Mike Sherman’s Fifth Quarter
A video camera shadows Sherman at nearly every game, usually close enough that he could punch it if he wanted to. Yet he never seems aware of it. Cameras are nothing new to him. This particular camera is held by a man from a documentary film company hired by NBC to capture the season and turn it into a series of shorts posted on the network’s website. A crew from NFL Films has also paid the Warriors a visit, as has one from CBS This Morning. Reporters from Sports Illustrated and ESPN have both made the trek to the Outer Cape at different times as well.
We know what angle they’re looking for: a story about a fall from grace, and redemption; a story of Bad News underdogs rallying for a coach on the last stop of his career—and pulling off an impossible win. It’s a great story. But in order to tell it, the Warriors are going to have to beat somebody. Anybody. Enter the Lakers of Silver Lake.
The Friday night lights are burning above Nauset’s home field on this balmy late-October evening, and the NBC camera is circling Sherman like a deer fly. Tonight is supposed to be The Night, the night when 0–7 Nauset might finally have—at least—a chance to win. The Warriors are playing the Lakers, winners of only one game.
So far, each time the Warriors have lined up against another team this season, they’ve looked a few inches shorter, a few pounds lighter, a step slower. In practices, their scout teams are mostly scrawny freshmen who can’t come close to preparing the starters for the 200-pound linemen and 5 o’clock shadow–growing running backs of their real opponents. The roster is so thin, Sherman is forced to play three-quarters of the Nauset starters on both offense and defense—an exhausting proposition.
The difference in physical makeup between teams had never been more apparent than when the Warriors went on the road against the number one team in the state, Marshfield, in mid-October. With 2:26 to go in the first quarter, Nauset found itself down 29–0. To add further insult, the PA announcer kept mispronouncing Van Vleck’s name, calling him “Van Velk.” Marshfield emptied its bench after the half, which kept the final score to a sportsmanlike 36–8. The result in the next game, against the Durfee Hilltoppers, was no better, as the Warriors lost 31–7.
Meanwhile, the cameras have kept rolling, capturing one embarrassing loss after another. Tonight, at Silver Lake, the NBC cameraman begins shooting the pregame speech as the coach tells the kids to play their hearts out.
The kids seem to heed his command—though only about 150 fans have come to see the game. From the start, Silver Lake can’t stop the offensive combination of Van Vleck and McGough, and at halftime Nauset holds a 21–14 lead. On top of playing wide receiver, McGough is also a defensive back and the punt returner. Tonight, he is taking field goals and extra points in place of the regular kicker, who’s out with an injury.
With 5:01 left in the third quarter, Van Vleck finds his favorite receiver again, on a 30-yard touchdown pass. But McGough misses the extra point, leaving the score at 27–14. The fourth quarter arrives, and by this time, the Nauset players are hunched over between snaps, hands on thighs, chests heaving. With 7:15 to go, Silver Lake scores on a quarterback keeper: 27–21. The Warriors shave three minutes off the clock on offense afterward, but barely move the ball and punt. On the ensuing drive, the Nauset defense holds, and Silver Lake faces a fourth and 4 at the Warrior 45-yard line. The clock ticks: 1:06, 1:05, 1:04.
Sherman calls time-out and the team huddles around him, with the NBC camera there, capturing the moment. He tells them, “This is for the win. You just need to make one last play.”
But the Warriors don’t have one more play in them. The Silver Lake quarterback takes the snap and completes an implausibly deep pass to a receiver on the far side of the field, all the way to the 9-yard line. Two plays later, with 29 seconds left, Silver Lake scores to take the lead at 28–27. Nauset loses again.
Afterward, Sherman calls his devastated players into the far end zone, away from the fans and families. Some wipe tears as he speaks—and all the while, the camera continues to roll. “When you invest a lot in something and it doesn’t work out the way you want it to,” he says to them, softly but with brutal frankness, “it’s supposed to hurt.”
Despite the losses, heartbreak, and—yes—the embarrassment of the season, the kids have embraced their slice of fame, and Sherman has been surprisingly hospitable to the media. Not necessarily because he enjoys the publicity, but for Nauset and the football program.
Nauset desperately needs the attention, thanks to the Massachusetts school-choice law. Passed in 1991 as a way of encouraging schools to improve themselves through competition, the law allows parents to send their kids to any school district in the state outside of their own—and forces the sending district to pay the cost. As a result, high schools on the Cape have been locked in a death match against one another for nearly 25 years, competing for students and the money they bring with them.
The Cape’s big winner has consistently been Nauset. Last year, its school system netted 226 out-of-district kids in the middle and high schools, bringing with them roughly $1.3 million in added revenue. One of the biggest losers is next-door neighbor Dennis-Yarmouth, which lost a net 255 students, and doled out $1.55 million in out-of-district tuition.
The way Cape high schools keep ahead of their rivals is by maintaining a higher profile—for their sports programs, afterschool activities, and academic achievement. Dennis-Yarmouth resorts to running ads on local radio extolling its virtues. For Nauset, Sherman isn’t just a big fish in the school-choice wars—he’s Moby frickin’ Dick. It seems only natural that the area’s top-line football players would begin to take advantage of the chance to be coached by him. Kids on the team have heard whispers—true or not—that a talented running back from off-Cape already plans to attend in the fall.
But that’s next year. Meanwhile, the Warriors’ season grinds toward its end. Frost forms on the grass in the mornings now, and Sherman keeps the players on the practice field well into the dark. They’re crisper in their drills, more efficient, faster, and Sherman asks more out of their performance while demanding the same full effort. The original roster has shrunk from 41 on the first day of practice in August to just 23 now. Most of these kids will never play organized ball again. But they’ll tell their own kids that they shared a coach with Brett Favre. When they talk to you about Sherman, you can tell they’re still terrified of him, and love him, and are desperate to please him.
Finally—after the reporters have gone, and most of the fans, as well as all hope—it comes. In the second week of November, the Warriors finally earn a victory, over winless Pembroke, 24–14. Afterward, Sherman smiles alongside his players as he addresses them in the gym. “That game out there was just like our season, a lot of bumps in the road. But we kept getting up. You guys stuck together.” He adds, “Our record doesn’t dictate what we are. We dictate what we are.”
As the kids make their way to the locker room, Sherman tells them to enjoy the night, but not to celebrate too hard or get into trouble. It’s a thoughtful moment. He speaks like a father, like someone who cares.
Somewhat fittingly for the Warriors, they lose their final game, on Thanksgiving, in spectacular fashion to Dennis-Yarmouth, 42–8. Yet the next Monday, to Sherman’s surprise, he spots Van Vleck and a handful of other players in the Nauset gym after school, already working out and preparing for next year—an example of unwavering dedication. They’re learning. The first practice in August will no doubt go much differently next time.
The players who return in the fall will be stronger, more experienced, and more skilled than they were this season. They may even be joined by a handful of new, out-of-district teammates. You can imagine that in a few years, after word gets out, Sherman could build a winning program here. Maybe even a power-house.
If he does, the opportunities will be different. So will the lessons. Only through losing did Sherman alter his coaching style and—maybe unwittingly—begin to better resemble the kind of man he urged the Texas high school coaches to be. Only through losing did the boys of Nauset High discover that you can try your hardest every day to better yourself without needing to be the best. In the process, maybe a life was changed—for a future firefighter, teacher, business owner, parent, soldier—in a way that few others their age would understand. Maybe this truly was Sherman’s calling, as his wife, Karen, openly wondered—and not being coach of the Green Bay Packers.
No, sometimes you just can’t give a damn about winning.