The second half starts, and Jason James takes me off the hook. Running the ball right up the Chittenango gut, he powers two drives, scoring both touchdowns and a two-point conversion. Chittenango's Rusty Dean appears to be headed for a 65-yard touchdown run, but Wightman catches him from behind at the five and forces a fumble that Norwich recovers in the end zone for a touchback. The third quarter ends with Norwich ahead 20-7, and there are more than a few smiles on the sideline.
One man is still too intent on the game to be smiling. Howie Sullivan told me about him. "The life's blood of the team," the judge called him.
He is Mickey James, Jason's father and a volunteer line and strength coach for the Purple Tornado. By day he is a telephone installer for GTE, but his evenings are spent at practices or games or the school's weight room. The grandson of Greek immigrants, Mickey was a three-sport star at Norwich High School, but he now walks with a limp, the result of a conveyor belt accident at Norwich Pharmacal.
Mickey was one of the coaches of the Pop Warner team. He stayed a youth coach, and when Jason and his age group came along, Mickey just followed them up the ladder. Said Judge Sullivan, "He instilled in those kids not just a work ethic but a sportsmanship ethic. He's a truly remarkable man, a Eucharistic minister in the Catholic Church, married to a Jehovah's Witness, which must make for some interesting religious discussions. But he's family all the way, and he's made all those kids one big family."
Mickey will later tell me, "Do you really want to know when I thought Jason's class was blessed? It was when they were three years old. I'm not kidding. The way they played, the way they bonded to each other. Jason, Charlie Wightman, Chris Maynard, Pete Burton, all of them were hanging out together at three." Bob Lazor was something of an outsider—he didn't get to Norwich until he was four.
The Purple Tornado may be all Norwich has for now. One of Mickey James's daughters, Kelly, a former honorable mention All-America basketball player at Hartwick College in Oneonta, can't find a teaching job in the area, so she's stacking newspapers at The Evening Sun. Unemployment in the county has risen from 6.1% 20 years ago to 8.6% today.
But it's also possible that these kids are Norwich's hope for the future. As Mickey will tell me, "The industries in this town were founded by men who weren't afraid of competition, who weren't afraid of failure. Just like these kids. Maybe enough of them will stick around to make a difference." And as Howie Sullivan said, "Norwich has a way of holding on to you."
Chittenango scores a quick touchdown and an extra point to make the score 20-14 early in the fourth quarter. With six minutes to play, Norwich has the ball deep in Bear (Tin Men? Flying Monkey?) territory. But on fourth-and-four from the 19, Chittenango turns back James and takes over on its 17.
From then on it's almost too painful to watch, almost too tempting to run out onto the field and help. Chittenango marches downfield on the exhausted Purple, opening holes for Rusty Dean. With 1:05 left, the Bears (Lions? Totos?) are at the Norwich 16 when Dean runs up the middle for 13 yards. With 50 seconds left he busts over the goal line to tie the score at 20-20. The Bears' kicker barely made his last extra-point attempt, so maybe...no; it's good, Chittenango 21, Norwich 20. The Purple Tornado tries four more plays, but the clock runs out with the ball at the Norwich 45.
On the field the Norwich players wander around, dazed and sobbing. Jason James, who rushed for 120 yards and 20 points, tells a bunch of his teammates, "I love you guys." Chris Maynard tells a reporter for a Binghamton paper, "I'm proud, proud of myself and this team. I'm not ashamed of anything. We played our hearts out."