the medal to class the next day. It didn’t matter if it was for basketball or girls’ cross-country — they were winners, and only winners wore medals. There wouldn’t be any medals at the high school Monday morning.

Winners didn’t complete only three of 12 passes. Winners didn’t let a running back rush on them for 179 yards. Winners scored more than nine points.

Yes, you could play hard and not win. They had done that. They had played their asses off for 48 minutes, but Rockhurst had essentially secured the state championship and the medals that came with it. All Mehlville had secured was a silent bus ride home.

They’d made it interesting in the first half, pouncing on Rockhurst’s mistakes with a safety and a defensive touchdown. They were actually winning 9-7 at halftime, and that gave them hope. No one had given them a chance in this game — not the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, not the Kansas City Star, not even their own classmates. Maybe they could do it.

Coaches often talk about impact plays changing the momentum of a game. Matching a superior team point for point in the first half is one way to do that. Starting out the second half with a kickoff return for a touchdown is another. Mehlville never recovered from Belfonte’s score. Fourteen points later, and it was all but over. Winners wore medals on Monday. They would go to class.

The air in St. Louis starts to change around the first week of September. The oppressive blanket of humidity and warmth that engulfs the city from June through August gives way to the first signs of autumn: shorter days, cool evenings, and high school football.

For each major sport, St. Louis is a one-team town. Residents almost uniformly cheer on the Cardinals at Busch Stadium, the Rams at the Edward Jones Dome and the Blues at Scottrade Center. Fans of other teams aren’t despised — they’re pitied. But that uniformity is shattered, friendships end, and backslapping stories over pints of beer become acrimonious exchanges when the unspoken bedrock of St. Louis culture emerges: high school rivalries.

Every map shows the city of St. Louis sitting at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, a wide swath of some uniform color denoting population. When it comes to high school sports, St. Louis is like the Balkans. Street corners and church steeples serve as boundary markers separating the prep fiefdoms. Three things define a St. Louisan: his job, his beer and his high school.

Rivalry provides continuity. Kirkwood hates Webster Groves and always will. SLUH annually battled CBC at the old Busch Stadium. MICDS schedules its homecoming celebration for the day when all of its teams face John Burroughs. Rivalry runs like the Mississippi River—deep, powerful and long.

Gary Heyde knew that this game would be different. State championships usually had a different feel than regular season games. There was no “next week” after a state championship. It was either medals Monday morning, or a silent bus ride home. This year’s matchup would also pit Mehlville against Rockhurst, in a rematch of Mehlville’s 1999 state championship victory. Rockhurst was tough this year, coming into the game with a perfect 12-0 record and a national prep ranking. These thoughts would dominate the minds of the Mehlville players, who had learned the game of football by listening to their older brothers tell stories of how they had played the best game of their lives in 1999, how they could still remember their first vision of 15,000 fans cheering them on, and the way their medals shimmered in the luminescent glow of the stadium lights.

But that’s not what made this game different. Sure, there was no “next week” after the game, but the players could always swear to themselves to work hard in the off-season, come back bigger and stronger and redeem themselves next year. For Heyde, however, there was no “next year.” This was it. After 27 years Gary Heyde was retiring.

He was a legend — not just at Mehlville but throughout St. Louis, even throughout the state. His 211 victories made him one of the most successful high school football coaches in Missouri sports history, and they had earned him a spot in the coaches’ hall of fame in 2003. He had led Mehlville to 15 district championships, 9 conference titles, three finals appearances and a state championship. Heyde stood on the sideline for every playoff game in Mehlville’s history.

He wanted to leave an impression — on his players, his coaches, his community. The sense of finality was what drove him; the knowledge that this game was his one last chance to be the best. It was going to be difficult.

“Some people said the state championship was played when they beat Blue Springs South.”

Heyde knew that his team would be the underdogs heading into the final game.

“I don’t know if you can overlook somebody in the state championship game, they’ve still got to go down there and win it. They might have overlooked us in ’99, but they won’t this time.”

Mehlville didn’t win the state championship that year. The team has been to the playoffs only once since his retirement, and it lost in the first round. The team lost every game in 2009.

Heyde’s presence still lingers at Mehlville. The board of education renamed the football field after him following his retirement in 2008, but little else of him remains.

Now, for the first time in 30 years, players can recall neither Heyde’s game strategies nor his coaching maxims. His offensive and defensive schemes are gone, replaced by the playbooks of younger men. Gary Heyde is just a name on a scoreboard.

High school football is getting ready to start in St. Louis, and the air is starting to change. On a cramped, worn field in suburbia, the Mehlville Panthers have practiced for weeks, counting down the days until August 26. Banners will be made. Students will join in cheers, seemingly willing the team to perform on the field. For 48 minutes on one Friday evening, Mehlville will play its hardest. And no one will pick them to win the state championship.

But no one is thinking about predictions right now. All that matters is August 26. One night and one game in the quickly fading vestiges of a long summer — autumn in St. Louis. There haven’t been any medals at Mehlville in a long time. Who knows what this year will bring?

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