“Winning isn’t everything … it’s the only thing.”
Most people attribute this quote to legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi. Actually, Vince borrowed it from a former UCLA football coach named Red Sanders. Its true meaning is hard to miss. Winning is the only thing that matters.
After Lombardi’s Packers won three NFL titles and two Super Bowls during the 1960s, some softheaded child psychologists wanted him to soften those words. The old coach would have none of it. Winning meant the world to him. He even ignored the pain in his gut that eventually killed him to coach the Washington Redskins through the 1969 season, hoping to replicate the glorious winning years of his Green Bay career.
The quote comes to mind because we have a high school football Super Bowl game today between Woonsocket and Tolman that means the world to all of the players and coaches involved in the contest. The margin of difference between winning and losing figures to be minute, just as it was when Tolman edged Woonsocket 6-0 in their regular season meeting back in late September.
The opposing coaching staffs probably have more pressure on them than their players do. They have to call the offensive plays and defensive schemes. They have to make sure their special teams units have the right amount of players on the field.
Most importantly, these coaches must judge the flow of the game and make adjustments, fixing leaks in the defense, finding ways to block blitzing linebackers, putting their players in the right position to make the plays.
This is the game within the game. The coaching staffs know what is at stake. They’ve been watching film for three days now. Some of the team leaders, guys like Kevin Reyes and Pepe Torres of Woonsocket, along with Joselito Knapp and Ousmane Samb of Tolman, have been watching film, too.
Most of them remember what happened on the night of Sept. 24 at Pariseau Field in Pawtucket. Tolman’s Elvis George scored on a six-yard run in the first quarter. That was the only score of the night. The host Tigers ran for 161 yards on 39 carries and held Woonsocket to 24 yards on 12 rushes. Woonsocket threw the ball 20 times and completed 10 for 111 yards. Tolman completed two of four passes for a whopping five yards.
Woonsocket coach Carnell Henderson said this week that his coaching staff had many questions about the Villa Novans back in September, beginning with the most important one.
“Who are we?” Henderson asked. “What is our strength?”
It turned out the defense was the team’s most important element. Woonsocket’s offense got better as the season progressed but the coaching staff leaned on the defense in close games, not taking any major risks on offense when a defense that allowed only 20 points in seven league games was standing at the ready.
Tolman, which won only two league games in 2009, had similar issues. Who were these Tigers? They started to answer the question that night in September by refusing to lose against a bigger Woonsocket team. The undersized but speedy Tigers flew to the football on defense, keeping big-play performers like Jesse Charette and Jalen Evans from breaking loose after getting past the first wave of tacklers.
The Tigers showed the same kind of “refuse to lose” attitude in the playoff semifinals against St. Raphael Academy. After falling behind 12-7 at halftime, Tolman rushed for 220 yards in the second half. Samb had a couple of punishing runs in the fourth quarter. When other players were getting tired, Ousmane Samb and his teammates got stronger.
There are so many clichés that are associated with football, stock phrases like “the fourth quarter is ours” that ring true to the players and coaches, even if they sound corny to people sitting at home reading the newspaper or watching highlights on television.
Today’s game really could come down to the fourth quarter. Which players are going to do what Ousmane Samb did the other night and almost will their team to victory? Who is going to “make a play?” (Another cliche that makes sense.)
Even after playing three quarters of bruising football in 40-degree weather, with the wind turning colder in the second half, the winning team today is going to prove itself by knocking the football loose from some unsuspecting opponent and falling on it, turning a bad situation into a chance for victory. Nobody turns how this is going to happen. Close football games can suddenly turn on one big play, a turnover by the defense, perhaps, or a long run by Jalen Evans or Ousmane Samb or possibly from an unheralded player nobody suspects.
Maybe it will be a short pass from Kevin Reyes that Jesse Charette turns into a touchdown. Woonsocket fans would love to see that happen.
When it is over, players from both teams will shake hands and accept their trophies. The winners will be the ones wearing big smiles, waving to their family and friends in the stands. The losers will be down on one knee, looking at the ground, replaying in their minds key plays that turned victory into defeat.
They’ll only remember this game for the rest of their lives. Winning isn’t everything? Go find another audience to try that one on.