RALEIGH, N.C. — If ever there were a time when a score did not tell the whole story, Cardinal Gibbons' 47-0 win over Currituck County High in the opening round of the high school football playoffs is it.
A high school football game that had all the makings of a terrible experience between two mismatched teams became a terrific memory instead. The story is one of sportsmanship, fellowship and the healing power of a well-timed pizza.
"I feel like my season ended on a high note," said Alex Gottschalk, a Currituck senior football player who wrote a thank-you letter to Gibbons fans and administrators last week for their kindness and generosity. "I feel good about it."
It was a game that many at Currituck, which had one win this season, didn't want to play.
All Currituck County High athletic director Rodney Kight wanted to do was prevent his team from further embarrassment. He planned to forfeit Currituck's first-round playoff game at Cardinal Gibbons, which won 10 games this season, rather than make the 191-mile, four-hour bus ride to Raleigh from Barco two weeks ago.
Currituck's season had been hard. Two years ago, the team was 9-2. This year, the club won two games but had to forfeit one. The Knights had been battered, yielding 50 or more points in six games.
Nevertheless, heading into the final game of the regular season, the Knights knew they were going to qualify for the N.C. High School Athletic Association playoffs because of association rules. Currituck plays in a mixed conference of 2-A and 3-A teams. By rule, two 3-A teams advance, and Currituck and Hertford County are the only 3-A teams in the conference.
Kight, coach Johnny Wheeler and the school administration asked the athletic association to pick another team in its place. "I figured there was a 6-5 or 5-6 team that wasn't going to qualify for the playoffs. That team deserved to go, not us," Kight said.
But the association didn't want to set a precedent by dropping qualifying teams. When the bracket came out, Currituck, the No. 16 seed, was paired against Cardinal Gibbons, the No. 1 seed.
On Nov. 9, the Monday morning before the opening playoff game, several Currituck players went to Kight and said they were ready to move on to winter or spring sports. They had no desire to be humiliated in the playoffs.
In their last game, Kill Devil Hills First Flight had beaten Currituck 83-42.
"I mean, you give up 83 points," Gottschalk said. "Eighty-three points. But the one bright spot was we scored at the end. I wanted to end my career with the memory of that final touchdown."
The day after his players asked not to play the game, Kight told the athletic association and Gibbons they would forfeit.
Minutes later, four other players came to Kight and said they wanted to play, no matter how good Cardinal Gibbons was. Kight checked with the coaches, called the association and Gibbons back and said Currituck would play after all. There was no practice that Tuesday because the players were not prepared to stay after school and had already turned in their football equipment. School was closed on Wednesday for Veterans Day and again Thursday and Friday because of a major storm.
So on Saturday, Nov. 14, without having practiced in a week and without many of the teams' reluctant seniors, the Knights loaded up.
An empathetic opponent
Cardinal Gibbons has not always been a football power. As recently as 2005, the team won just two games, losing others by scores of 52-0 and 45-0.
Dean Monroe, the Gibbons athletics director, and Kight had talked throughout the week leading up to their game.
"I had a lot of empathy for them. I knew their circumstances," Monroe said. "In the not too distant past, we've been the team that was getting beaten so badly that it was demoralizing. I didn't want that to happen, and I give a lot of credit to our coaches. They had no desire to see how many points we could score."
So Currituck was greeted not as invaders, but as guests. Gibbons' cheerleaders and dance team prepared a meal for Currituck fans. A planned dinner for the Currituck team was scrapped when the game was postponed from Friday to Saturday because of the storm.
When the game started, Gibbons quickly built a big lead. Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, Gibbons stopped the onslaught.
"They started substituting when they had us beaten," Gottschalk said. "Other teams didn't do that. Getting beaten 47-0 isn't what you want, but Cardinal Gibbons is very good. They beat other teams that badly. I can live with a 47-0 loss without a lot of regret and no bitterness."
When Currituck loaded up the buses for the long ride home, they found pizzas on board. "I'm talking real pizza. Not the cheapest takeout you can find," Gottschalk said.
Monroe received several letters from the Currituck administration and fans last week. "I think there is a bond between the two schools now," said Monroe, whose team is at home Friday night against Eastern Alamance.
If schools can be friends, Currituck and Gibbons are now friends. Because of that, two high school communities can remember a night when dignity and respect carried the day.