Fade to black.
As Ronaldo Tijero stood there on Guss Schmiedt Field, staring at the scoreboard that signified the end of his football season and a run at a second straight Sac-Joaquin Section title, the lights that told a sorrowful tale suddenly shut off.
It was all over.
It was all done.
While his teammates milled around – some embracing family members, some hugging coaches, some crying – Tijero stood frozen facing the board that was supposed to stay lit up until the last person walked off the field.
Things were so close to ending up differently.
Just moments before, Tijero had the opportunity to do the thing that every athlete dreams of – make the sort of play that every young boy that has ever picked up a football hopes he can claim as an accomplishment. And to him, and likely dozens of others that watched the play unfold from the sidelines, he made it.
Despite getting trash-talked all night by Sacramento High’s Xzavion Kirk, Tijero had the chance to play the hero on a Dakarai Charles jump ball into the end zone, leaping high into the air and scooping the ball with his hand against his hip as he was coming down.
Making that catch over Kirk – who unabashedly referred to the Manteca High sideline as a “bunch of rednecks” and used much more colorful language to those who jawed back – would have been absolutely poetic. Doing so on his birthday would have been even better. And having Manteca High’s season come down to a single point-after attempt – not the dreaded two-point conversion that has burned them in the past – would have made the catch the thing of legend.
The official right on top of the play couldn’t see it. He motioned to the line judge who, after several seconds, made the no-catch call. Manteca turned the ball over on downs, and Sacramento was able to run out the clock.
“I had it, man. I put it right against my butt,” Tijero said somberly. “It’s kind of like something out of a movie. It’s what you always hope for. I had it.”
One thing that he did have was his cool.
During a bizarrely long huddle by the officials in the second half, Kirk danced around the field right in front of the Manteca bench and let words fly that would have made sailors blush. There was no official around to throw the flag because they were in the middle of the field.
But every time the play would end and Tijero would turn to come back towards the huddle, Kirk would be right there beside him or behind him, chirping away with the hopes of getting a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. And in some instances it worked.
He pulled the same stunt with Luis Reyes and the retaliation drew a flag. The officials later stopped the game and essentially ordered Reyes off the field to regain his composure while Kirk danced around in the defensive backfield.
Ironically it was Lonnie Powell – the Cal-bound linebacker that played that same role of villain last year when Sacramento faced Manteca in the section final game – that stepped in to play the role of mediator.
More than once Powell walked away from his position in the middle of the field to pull Kirk aside to tell him to mellow out. His conduct was going to be detrimental to the team, and the back-and-forth shootout was no time to draw stupid penalties that could prove costly, let alone employ a strategy that could easily backfire.
And it seemed to be much more than just a show. On his first carry of the night, Powell went inside the tackle and was met head-on by Manteca’s massive Steven Martinez who stopped him dead in his tracks. Both players fell to the ground and when Powell got up he made it a point to shake Martinez’ hand, pat him on the back and then turn around and head back to the huddle.
You got me on this one. Good play.
But there weren’t enough Lonnie Powells on the field, and that tension mounted. And before the powder keg blew – signs of such were evident on Manteca’s last drive when a pair of holding penalties took them out of the red zone – there was one last chance to have the last laugh. To throw the last barb. To deliver the knockout punch without even saying a word.
He had it. At least he thinks he did. And that’s what made watching Tijero stand there and stare at that scoreboard so heartbreaking.
Nobody is supposed to make that catch, let alone a high school junior. But he did. At least he believes he did. And watching it all slip away, right in front of him, was a bitter pill for him to swallow.
Fade to black.