When the Deshler High School Tigers step on to Pat Dye field Friday, they won’t be alone. Although their fans — parents, friends and teachers — will fill the stands, the Tigers will have support on the field. The band of brothers will carry the legacy of their late coach with them with each yard gained and touchdown scored.
The Tigers lost their first-year head coach, Jake Linville, Oct. 19 to a self-inflicted gunshot wound just two days after clinching the region championship.
Since then, the team has leaned on one another to make it all the way to the 4A state championship game. The Tigers face Leeds High School in Jordan-Hare Stadium Friday.
They will play to honor Linville.
“Coach Linville, at the beginning of the season, he talked to us about the goal for our team to win the last game we played. And here we are,” senior offensive right guard Jake Norwood said. “It’s our opportunity. When he said that to us, we had no idea what was going to happen throughout the season, his passing and just all that we’ve been through. It’s been really tough; I’m not going to lie. It’s been really emotional. We’ve had a lot of tears from somewhere you don’t expect. You know, football players don’t cry. That’s kind of one of the stigmas we get. We’re tough, and we’re here to win the state championship and honor our coach’s legacy.”
What started as a fractured season with a loss in the season-opener has ended 13-1 with a chance at the state title. But it seems the Tigers have gained more than bragging rights since Linville’s death. The young men have become a family.
“We’re a band of brothers. We’ve really come close as a family,” Norwood said. “At the beginning of the season, we had a ton of controversy before all this happened. Especially after our first game, which was a loss, we were very separated. We really started drawing closer together. After all that had transpired, we’ve gotten a lot stronger. We’re a family now. It’s an amazing experience; they’re my brothers. I have two real brothers, but I count these as my brothers, too.”
After Linville’s death, middle school head coach Michael Statom was named interim head coach to finish the season. He’s watched his players mature into young men and cement their bond to one another.
“It created a unique unity among our team members and our coaching staff and our community, because you look around and everybody’s hurting. We’ve all gone through this together,” Statom said. “I think it’s pulled us closer together. Those guys talk about being family. Well, that’s true. That’s the way they believe. That’s the way they act. It’s truly a family. It’s caused us to bind together and lean on one another more.”
Senior outside linebacker and defensive end Taylor Ellison clearly remembers hearing of Linville's death. He can describe the sinking feelling only as shock and disbelief.
“I never really questioned my faith, but you definitely lean on your faith. That’s about the only thing that can pull you through — that and a band of brothers this close,” he said. “You’ve just got to grasp the little things. You’re going to have a lot of adversity in your life. This is just one of those things that shows us at a young age that no matter what you do — whether you lose your job, you’re divorced, anything — you’ve got to keep your eyes on the prize and just grit your teeth and get through it.”
Norwood said his response was viceral. He was shocked and angry, but he thought back on what Lineville had taught his team.
“It was a brutal experience, for sure. When I first heard, I was shocked. And then after that I was very angry for probably a good week,” he said.
“I’ll say that the Rogers game, which was the game following Coach Linville’s passing, was a very angry experience. I was just upset. Ellison played like a madman. He was tearing people’s heads off. But I think we all kind of realized that you can’t be upset, because it’s nobody’s fault. Things happen; accidents happen. And that’s what it was. We just pulled together. It was painful, but Coach used to joke around and say pain makes you tougher and adversity is good for the soul. So we took it and ran with it.”
The Tigers ran all the way to a state title game.
Statom has watched it all. The tears, the hurt, the anger. He and his coaching staff, along with the rest of the community, have worked to help the players cope and heal.
But Statom has also had to heal. For that, he’s relied on faith.
“There’s a strong emphasis on faith and trusting God through this, because there are so many unanswered questions through this,” Statom said. “You ask why. You just have to get to the point where you resolve it. We don’t understand why, and you push to that point. We trust Him to make beauty from ashes. That’s what he’s done in this situation, taken tragedy and these guys have grown emotionally through this, spiritually through this.”
A town focused on winning has also grown since Linville’s death.
“It also changed the perspective of a lot of folks in the community,” Statom explained. “This program has had a huge emphasis on winning. We’ve been to the championship games before, and it’s kind of an expectation. For something like this to happen, it kind of puts things in perspective.”
Statom said the team, especially its seniors, have remained close to Linville. They visit his grave before games and rode past his house as the buses caravaned out of Tuscumbia toward Jordan-Hare. Linville’s two daughters, Logan and Avery, are expected to watch the Tigers take the field Friday morning.
The team is determined to make them proud.
After a season of adversity and heartache, the Tigers have one last hurdle to clear.
“Adversity is a word that we’re comfortable with now,” Norwood said. “We’ve been through so many last-second wins, and of course Coach passing away.
“As men, and as young adults and football players, we’ve learned that adversity is something that has to be overcome. You can’t quit. You can’t be denied. You can’t give up; put your head down and keep working.”