In 1989, the McIntosh High School Chiefs, of Peachtree City, GA, would play the Newnan (GA) High School Cougars in the final game of the regular season. If one was a McIntosh fan, it had been a long season. Yet, as parents of a senior football player, we would be in the stands cheering for the team and our son, Jason, and hoping that the last game wouldn’t be a humiliation.
The Chiefs had lost their first seven games by wide margins, except for a 13-0 loss to Morrow. The other scores weren’t even close. When they finally did win their first game, it was by a score of 14-3 over North Clayton High School, a team that hadn’t won a single game all year. That game was followed by a 43-0 loss to Forest Park. The last game would be played at the McIntosh field against Newnan, a team that entered the game with a 7-2 record and had already clinched a playoff berth.
We had little hope and even less expectation that this game would even be close. My prayer had become, throughout this long, difficult season, “Lord, please just don’t let Jason get hurt.” He played both offense and defense, so I assumed the possibility of injury was about twice that of players who only played one way. I was only glad the season was four quarters from being over.
At halftime, the score was 18-7 in favor of Newnan. I leaned over to my wife and said, “I wish the game could end right now. At least the score is somewhat respectable.” However, my expectation was that Newnan would roar out and add another 30 points to the scoreboard while holding the line on scoring by McIntosh. But something had changed.
I discovered later that, in the locker room, the seniors and other starting players talked among themselves, and the consensus was this: “We can beat these guys!”
It became evident that the Chiefs came out, not only to play, but, against all logic and history, to win the game. They fought every play, hit hard, made blocks, tackled the runners, and began to score. On the other side of the field, it was different.
Newnan, who had always had their way with the Chiefs, seemed to not realize that this was an invigorated team. They were nonchalant, casual, and failed to take the Chiefs seriously.
In the fourth quarter, the Newnan coaches were screaming at their players trying to make them aware of the seriousness of the threat as McIntosh continued to gain ground and score points while Newnan failed to add to their lead. One big Cougar tackle grinned at his frantic coach and said, “Ah, coach. It’s just McIntosh. We got this.”
It was only when McIntosh scored late in the game and led 19-18 that the Newnan players sensed the danger. The team’s leaders rallied the players and things got suddenly serious. Deep in the own territory, with about four minutes left, Newnan began to advance the ball. One first down led to another and the march to the winning touchdown was on. Even a field goal at this point would send McIntosh home with a 1-9 record and Newnan would enter its first playoff game with an 8-2 winning tally.
With about two minutes left to play, the Cougars snapped the ball, and the receivers went long, breaking into the clear. The quarterback pitched the ball to another player who was to throw the pass to an open receiver to end the game.
Just as he released the ball, he was met faceguard to faceguard by a McIntosh defensive lineman. The result of the collision was that the Cougar player was flattened and the ball, rather than soar like an eagle, wobbled like a wounded duck. It came down nicely into the arms of a McIntosh defensive back. Interception.
The Chiefs kept the ball on the ground and used up the clock. The game ended 19-18, marking the first, and as far as I know, the only varsity football victory McIntosh ever had over Newnan. The Newnan bleachers sat in stunned silence while the McIntosh fans, including myself, cheered and screamed as if their team had won the state championship. I’m not ashamed to say that I cried. David had taken down Goliath.
The player who leveled the passer and caused the interception? That would be my boy, Jason Epps, who would later be named Offensive Player of the Year and receive a scholarship to play at a university in Illinois. But it took every player making incredible plays in that second half.
Newnan had the better record, a winning tradition, and, arguably, a better team. The difference? McIntosh came out at halftime and played to win. Newnan did not. And that made all the difference.
A similar scenario occurred in the 2017 Super Bowl where the Atlanta Falcons led the New England Patriots 28-3 in the third quarter. The Falcons, with a 25-point lead, in my estimation, played the second half so as not to lose. New England, despite the deficit, played to win. And, in overtime, the Patriots did just that.
In the 32 years since that high school game, I have had occasion to think about people who win in life and people who do not. Simply put, it is my observation that winners play to win.
Whether in business, in life, or in sports, there are people who just play the game, people who make excuses as to why they lose, people who play seeking to avoid risk and loss, people who don’t want to play at all, and people who see the possibilities of victory and, thus, play to win.
Do they always win? Probably not, but people who believe they can win, people who play to win, people who expect to win (“We can beat these guys!”), are going to win much more often than people who expect to lose.
Attitude is vital. There’s only one chance at this game of life. Whatever has happened before, whatever failures, setbacks, disappointments, and losses have occurred — it’s now halftime. You can do this. Go play the rest of the game to win.
[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). During the pandemic, the church is open at 10:00 a.m. on Sundays but is also live streaming at www.ctk.life. He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South (www.midsouthdiocese.life) He may contacted at email@example.com.]