Carlson: Why high school football players from Capitol Hill celebrated an opponent's touchdown — and gave the world a ray of light
Walking across the end zone toward the celebration, Ja’Qulis Walter raised his hands above his head and clapped them together.
Axel Cuellar strode over, his fist held high.
Other players from Capitol Hill High School soon joined the fun. They wanted to be there to congratulate. They wanted to be there to cheer.
They wanted to do it for a kid from the other team.
Yes, a couple Fridays ago at Mount St. Mary, Capitol Hill celebrated two of its own touchdowns and one of its opponent’s scores. That last touchdown was a special one, scored by a special-needs student dressing out for his first football game and getting on the field for the first time.
It was a show of great sportsmanship.
It was a powerful moment at a time lots of us have been numbed by this pandemic.
“It was just the right thing to do,” Capitol Hill coach Bradley Reents said. “I don’t know any other way to put it.”
Lots of times when special moments like this happen, we focus on the kid who hit the basket or scored the touchdown. For good reason. They are wonderful and inspiring. But there’s always a group of kids on the other bench or sideline who enabled the moment — and they are wonderful and inspiring, too.
They are rays of light, and during these dark days, we need every ray of light.
Truth be told, Capitol Hill football could use a few of those, too. This has been a tough year for a program that has had lots of tough years recently. Participation fell so low several years ago that Capitol Hill went independent in an attempt to build numbers and momentum.
There were starting to be some positive signs, but then, the pandemic hit. It staggered many students hard at the school on the south side of Oklahoma City. Job losses and financial struggles among many of its blue-collar, low-income families have forced many students to find jobs to help make ends meet or take responsibility for siblings at home.
All that kept many players from football when Capitol Hill started practice again this fall. They just couldn’t get there in the middle of the afternoon.
Most days, Capitol Hill didn’t have enough players for an 11-on-11 scrimmage.
Some days, it barely had enough for one side of that scrimmage.
Reents moved practices to the evenings, and more players have gotten to more practices. But the Class 5A program is still fighting an uphill battle.
This isn’t an easy time.
It won’t be an easy season, either.
But when Mount St. Mary football coach Willis Alexander called Reents before their opener to discuss logistics, Alexander mentioned he had a special-needs player who was a senior. Jacob Brooks had been a student manager, and even though he had been on the basketball team and gotten into a few games, he had never played football.
Jacob went through summer workouts and during preseason practices.
“He didn’t take any days off,” Alexander said. “He came in and busted his butt.”
And when Mount St. Mary decided to move Senior Night to opening night — just in case the pandemic scuttles plans later in the year — Alexander thought Jacob had earned an opportunity to get on the field.
“I want to try to get this kid in the end zone,” Alexander told Reents.
“Absolutely,” Reents told him.
There was no hesitation.
“I mean, it’s the right thing to do,” Reents said.
And when he brought up the possibility to his players at Capitol Hill, explaining that this was something nice they could do for someone else, that it would be a moment Jacob might not otherwise have, Reents soon realized he didn’t have to worry about convincing his team.
“They were all for it,” Reents said. “They were really excited about it.”
The players were totally on board — and then some.
“If they celebrate,” they asked, “can we go celebrate with them?”
That’s exactly what they did. All of the Mount St. Mary players rushed to the end zone after Jacob scored, but so did a bunch of the Capitol Hill players. Their maroon and black mixed Mount St. Mary’s blue and silver.
“To me, high school athletics should be about everybody celebrating each other,” Alexander said. “I want every kid … to have memories that will last a lifetime.”
It was a great memory for Jacob and his teammates, but it should be great for all the players from Capitol Hill, too.
After the game, a 51-12 Capitol Hill loss, Reents huddled up his team.
“It was a shellacking to say the least,” he said.
They talked about what went wrong, what they could improve.
But they also talked about Jacob’s touchdown.
“That added to that score,” Reents said. “It was a moment that we could have said no and fought for it. But in the end, we did what we hope that anybody would do.”
They did more.
Guys like Cody Sydenstriker and Nathan Ochoa, Axel Cuellar and Ja’Qulis Walter didn’t just enable the moment. They celebrated it. They clapped and cheered and hooted and hollered in the end zone with Jacob.
They weren’t just rays of light.
They were mirrors, reflecting the joy of others, flooding the world with radiance.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.