Just as high school football is a firmly entrenched part of modern Americana, the pastime brings some of its own truisms. Chief among them: The most memorable games are the big upsets and the great escapes, where a team wins in the closing moments to thwart what previously appeared to be destiny. It’s never more powerful than in a state title game, in which an astonishing 101 finished last season with final scores that were within seven points.
Yet there’s a critical distinction in even that universally accepted focus. While each game features two teams, only the winners are truly remembered.
Think about it. Do you remember who captured Texas’ Class 6A Division II title? Sure, it was undefeated Katy. But who lost? Unless you live there, if you can honestly answer Austin Westlake (featuring star prep QB Sam Ehlinger) without a quick Google check, well, you’re firmly in the minority.
Now Russell Athletic is helping a select group of six state runners-up to use their most recent setbacks as motivation. The #SettleYourScore initiative as part of the brand’s new Team On campaign is giving schools such as New Palestine in Indiana the opportunity to build off their setback.
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“We want to tell the story about how they turn that loss into motivation for the next season,” Russell Athletic Vice President of Marketing Matt Murphy told USA TODAY Sports. “We kind of rally around this high school field and court as the birthplace of team. That’s when these teams really become true teams. That will turn into a story of motivation.
“We’ll start to tell these untold stories Thursday. We want to tell this because it’s a very engaging campaign, and we want people to get engaged with these stories and Russell Athletic in a way that all of us can identify with. How do we all turn something into motivation for ourselves.”
The seven teams placed in the 2016 spotlight by #SettleYourScore all have striking stories of a 2015 near-miss. The aforementioned New Palestine squad fell just eight seconds short of a state title. Glynn Academy in Georgia was just one yard short of a win, while Lummi from Bellingham, Wash., was just one play away from holding on to a crown. Georgia squad Deerfield-Windsor was 25 yards away, which is 74 less than than Mississippi’s Tri-County Academy. The final team looking to settle its score is Ohio’s Marion Local, which also finished a game away from a crown.
While these schools’ redemption stories would be powerful enough on their own, they’re being enhanced by the involvement of a College Football Hall of Famer and one of the most acclaimed sports photographers of the past 50 years. Robert Clark first earned national attention for his artwork affiliated with Buzz Bissinger’s “Friday Night Lights.” Now he’ll be spending the entire 2016 season shadowing New Palestine as the team attempts to overcome its narrow shortcoming from 2015.
As for former Titans and Cowboys running back Eddie George, he’s getting involved as Russell Athletic’s brand ambassador.
“I know first-hand on all levels, little league, high school, college and professional where I suffered devastating losses,” George told USA TODAY Sports. “The Super Bowl in 2000, finishing 1 yard shy of taking the game to overtime, was particularly notable. It’s a dreadful feeling but it sparks you to pursue a higher level next year. That energy takes you to another level, the following year we had the best record in football, and after that game against the Rams, we looked at each other and agreed had a chance to be a really good football team going forward and that sustained us for multiple years.
“We could either look at it as a blessing or a curse. If you feel you’re a loser, that will stick with you forever. But if you look at it as a blueprint for success, you can be ready when the moment arises again.”
For Russell as a brand, the #SettleYourScore effort is part of a larger Team On effort that included a wide-ranging fact finding survey that provided insight into coaching motivations and practices while underscoring what makes team sports so important for young people in America (more on that to come this afternoon).
George and Russell Athletic executives are formally launching the campaign Thursday in Union City High School in New Jersey.
It might just be the start of a longer effort for Russell, but it’s driving much of the brand’s future vision of efforts for one simple reason: It’s that important.
“The most important thing for us is to identify the brand as a mission-based brand defending team sports and telling the story of team sports,” Murphy said. “I think our approach to this is that giving a voice about what is right and pure and great about team sports, being teammates and the collective goal, if we do all that the right way all the other things like sales and growing our business will take care of themselves. If we build the brand around what we feel is so important the rest of the things will take care of themselves.
“It’s a mindset we have to have: You do things for the right reasons and things will take care of themselves.”