THE LAST GAME: Panthers QB haunted by what might have been
By Scott Akanewich
Charlie Calabretta didn’t know when his last game as a Liberty Hill football player was going to be.
When the Panthers’ senior signal-caller walked onto the field at Merrill Green Stadium in Bryan on an early January evening, it was for a Class 5A state semifinal game – one step away from advancing to play for a championship on the biggest of stages at AT&T Stadium in Dallas.
“Getting the opportunity to play for a state championship is something you always think about,” said Calabretta. “Going all the way back, even before your high school years.”
Once a senior reaches the playoffs, one never knows when the last game will be.
Each time you step on the field in the postseason could end in defeat and in so doing, signal the end of a prep career – or is simply a springboard to bigger and better things in the form of a chance to continue playing for the ever-coveted trophy that will live on in history and be the subject of conversations for the rest of your life.
On this unseasonably, bitterly-cold central Texas night, it simply wasn’t meant to be for Calabretta and his teammates, who fell to Crosby in an overtime heartbreaker by a score of 62-61 after a two-point conversion failed, which would have propelled the Panthers to the state title game in Big D the following week.
To this day, Calabretta said he doesn’t know exactly what happened on the fateful play as he went to hand the ball off to senior running back Blake Simpson for what would have been the game-winning points.
“I think either I was too aggressive in handing it off or Blake got it and squeezed the ball too tightly,” he said. “There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think about it.”
Either way, the ball fell helplessly to the turf and in doing so ended the Purple-and-Gold’s quest to win a state title – and all of this after a wonderful playoff run in the wake of the passing of former head coach Jeff Walker on the eve of the playoffs in December.
In fact, Walker left such an impression on the program – along with everyone involved – Calabretta got a tattoo with the date of the late coach’s passing in Roman numerals on the right side of his midsection with a small crown placed on the last number.
“Coach Walker was the king of the Slot-T, after all,” said Calabretta, of his emotionally-inspired ink.
According to Calabretta, the week leading up to the Crosby game was one in which he and his teammates conducted themselves in a businesslike manner – despite the stakes being so high.
“You know the next game is more important than the last,” said Calabretta. “But, you just try to slow things down because you know what it is you have to get done. We didn’t have to do anything special – just do what we do – knowing we were super close to where we wanted to be.”
Once game day finally arrived, the Panthers boarded the team bus and set out for the field of battle, which was 115 miles away from the front door of the fieldhouse on the Liberty Hill campus and took about three hours to traverse.
But, not before a splendid sendoff from the faithful, followed by a convoy of well-wishers who accompanied them every mile of the way – a fact that wasn’t lost on Calabretta, nor his teammates, he said.
“It was cool the whole town was out supporting us,” said Calabretta.
Still, three hours is a long time to sit and contemplate the gravity of the situation that awaited upon arrival, but Calabretta said the mood among the team was rather upbeat.
“We were thinking we were about to go make history,” he said. “We all went in confident.”
However, about 30 minutes out from their gridiron destination, the Panthers fell silent, as each player was left to consider the task ahead.
“When we get that close, that’s our quiet time,” said Calabretta. “All of us run the game through our minds and visualize what we need to do to be successful.”
Turns out the convoy was running a bit behind, which meant time was of the essence once boots hit the ground.
“We didn’t have as much to get ready as we usually do,” said Calabretta. “So, we were in a hurry to get dressed to have a chance to walk the field and throw the ball around a little, which we enjoy doing.”
Soon thereafter, the butterflies would set in – as they would before every game – only this time they were the size of jumbo jets, although the notes of “The Star-Spangled Banner” would always act as a signal to round up the proverbial anxiety-causing insects with a mental net until one’s stomach was clear and ready to move forward.
“During the anthem, when it’s most quiet,” said Calabretta, “is when you know it’s game time.”
Calabretta added the fact that knowing there was so much hanging in the balance didn’t necessarily lend itself to one being able to fully soak in the moment in order to be able to appreciate what was playing out before them.
“It wasn’t life or death,” he said. “Going back, you wish you would’ve enjoyed it more.”
Of course, at the time, it seemed every bit as if life itself was at stake each and every time the ball was snapped – not only to the players on the field, but to the raucous, passionate crown of supporters who had migrated east for the contest.
Liberty Hill found itself down by four at the break after a wild-and-crazy opening two quarters saw Crosby up by a 35-31 score as the squads headed to the halftime locker room.
Calabretta said despite the deficit, the Panthers definitely felt good about themselves.
“We were confident and felt like we were in a position to win the game,” he said.
Still, as a team leader, he felt compelled to gather his fellow seniors around him before emerging for the second half in order to deliver a pointed message.
“I tried to get all the seniors together before we went back out,” said Calabretta. “I just told them we all needed to go out there and fight. Everybody was motivated and we were all confident.”
But despite the Panthers’ renewed sense of urgency, they still found themselves trailing by a 55-39 score entering the fourth quarter.
Something special was certainly needed at this point in the proceedings and it was the Liberty Hill defense that came up clutch by shutting Crosby out over the final eight minutes of the game while the Panthers’ offense continued to move the ball seemingly at will, with touchdowns from Simpson and Trey Seward – along with successful two-point conversions on both – evened the score, which was where it remained as the clock ran down and eventually expired.
Once the contest had played out to its sudden-death conclusion and the heartbreak it caused, Calabretta said he was left in a state of stunned disbelief at what had just unfolded before his eyes.
“I just dropped to my knees because I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “But, you can’t let something like that haunt you for the rest of your life.”
Calabretta said he attempted the impossible in consoling Simpson in the aftermath.
“I told him a hundred times it wasn’t his fault,” he said. “It was more on me than it was on him.”
In the moment, Calabretta and his teammates were absolutely inconsolable.
But, in the time since, those emotions have given way and feelings of disappointment have been replaced by those of accomplishment, he said.
“Nobody expected us to get as far as we did – especially in our first year in Class 5A,” said Calabretta. “We were just a bunch of small, little white boys running around, but what we were able to do was what Liberty Hill means and is all about.”
As opposed to a celebratory bus ride home, all the Panthers could do on the long road back was think about what might have been – although the mood wasn’t funereal, he said.
“We were all talking to each other about the game and how we couldn’t believe it was over,” said Calabretta.
For Calabretta – who, like most of his fellow seniors, aren’t moving on to play in college – the Crosby contest was not only their last high school game, but their last game, period and in the days and weeks that have followed, he said it’s been quite an adjustment to fill the void left by the absence of the seemingly never-ending practices and weight-lifting sessions that were a staple of his existence for such a long time.
“For the first couple of weeks, especially, it seemed like you weren’t entitled to go do anything else,” he said. “We practiced from mid-summer until January every day after school and into the evenings. Now, I finally have some time to myself and I like it, but I also miss football.”
Calabretta envisions the day when what happened on that field on that night won’t perhaps have such an emotional impact on him.
“I think as the years go by, I’ll realize it maybe wasn’t as big of a deal as I made it at the time,” he said. “Once I’m used to not having football, I’ll be good.”
However, four months later on the eve of graduation, the wound is still foul and festering, said Calabretta.
“I really wish it would go away soon,” he said. “I want to remember playing for one of the best teams Liberty Hill ever had.”