Just about everyone on the Webster team tried to console Dames—everyone except Coach Jones. The Kirkwood coach, Dale Collier, sought Dames out and patted him on the back. "Don't feel bad," he said. "You played a helluva ball game, and you are a helluva player." It was small consolation. When Dames got home, his father handed him two cold beers. "Take a hot bath, relax," his dad said. He had never given Johnny a beer before.
Sitting in the steaming tub, sipping the beer, Dames made a decision. He wasn't going to hang his head. He was going to school the next Monday with a sense of humor and without missing his stride. And he did. He was immediately slapped with the nickname Snap, and it stuck. But he discussed the incident and what he'd learned from it in a speech to the senior class, which voted him to give his class's commencement speech.
"We were so proud of him," says his father. "It was horrible. Johnny was devastated, but he made something positive out of the experience. If you ask him about it today, he'll say, 'Yeah, it was tough, but after a lot of psychotherapy and drugs, I've gotten over it.' "
Dames still attends Turkey Day games. People call out to him, "Hey, Snap!" Enough time has gone by to make it a joke, and the nickname prompts a lot of laughter and reminiscence. But the wound hasn't completely healed. Dames hasn't spoken to Jones since the day of the safety.
Back in the leather-helmet era Turkey Day was unscripted and exuberant. Sometimes the game would last all afternoon, ending only when one side had had enough or the sun went down. Today football is choreographed to the second, and even high school games are as much contests between coaches and game plans as they are tests of brawn and grit. Teams scout each other for weeks, scour game films to reveal tendencies and plot counter-strategy. But events had conspired to make this year's Turkey Day game a throwback. Neither Kirkwood nor Webster knew what to expect from the other. Kirkwood was fielding an inexperienced, unpracticed squad with the kind of game plan—10 plays—that the kids could have put together themselves the night before.
Webster Groves had an advantage. Its freshmen and sophomores had not disbanded when their season ended; they had been scrimmaging almost daily with the varsity to help prepare it for the state tournament games. "For us this is just another game added to the schedule," said Yarmon Kirksey, the jayvee coach. "We usually spend only a day or two putting a game plan in place, so we're ready to go."
If Webster came to Turkey Day with a full playbook, well rehearsed, Kirkwood brought little more than its passion. In the four days the young Pioneers had to get ready, the sidelined varsity players (in many cases their older brothers) had fired diem up. If Webster was going to the state finals, and if the Kirkwood upperclassmen weren't going to get their shot, then at least they were going to bring back the Bell. Webster Groves had won it the last two times, so Kirkwood's seniors were in danger of going their whole high school football careers without a Turkey Day victory. "It's not a question of wanting the Bell," said Big Joe Mopkins, the Kirkwood lineman. "The Bell is the only thing left for us. We have to have it."
Thanksgiving Day was cold and sunny at Ray Moss Field (named after an esteemed former Webster football coach). The soggy remains of the previous night's bonfire filled a stone pit beyond the east end zone, and the air smelled faintly of burning leaves and wood. The high school's grounds crew had painted a black-and-orange checkerboard pattern in both end zones and a giant Statesmen helmet at midfield, and the mood was festive. The competing marching bands were blasting warmup tunes into the air, and crowds were already filling the stands on both sides of the field and beginning to form around the the track. It looked and felt just like every other Turkey Day.
But there was Blake Earnhart on the Kirkwood sideline, looking forlorn, bare-armed against the chill in his white-and-red varsity jersey, hands thrust deep into his baggy blue jeans. The 18-year-old had been an all-conference center and defensive end for the Pioneers. This was supposed to have been his day, his last big football game. Instead, he was watching his oversized kid brother, Matt, a freshman, warm up. "It's painful," Blake said. "I started playing football in the eighth grade, and I've grown up dreaming about playing here. Now, not only do I not get to play, I have to watch our rival team go play for the state championship. On top of that, my little brother, a freshman who never even played football before this year, gets to play."
Varsity wide receiver Martin Drummond was out on the field helping to coax the Kirkwood underclassmen through warm-ups. He had rebounded somewhat from his depression earlier in the week but was still sad. He had watched his brother Greg play in this game in 1996 and lose. "He came home all upset," said Martin. "I couldn't understand why it was such a big deal—a bell. But as I got older I understood what it really meant. It's a memory you make for yourself. So far every year since I started high school, Webster has won that bell. This year I really wanted to win it back. I wanted to play in this game so bad. I went to the Webster semifinal game, and when they won in double overtime, my heart just broke completely down. After graduation I'm planning to go into the Navy, so I'll probably never play in another football game."