It’s a quarter ’til 11 on a sunny Saturday morning and there stands Conor Geisel in the parking lot of the Palmyra Community Center. Not a soul goes by without his greeting.
The son of Palmyra High School football coach Jack Geisel fidgets near the back room where the team eats.
His mother, Jackie, cooks the meals. Before the biggest game of the season – the Central Jersey Group 1 championship – the menu is baked ziti, Caesar salad, Gatorade, apples, bananas and a roll.
“I don’t know if I can be back here,” Conor says. “It’s the first time this year I’ve been here for a meal.”
Superstition and anxious legs take him to the hallway. After all, Palmyra’s club is 10-1 and Conor doesn’t want to be the one responsible for a bad end to a great season.
In the room’s far edge, senior defensive back/receiver Terry Bailey’s voice is heard without pause when the food hits his jaws.
Teammate Laquann Wilson sits with duct-taped headphones on, ignores Bailey and wolfs down two plates.
“The experience of it,” he cites for the reason he joined in his senior year. “It’s more than playing a sport, it teaches you life lessons.”
The team of 30 feels like kin.
“My fantasy team is terrible,” one says.
“What game are you playing?” another down the table asks about a mobile video game.
“It doesn’t matter, she has a crush on me anyway,” another boldly proclaims.
It’s off to the home stadium once built as a public works project where Jackie gives hugs to each player, tells them she loves them and mentions to lineman Terrance Williams, “No offsides today. Not one.”
At 12:19 the bus leaves for Kean University where Shore Regional’s unbeaten football team awaits the Panthers.
It slowly creeps through town, past the one-story ramblers on West Henry Street as star quarterback Max Smyth and receiver Kelvin Harmon sit up front. Neither of them says a word. They are focused, silent and confident.
Soon, most are asleep. Even Bailey’s voice is absent as he dozes.
Williams remains awake and reflective.
“It’s my job to protect the quarterback,” the gentle and kind 6-foot-2 right guard says. “The coaches do such a good job coaching us. They’re all very good people to know off the field.”
The rickety bus bumps and bumps and eventually hits the exit ramp from the turnpike.
“Everyone pitch in your quarters,” Bailey jokes at a toll plaza stop, a wide smile strewn across his face in anticipation of the laughs.
They arrive and wait for their locker room. Ankles are taped. Chris Geisel, the other son who assists his father, shows up at the university and oversees the kids.
In what feels like a split-second, the game opens with three consecutive scores from the Blue Devils. Junior receiver Taj Harris is furious on the sideline.
“They’re trying to man me, bro!” he yells with frustration. “Just throw me the ball.”
His demand seems a bit much until you actually see it come to fruition. On the next possession, he torches the secondary for a 48-yard score. Palmrya climbs to within 14 at halftime when Smyth hits extremely talented tailback Elijah Karnjay for a 58-yard strike, but the Panthers never get closer.
As time winds down on the 56-28 loss, Bailey’s anguish is heard throughout the sideline. The sobs, the cries of reality are so loud, so deep and harsh, it’s as if he’s trying to pound the hurt into the turf.
Emotions subside on the bus. It’s on to a question if there are any peanut butter sandwiches left with marshmallow fluff.
“Gimme the fluff!” one player yells in the darkness.
They re-live the biggest plays. Then, debate still hums about whether or not Timber Creek can beat Shawnee in Sunday’s South Jersey Group 4 final (the Chargers could, 28-24).
Bailey chirps up, yet again.
“You guys better win it next year,” he says.
He thanks them. Everyone thanks everyone. The bus pulls up to the curb.
Jackie hugs each player. Tells them she loves them. Her message the same, 10 hours later. It never changes.
Jack, her husband of almost 28 years, collects helmets and pads. He’s a good man, a better-than-decent one, who once worked in the trucking industry all over the Mid-Atlantic and realized if he could “just get in a building” as a teacher, he’d be able to coach and impact the youngsters he’s come to love. He is calm, intelligent, thoughtful and the type of guy you’d want a kid to play for.
Harmon, a University of South Carolina commit, quietly leaves the bowels of the stadium and promises to remember this reporter when he’s in the NFL.
Bailey is one of the last seniors to sign the wall on the way out of the locker room.
Smyth, with a bag over his left shoulder, looks back in the doorway of the sanctuary where he suited up as starting quarterback for two years and rang up more than 3,000 passing yards.
He glances, sighs and walks to the fans who stand outside and await their heroes.
It’s tough to tell whether the teens realize one of the biggest days of their lives is finished. A day that will be etched in their memory, so vivid and pure that they’ll wish they could just go back.
Back to the bouncy bus and fluff sandwiches. To the halftime locker room where Jack told them to stay the course. To the team, game and brotherhood of a lifetime.
Mark Trible would like to thank Palmyra High School’s football team for their courtesy and help with this story. He can be reached at (856) 486-2424 or firstname.lastname@example.org.