Sunday, November 29, 2015

A win for the good guys

I could write about Notre Dame this morning, watching its playoff hopes sail away through the uprights on the last play of Stanford 38, Irish 36. I could write, too, about Indiana 54, Purdue 36, Kevin Wilson's program getting bowl eligible and, right before our eyes, turning a corner that has been long in coming.

I could do that.

Instead, I'm going to write about this.

I'm going to write about two men with their arms around each other, one of whom was handed an immense job and did it impeccably, and one who was handed an even more immense job and has so far carried it off just as impeccably.

The first man, the one on the left, is Ernie Bojrab, who was asked last summer to take the reins of one of Indiana's premier high school football programs, because the man  on the right couldn't do it. That man is Chris Svarckopf, smaller and less robust now than we all remember, because hand-to-hand combat with cancer will take it out of you even if you're as tough and stoic a guy as Svarczkopf.

Because of the lymphoma with which he was diagnosed last summer, he had to sit and watch on game nights this year as Bojrab took his Saints on the ride of all their lives, and don't think that wasn't the hardest thing he's ever had to do. But the lymphoma and the chemotherapy to treat it wouldn't wait, and so Svarczkopf -- though he still coached the defensive backs and tight ends in practice -- had to take a literal step or two away on Friday nights, always there but not really there, at least not in the way he always had been.

But what a show he got so see.

The Saints lost to Bishop Luers right out of the gate, and then they never lost again. Beat everybody in a beefed-up SAC. Beat even Snider, which went on to win the state 5A title Friday night. Beat, finally, East Central, 27-3, shutting down one more vaunted offense to hoist their first 4A state championship trophy, and their first in any class since 1991.

It capped a weekend of validation for the SAC, too often dismissed downstate as Indianapolis' poor relation. Not this weekend, it wasn't. This weekend, two Fort Wayne schools won titles, while Indy had to make do with one.

And there, at the end of it all, as he had been all year, was Chris Svarczkopf. With his usual reflexive deference, he downplayed his role as inspiration for his football team's dream autumn, choosing instead to credit his players for writing the real inspirational tale. And crediting Bojrab, of course, for stepping in and pushing the Saints to a place they hadn't seen in almost a quarter century.

Looking at that photo of the two of them now, I'm taken back to a warm night in early September, when I was on the Dwenger sideline at Zollner Stadium working on a freelance piece for Fort Wayne Monthly. I'd come to see how Svarczkopf was handling his step away, see how such a fiercely intense competitor was focusing his intensity on something other than what happened on 100 yards of chewed turf on Friday nights.

He said things were going well. He said he felt pretty good. Then he moved a few yards down the way from his football team, and sat down in red canvas camp chair positioned about the 25-yard line.

"So how hard is this gonna be for you?" I asked.

He folded his thin hands in his lap and answered without taking his eyes off the field.

"Well, we're about to find out," he said.

Damned if he didn't.

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