(Editor’s note: This story is part of The Star’s annual football preview, which will appear in three special sections in the Sunday, Aug. 28 print edition and also on KansasCity.com and The Star’s Red Zone Extra app.)
The music pulsated into the visitor’s locker room, which on this night was a glorified shed neighboring the Raytown High School football field. A group of teenagers in pearly white uniforms surrounded their coach, whose voice beamed over the noise.
Truman coach Gregg Webb sat on a brown folding chair and placed the palms of his hands over his eyes. In a 2016 season-opening football game, the Patriots trailed 36-0 at the halftime whistle.
Webb wiped his forehead with a towel. The sentences were staggered as he attempted to recap the miscues of the first two quarters. The first punt of the game had bounced off a Truman player’s helmet, allowing Raytown to pounce on the loose football. On two other occasions, Truman had forced Raytown into fourth-down situations before promptly granting its counterparts a first down with a penalty.
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“We have set football back 100 years,” Webb said.
He added, “It’s almost hilarious. It really almost is. I don’t even know what to do.”
The candor is a Gregg Webb staple, but he insists it isn’t pessimism. Rather, he calls it brutal honesty.
Another description: Reality.
Truman has never won 10 football games in a single season, let alone celebrated a state championship. It’s never even reached the state quarterfinals.
In Webb’s fourth season in Independence, where he migrated after winning five state titles in Kansas, the Patriots are replacing nearly their entire starting lineup. In his first year, they didn’t win a game.
The harsh truth for 2016 — reinforced after the season-opening blowout, which ended up 36-0 — is that the Patriots could be set to endure a long fall. Once again, they almost certainly will not be competing for the top prize.
They’re not alone.
The Missouri high school football season kicked off Aug. 19, and the season is set to commence in Kansas on Sept. 1. Before the first handoff, forward pass or tackle of the fall, some programs acknowledge the realization that they won’t be hoisting a trophy on the final week of the season.
But every day after school, you can still find them on their respective football fields, conducting practices full of wind sprints, hard hits and tedious drills into the early-evening hours.
Where’s the motivation to do it?
The game doesn’t offer the monetary rewards of the National Football League. It doesn’t provide the free tuition of college football. In high school, the perks are intangible.
Take Shawnee Mission South, for example, a program that has not captured a Kansas state championship since 1975. The team only escaped a winless 2015 season when it won the final game of the year. It played the majority of its games in front of half-empty stadiums, and the fans who actually attended witnessed opponents running up the score with regularity.
“I’m looking at it as another chance,” SM South senior Bremen Scholz said, later adding, “You just gotta hang in there. There’s always another game.”
Another game. Another practice. Another year. They’re all some version of optimism.
But for these schools, they’re more than coach-speak. They are crutches to lean on when things aren’t going well. They are directives to block out the past and focus on the future, which becomes an all-too-important distinction.
Raytown hasn’t had a winning season in nearly three decades, and yet even before the trouncing of Truman on Aug. 19, coach Kevin Page spoke of his high hopes for the new year.
“I say this without a doubt and try to convince the kids of this — I truly believe that if our players perform at the level we’re capable of playing, we can beat anybody in the city,” said Page, in his ninth year with the Bluejays. “We’re athletic enough, so if we’re efficient enough and if we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot, we always have a chance to beat anybody.”
The belief is a significant part of the battle in flipping a losing program into a winning one. In a playoff game last fall, Raytown built a 14-point first-half lead against eventual Missouri Class 5 state champion Fort Osage.
“You could see it in the eyes of our players — they were just waiting for something bad to happen instead of seizing the moment,” Page said.
And sure enough, Fort Osage rallied for a 40-21 win and eventually won the first title in program history. A year later, Page still refers to that game as a positive step forward.
After all, it used to be much worse. In his second season with Raytown, Page established a goal to successfully execute the first punt of the year — snap the ball, catch the snap and kick it downfield without a yellow flag emerging from a referee’s pocket. That’s it.
The schools absent of rich football tradition must measure success in areas other than wins and losses. SM South coach Brett Oberzan hangs up motivational sayings on the whiteboard in the locker room — messages that define winners by their willingness to compete rather than their abilities to win or lose a football game. It’s a tactic he uses to attack what he considers the most difficult part of his job — keeping the kids engaged in a program that hasn’t offered many moments to celebrate.
Across town, SM North has won five games over the last four seasons. It’s searching for its first state title since 1974. SM North coach Ben Bartlett described the tactic in this manner: “With high school kids in general, you sometimes have to reframe how they view things, so my job is to recognize the truth and help them not get so down on themselves. We didn’t get the victories on the scoreboard (last year), but we had a lot of positive plays that occurred. It wasn’t a completely down season, so we focus on the positives and not try to dwell too much on the negatives.”
Easier said than done, of course.
Especially considering the distractions. It’s not just the players and coaching staff who understand the history. The student body, the faculty and often the entire community do, too.
All of it has an effect. Truman senior Antonyo Byrd recalled being “embarrassed” to wear his football jersey to school on game days during his freshman season, when the team did not win a game.
“You got made fun of for being on the football team,” Byrd said. “It was rough.”
Which returns the issue to the original question: Why even bother? Why compete through two-a-days during the hot, humid summer? Why continue to attend practice day after day, week after week, knowing the result on Friday likely won’t change?
“It’s just all about the love of the game,” Truman senior TJ Scott said.
“The love for football,” Scholz said.
“I love to compete,” Byrd said.
And there’s always a chance — however slight — that it all comes together.
Truman enjoyed one of its best seasons in school history in 2015. It finished 8-3 and won a second-round playoff game. It felt like a state championship, Scott said. But as difficult as the turnaround is, getting to the top of mountain can be even more challenging.
Two days after a lightning delay did little to prevent Truman from being shut out on opening night, Webb walked into his home. His face was unshaven after he had spent a portion of the summer growing a beard. His wife greeted him inside the door.
“I had told her I wasn’t going to shave until we won a game,” he said.
“After Friday, she said, ‘Let’s reconsider.’ ”