The ride to the game is silent, broken only by the crunch of the bus's wheels on the stadium's gravel parking lot and the wavering voice of Coach Lockette. "We're going to go after them with everything that we've got," he says. "All the flipping tires and two-a-day practices are going to pay off right here."

By game time an hour later, the stadium is overflowing and the Central squad is amped. The Rockets win the toss and choose to kick. When the ball sails into the air, a Central assistant coach assures his team: "Y'all gonna whip their motherfucking asses."

At first, it looks as if he's right. Camden's kickoff return man slips as he catches the ball, downing it at the five-yard line. After three feeble runs from the Wildcats, Central receiver Tommy Shuler drops back to catch the punt. But the ball bounces on the turf in front of him and over his head: an ill omen and bad field position.

Running back Devonta Freeman (center) takes a handoff from quarterback Rakeem Cato.
Michael McElroy
Running back Devonta Freeman (center) takes a handoff from quarterback Rakeem Cato.
Miami Central wide receiver Durell Eskridge catches a pass in practice.
Michael McElroy
Miami Central wide receiver Durell Eskridge catches a pass in practice.

Details

Devonta clips on his helmet and trots onto the field. Durell, however, watches from the sidelines. Though he was expected to make all-state this year, that might not happen. During Central's preseason game a week earlier, he had misjudged a pass. The ball slipped through his hands and hit him in the face. Afterward, he could barely see out of his right eye. He sat on the trainer's bench and watched as Devonta ran for 130 yards and two touchdowns.

With Durell still sidelined, Central quarterback Rakeem Cato sputters at the start, nailing two of three short passes but missing the first down. Devonta comes back off the field without touching the ball. The Rockets punt, and two plays later, Camden's quarterback botches a handoff and the ball spills to the turf. Central recovers on the Wildcats' 30-yard line. Devonta jumps to his feet and snaps his gear into place: game on.

Durell begins pacing up and down the sideline, itching for a chance to play. He watches as Devonta gets his first taste, a handoff to the right. Immediately, six-foot-four, 240-pound Camden linebacker Brian Attaway slips his man and veers into the stocky running back's path like a runaway freight train. Devonta is stopped for no gain. The running back gets up slowly but stays on the field. He wasn't expecting such a beating. On second down, Cato drops back, pump-fakes, and guns the ball to a receiver who niftily dodges his man before high-stepping into the end zone. The Rockets have the lead.

Devonta flops down on an aluminum bench next to Durell. But the two friends can barely high-five before Camden returns the kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown. The stadium comes back to life, a sea of navy and light blue. "It's gonna be a long night," Devonta says as he runs back onto the field, yet again leaving behind his friend.

By the second quarter, it's clear this game is about offense. Two heavyweight teams trade attack after attack. The Wildcats use their size to stop the run, which means halting Devonta. On second and ten, with the game knotted at 21 and three minutes left in the half, Devonta finally breaks a tackle and powers his way nine yards to Central's 30-yard line, emerging from a pile of players with a growl.

The next play, however, he's hauled down just short of the first down. Central is forced to punt, and Camden takes advantage, scoring with 46 seconds left to take the lead, 29-21. Durell covers his head with a towel. "I knew that we were going to come back, but Camden was right there with us."

With 24 seconds left before the teams head to the locker room, Cato fakes a handoff and then dumps the ball over the defensive line to Devonta, who sprints 36 yards to Camden's 25-yard line — his first big play of the night. After a pass interference penalty, the Rockets have a chance to tie the game with eight seconds left. But the clock starts running before Cato gets the hike, and it keeps running after his pass sails out of bounds. Central players turn to the officials for an explanation, but they're already leaving the field.

"What's going on?" Lockette demands. "There were two seconds left!" But the officials ignore him.

Down by eight points, the Rockets retreat to a small, whitewashed locker room. As buxom Georgia peaches wave blue-and-white flags on the field, Lockette unloads. "Ain't nothing going to come easy. We knew that," he says.

Devonta is angry but upbeat, walking around the room, telling fellow seniors it's their time to step up.

Durell sits in silence. "I was just praying for a chance to get on the field," he says.

After ten minutes, they slowly trickle out of the locker room. Cato comes first, then Devonta, shaking his head. Finally, Durell emerges, head down. He knows he has to play if he is to get an offer from a top college football program. With every minute that expires, so do his chances to join his friend at Florida State in the fall.

Durell starts the second half the same way as the first: on the bench. But Devonta comes out inspired. On second down, he busts through a pair of 300-pound Camden linemen and runs for 28 yards. A thousand Central fans burst to life in the stands, among them a dozen of Devonta's aunts, uncles, and cousins from Baxley, Georgia. This is the first game they've seen him play, and he can feel their eyes following him on the field.

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