From Associated Press sports columnist Jim Litke:
Two weeks on, the glow has lost none of its warmth.
“We appreciate all the attention, believe me. But none of us ever dreamed it would turn out like this,” St. Clairesville (Ohio) High football coach Brett McLean said Thursday over the phone.
“Being a dad myself, and having a lot of young dads on the staff and around the program, we were all hurting for Logan and his brothers, for the whole Thompson family. There’s no script for what you say to a young kid who’s just lost his dad. So when we sat down that Thursday night to draw up a game plan, we were just looking for a way to do something we probably couldn’t with words.”
Early in the fourth quarter of an Oct. 5 game against rival Richmond Edison on the road, running back Michael Ferns was motoring up the left sideline with only daylight ahead of him when – according to that plan McLean and his staff drew up and shared with a handful of the Red Devils’ skill players – he slowed to a walk and stepped out of bounds at the 1-yard line.
On the next play, the coach inserted Logan Thompson, a freshman receiver who’d lost his father, Paul, two days earlier and hadn’t carried the ball once the entire season, with these instructions: grab the handoff and follow Ferns’ blocking into the end zone. The play worked to perfection.
“Logan had no idea,” McLean recalled. “The look on his face was priceless.”
Yet so few others knew about the plan that “stunned” was the best way to describe the expression on the faces of just about everybody else.
For one thing, the traveling Red Devils’ fans knew McLean almost never plays freshmen. For another, Ferns, a senior who’s already committed to play for Michigan next season, broke through Edison’s line and into the clear with such swiftness that the refs trailing the play never got close. So they just assumed he stepped out after crossing the goal line and signaled touchdown. That’s when Dan Monteroso, who’s headed to play at Boston College next season and among the handful of players in on the plan, ran out to argue with the refs that Ferns didn’t score.
“And they got it right,” McLean chuckled at the memory, “eventually.”
But even as Logan’s teammates wrapped him in a hug, and an explanation for strange sequence of plays rippled through the crowd, McLean’s work still wasn’t finished. St. Clairesville (pop. 5,400) sits hard by Ohio’s eastern edge, just minutes from the state lines of both West Virginia and Pennsylvania – a corner of the country where jobs in the coal mines and steel mills forge toughness and high school football matters more than in most places.
“That touchdown by Logan was our 56th point of the game, and we’d never run up the score. So the moment I could, I grabbed Mike McKenzie, the coach at Edison, to explain what we did,” McLean added. “He was nothing but supportive.”
Afterward, Logan Thompson tweeted, “Looking straight up into the sky after scoring my first varsity touchdown...i know the old man was watching! love and miss you so much daddy” and his youngest brother, Lance, shared the news with their mother, Daniele, in a text. She was back home finalizing arrangements for the funeral later and looking after a houseful of relatives.
“Hopefully, it gave her a second of comfort at the moment,” McLean said. “And his mom has been more than gracious about sharing the story since. The way she put it was, ‘if it helps people treat each other better than they did yesterday,’ she’s all for it.
“But she also knows all the attention will melt away eventually, and she’s been very careful about shielding Logan and his brothers.”
No coach prepares for the role into which McLean was cast, but fate couldn’t have landed on a much better candidate. The oldest of his three sons just turned 5 and started playing competitive sports and his athletic career reads like road map of the football-mad region – he played at a high school a half-hour away and then at Mount Union, some two hours to the north.
“We’d be proud to take credit for how every one of those kids handled themselves that night, but we can’t. That was what their parents taught them. And Paul, he was one of those great dads – usually dressed head-to-toe in our colors, always supportive of all of his kids and the kind of guy a coach loves,” McLean said, “because other than cheering, he never made a peep.”
The unbeaten Red Devils (8-0) have two games remaining on their regular-season schedule, and already are guaranteed a spot in Ohio’s prep playoffs. No matter how long their run lasts, McLean doubts he’ll be at a loss for motivational words.
“I still haven’t been able to wrap my head around it, not completely,” he said. “We like to say as coaches, we’re here to teach kids life lessons, but this has worked sort of the other way around. The team, the coaches, the community – we’ve all learned things about ourselves.”
The best part?
“I’m not sure,” he began, “maybe it was the bus ride home that night. I think we all felt a little bit closer heading home, like we were part of something bigger than a group that gets pulled together just to play 10 football games.”
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.