Last Friday, South New Jersey was host to a heated battle between two struggling teams. When the game was finally over, Sterling (N.J.) High coach Jarod Claybourn had to decide what to do with a game ball from his program's first win in two years. According to Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Phil Anastasia, he chose the least-likely recipient in a choice which testified to Claybourn's class: He gave the ball to the other coach.
"I don't even know if I can put it into words," Gateway coach Mike Karp, the ball's recipient, told Anastasia. "We're two struggling programs. Somebody had to lose, and we came up on the short end of the scoreboard.
"But for him to do that, it just shows that we gained some respect that night. That means so much to our kids."
Both teams were shooting for respect while carrying the baggage of epic losing streaks. Sterling entered having lost 17 straight games, sitting at 0-5 in 2010. Gateway was also 0-5, and the 20-13 loss it absorbed on Friday pushed its own losing streak to 17 games.
While the game had to have a winner and loser, Claybourn said there was no reason why his team deserved to win any more than its opponent. Leading late in the fourth quarter, Sterling declined to punt on a fourth down near midfield to try and salt away a rare victory. Instead, Gateway's defense held strong and earned the ball back.
Gateway then put together one final, dramatic march down the field, fighting into the red zone before the game clock finally ran out.
"They just ran out of time," Claybourn told the Inquirer. "They deserved to win that game as much as we did, if not more.
"They had something like 17 players in uniform [actually, 19]. For them to play as hard as they did and come that close to winning, I just wanted to honor them in some way."
Claybourn indicated his decision to give up the game ball was a reflection of his own personal experience. While struggling through week after week of losses, some devastatingly close, it was sometimes hard for Claybourn to find positive signs to build on. Gaining the respect of an opponent is one of those signs, and handing over the winning game ball was the strongest indication Claybourn's team could give Gateway that it had earned Sterling's respect.
"It was very emotional for me," Claybourn said. "I looked at him, and I knew exactly where he was. I know exactly what it's like to be right there and have an opportunity to win a game and have it taken away from you."
Nearly a week later, the memory is still just as emotional for Karp as well.
"Classiest thing I've ever seen on a football field," Karp told the Inquirer.
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