After the players had dumped cold water over his head in celebration, Phoenix Maryvale coach George Martinez gathered his team at one end of the field and looked into the eyes of his seniors.
They were the ones who had suffered the most. Week after week, year after year the losses piled up, 32 straight in all, and with each defeat the apathy and ridicule from classmates would grow and the words of support from friends and family members would be diminished.
The seniors believed they would win a football game sometime. To think otherwise, to contemplate an entire high school career without a single victory was too painful.
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So, when it finally came, when Maryvale beat Phoenix Carl Hayden 52-0 on Friday, some of the seniors broke down. They couldn’t help it. For the first time they weren’t losers.
“It was amazing,” Maryvale coach George Martinez said. “I saw them crying with joy. I said to myself, ‘Man this is what it’s all about. This is high school football. This is what it’s all about.’ I get choked up talking about it.”
The 32 straight losses don’t begin to explain what Maryvale has endured. Because of an inexplicable decision by school administrators, the school remained in Division I the past two seasons while several other Phoenix Union High School District teams dropped down to Division II or Division III.
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Last year, Maryvale was outscored 613-75. In 2013, it was 534-46. Some of Marvyale’s opponents those two seasons: Phoenix Mountain Pointe, Mesa Skyline, Mesa Westwood and Avondale Westview. It was the atypical Friday night when there wasn’t a running clock by halftime.
“Last year, I didn’t take 15 players to Mountain Pointe because they came late to a meeting on Thursday,” Martinez said. “That included my starting quarterback and his backup. I thought about it later and said, ‘These guys may have planned this.’ I said it in fun but maybe they did. We had no business playing against some of the schools we were playing.”
The move to Division III this year gave Martinez hope. So did this: His players never gave up. Even after every 72-7 loss, they’d show up for work, hoping against hope that the next game would be different.
“You had to stay strong mentally,” senior wide receiver Allante Shines said. “All those losses can make you not want to play anymore. I just pushed through it. I knew there were going to be better days.”
Martinez could handle the losses. He’s been a coach for 38 years. But he struggled with the postgame speeches. What could he say to his team after the 13th straight loss? And the 21st? And the 30th? How do you keep hope alive when it’s getting buried every Friday?
“You could only beat a dead horse so long,” Martinez said.
Martinez fell back on his upbringing. He grew up in Yuma, with boxers in his family. He remembered his dad saying to him, ‘Hey, you’re not going to win every fight but you can’t quit.’
“That was my message,” Martinez said. “I’d tell the kids, ‘Too many people quit in life.’ I said, ‘When you go home tonight and look in the mirror, if you can say you gave it your all, you’ll win in life.’ ”
Wise words, but even the most sincere expressions are meaningless when losing streaks stretch not across weeks but seasons. Shines went out for a bite to eat with his family after most games. They’d tell him it was OK, that he had tried his best. Eventually, their words meant little to him.
Last Friday, however, as they dove into plates of food at Applebee’s, Shines didn’t tune his family out.
“They were saying, ‘Good job,’ ” Shines said. “It actually felt like it meant something.”
Martinez said the victory took him back to 1979 and Needles, Calif., when as a 28-year-old he won his first game as a high school coach. But he was far more excited for his players. They had believed when there was no reason to believe. They had hung in there when they could have quit.
Their payoff was a night they’ll remember forever.
“I wanted these kids to know the feeling of winning,” Martinez said. “The biggest thrill was looking at the joy on their faces. They deserved it.”
Reach Bordow at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-448-8716. Follow him at Twitter.com/sBordow.
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