Stuart High football, as you know it, is dead.
After a one-win season in 2005, the Raiders were already on life support, sporting a record of 5-64 since the start of the new millennium. The program fully flatlined in 2006 and 2007, when the Raiders never once experienced the thrill of victory and carted a 24-game losing streak into this offseason. After a stretch like that, the spirit summoning slogan of “wait 'til next year” must hold the same level of encouragement as it would for a death row inmate.
It was time for a change. It was time to move on.
So, the defeatist attitudes, the lopsided losses, all the bad vibes that have hung on this program like Jacob Marley's chains, they are all gone now, buried in a box under the corner of the high school's football field. That was the not-so-subtle symbolism behind the funeral procession held by recently re-hired Stuart Head Football Coach Roy Ferri and his team last Friday.
Into the coffin went the old game films, old uniforms and equipment, with nine players driving down nails to seal it shut.
They sang as they carried it. Eager to exorcise the demons of three straight seasons that yielded only one lousy win, the players/pallbearers transported the coffin to the freshly dug, football-field grave and lowered it in. “Na, na, na, na. Na, na, na, na. Hey, hey, hey. Good-bye.”
But now the end must serve as a beginning, and Ferri and his team have only the hard part ahead of them. Next season's opponents won't be as cooperative as that casket after all.
There are some that would equate motivational tactics at Stuart to little more than a shallow gesture, akin, perhaps, to uttering a few words of encouragement to a snowball hurled down into the devil's domain. Ferri doesn't see it that way.
Ferri believes that Stuart can not only compete in the National District, but eventually claim its title. He's seen it before in fact. After an 0-10 season, and a mock funeral much like Friday's, the Raiders won the district in 1992. Ferri wants to return the Raiders to prominence, and he won't make excuses for failure to achieve it.
The standard set of explanations for Stuart's shortcomings center around the small, diverse and transient student body that makes it difficult to develop a program over the long term. Having been around the school for 20 years, Ferri doesn't buy into it. He says that nothing about the school's make-up has changed over that time that would prohibit Stuart from winning consistently. He's seen the school's successes, which included a run to the state semifinals in 1989, when NFL running back Charlie Garner played for the team. He knows failure is not a required accessory of the Raider uniform.
“We don't suck because we're Stuart, we suck because we don't squeeze a down block,” Ferri says Tuesday in his office. “Let's quit crying and do something about it.”
Ferri says he's confident his team can turn things around, and it's a believable claim. Why else would he leave his assistant coaching post at Centreville and four consecutive years of winning teams?
Given the program's losing reputation, there are some that would view Ferri as a masochist. After all, you'd have to enjoy pain to take over a team who lost, on average, by 32 points each time they took the field last season. Ferri does not enjoy pain, but he does embrace it.
In his garage, he stores every second-place trophy his teams have ever won, mostly from his work as a track coach. Mounted on the wall behind his desk in the Stuart football office is a collection of newspaper clippings. The most prominent of them screams, “Ferri Out As Head Coach” in a font size so large you'd instead expect it to read “Allies Land in Normandy.”
“You're damn right there's a chip on my shoulder,” says Ferri, who was fired in 2000 after his first tenure as Stuart's head coach. “We've become the district's whipping boys. We've got to get that chip back as a team.”
Before that though, Ferri still has to familiarize himself with it. As he schemes for future success, his current roster board is littered with nicknames for players he doesn't know. At the moment, the task of resurrecting the football program lies on the shoulders of “Short Dude,” “Big Head” and “TGI,” a player so named for his employment at T.G.I. Friday's.
Ferri knows it won't be a roster of all-stars, but he also knows it won't be a roster that anticipates a loss before kick-off. There may not be a return to the top for the Raiders this season. There may not even be a winning record. But with a sad past dead and buried, come Fall, Ferri is confident that he and his team will finally be able to breathe a little life back into Stuart High football.