A fatal play leads to an understanding of ‘team’

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Editor’s Note: Eamon McMahon was an outstanding wide receiver and defensive back on the 2015 Petaluma High School football team that went 8-4 (5-1 in the Sonoma County League) and was arguably the best Petaluma team ever that did not win a league championship. He recalls the memorable game against Analy that prevented the Trojans from taking a title, a game that ranks as one of the all-time great contests ever played by a Petaluma team.

Friday, Nov. 6, 2015. This particular date, I am positive, I will remember for the rest of my life. While it was just another Friday in November to most people, this seemingly unfortunate day changed my life forever. This was the day my outstretched fingers failed by inches to prevent Analy’s last-second, game-winning pass against Petaluma for the Sonoma County League football crown.

In the game of football, you win and lose as a team. No matter how outstanding you play personally, if one man messes up on one play, you all go down together. That’s what makes football such a binding sport. You have no control over anyone’s actions but your own, and you work as hard as you can every day, not only for personal improvement, but to prove to your teammates that you have their back on every play of the game. Accountability and responsibility are two pivotal life lessons I have learned throughout my high school playing career, because when you make a mistake on the field and let your team down, there is no choice but to own up to your mistake, put it in the past, and put even more effort into making it up to your team. Some mistakes, however, are more difficult to forget.

By this time, everyone in Sonoma County knows how the Petaluma vs. Analy SCL championship game ended last year. Everyone remembers the iconic photo of Ross Simmons catching that 50-yard bomb from Jack Newman to walk off and win the game in the final seconds. Everyone remembers the Trojans getting so close to pulling off an incredible upset against an undefeated league rival, and letting it slip away on the very last play.

What no one remembers is what I remember. I remember the two weeks leading up to the game, where my teammates and I spent countless hours practicing harder than ever before, watching film, and doing extra drills after practice to make sure we were prepared for any situation that might occur. I remember walking onto the field for the coin toss, being elected as one of four captains for this game by my coach, feeling incredibly excited and eager to get the game started. I remember the very first play of the game for Analy on offense, where I shut down Simmons on a deep pass and swatted the ball to the turf with confidence. I remember the play exactly before the last, where I shadowed and covered the Analy receiver perfectly once again on a deep throw, motivated by my quarterback Brendan White’s words that this was a “No fly zone,” and that my guy wasn’t going to get past me. Finally, I remember lying face down on the turf, crying hysterically, wishing I hadn’t just made the worst mistake of my life.

I couldn’t believe what had just happened. In my mind, I had played my best game up to that point, only to have it all thrown away by one unfortunate mistake in the one game that mattered most. I had worked so hard, played such a great game, and wanted to win as much as anyone on that field. I felt selfish in a way, because I found myself asking the question, “Why me?” Why did I have to be the one to give up the game-winning touchdown against our rivals? Why did I have to be the one to face all the humiliation and shame after so much preparation?

I was bombarded with emotion, as were my teammates and everyone in attendance, but no one knew what I was feeling that night. No one could even begin to understand the pain I felt because this was the game I had been waiting for my whole life, and I let my teammates down. After the play was over and I sunk my helmet into the turf as I began to cry, I never expected what would happen next.

Though I had always respected head coach Rick Krist, I would not have characterized him as a sentimental or compassionate coach until this day in November. When I was lifted up and escorted by an Analy coach to get out of the way of their celebration, I thought my teammates, parents, or friends would be the first to rush to my side, but surprisingly the first was Coach Krist. I have never felt so appreciated and respected in my life after he ran across the entire field, embraced me and told me that this wasn’t my fault, and I played an amazing game. I realize now just how important a football coach can be.

Strangely, at the time Coach Krist’s words felt like lies. I remember thinking that this obviously was my fault, and that I had played a good game, but it meant absolutely nothing now that I had given up the walk-off touchdown. Though his words puzzled me in the moment, the support and empathy were soon appreciated as I felt incredibly grateful to be on that football team, because it showed me my coach truly cared about us.

High school football taught me more about myself than I could have ever imagined. Not only did I realize my true potential on the field, but I also opened my eyes to new values and perspectives, making my four years of experience unparalleled to any other activity. After such an important game, the fact that my friends, family, coaches, teammates, and even parents of Petaluma High School reached out and comforted me when I was at my lowest point meant the world to me. Lucas Dentoni, one of the best players and also one of my closest friends on the team, responded by reminding me of the two first-down catches I made to keep the drive alive on offense when I apologized for letting him down.

I still have not, and probably never will forgive myself for losing that game, but hearing someone else on my team recognize my accomplishments after I had blown the game for them made me realize that I was not the sole reason for our loss, and that my teammates still appreciated and valued my effort and contributions.

I learned so much from this one game, that the people around me had my back, and that if I were to mess up again they would still be there for me no matter the circumstances. I learned that though a failure may be dreadful in the moment, it can benefit you in ways you never thought were possible by motivating and propelling you to overcome that defeat and work even harder.

The following week, I practiced even harder than before, motivated by my misstep to show my team I could bounce back and play stronger in the playoffs. I used that last play as a source of aggression and passion when playing the next couple weeks, and used the football field as my stress reliever and sanctuary to release all the anger and frustration I was feeling. Sports have a way of helping people get through their problems, and this is exactly how I dealt with mine. I learned that when you experience a setback, the only way to get past the incident is to analyze what you did wrong, find out how to fix it, and make sure it never happens again.

I could say that the Petaluma vs. Analy football game means nothing to me now and that I have put it in the past and forgotten all about it, but all I would be doing is lying to myself. The end of that game motivated me to play my heart out in our final two playoff games of the season, receive both SCL and team honors and awards my senior year of football, get first place in the SCL 200-meter dash finals (while edging my worthy Analy nemesis Simmons), and qualify for the 200 at the Meet of Champions to end my high school sports career.

The more I think about it, the more I understand just how vital that fateful play was to my success afterwards, as I always found myself driven and compelled to somehow make up for the loss. My teammates, coaches, and fellow Petaluma High School students may look back on that game and wish there had been some other type of conclusion, but for me, it may have been what I needed to get motivated myself and mature into a college student prepared for life. Without comprehending the circumstances of that fateful play, I may not have been able to grow from my mistakes, pursue my goals with high ambitions and aspirations, and make myself a better athlete and better person.

Finally, I will always keep Henry Ford’s words in mind when I remember Nov. 6, 2015: “Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.”

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