From start to finish

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 20, 2006

As seniors, Josh Brown, Sha’ka Miller and Leroy Stewart aren’t going out completely on top, but it’s a far cry from the 0-10, 500-something to zero season that the Bulldogs endured in their collective rookie campaign.

“Endured” is definitely the right word for these three players in particular.

According to head coach Cecil Phillips, 24 players were on varsity to start the 2004 season.

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A couple were seniors in ’04, eight more seniors graduated last year.

Of those 24, junior lineman Francisco Clifford, a second team All-District selection this season, and these three seniors are the only players to be on the varsity team all three seasons.

“It was a hard situation to be put in,” said Brown, “instead of a JV season, everyone expects you to just go out there and play.

“But I’m glad we went through it.

It made us stronger.”

Not only play, but play a schedule against some of the toughest, traditionally strongest Group AAA teams in the region.

Western Branch, Oscar Smith, Deep Creek, Indian River and Nansemond River were all recent playoff teams when King’s Fork was starting from scratch.

“You’d be walking in the hall with your jersey on on a Friday and people would say things,” said Stewart, “you’d hear, ‘they’re going to lose so bad,’ nothing positive, except from your teammates.”

“You get up on Friday morning and look in the paper and see the prediction, ‘Oscar Smith 80, King’s Fork 0,’ or whatever, and it was tough,” said Brown.

The Bulldogs took a beating on the scoreboard in that first season, but there was also a physical toll every week that was just as difficult, or even more so, to keep coming back from.

“Every Monday you’d get to practice and think, ‘why am I here?’” said Brown.

“As a sophomore, I went in not even thinking about playing,” said Stewart.

“We got pounded, but we took it like men, and it made us men.”

“You had to keep fighting, even when you knew you were going to lose, because some teams did things that made you so angry, like keep their first team in when they’re up 40 or 50,” said Brown.

Some of the Bulldogs found a way to keep going and stick it out, but not everyone.

“Some people jumped off the bandwagon, saying ‘I’m not going to be a part of this.’” said Miller.

But coming out for the second season in KF history, Brown said he knew, “we would win some games and surprise people.

We wanted to make them regret that they quit.”

Three victories, including the first district and first intra-city win, in the last game of the season versus Lakeland, came in ’05.

“For me, (the city title) was a goal forever.

I thought about it when I was in middle school and then right from the first day of practice here,” said Miller.

“Even when we were getting beat, I was still talking on the field, saying ‘it won’t be like this for long.

“When we beat Lakeland last year, we set that goal in stone, that we’d win the city championship.”

Miller and Brown played key roles on the field in ’05, but Stewart was injured and missed the whole season.

The same thing happened again this season when he was injured on the last day of practice before the first game of the season.

“He’s a tremendous kid,” said Phillips, “even with everything that’s gone wrong, and the times that he could have quit, he’s still been a leader to this team and every guy respects him.”

Because of Stewart’s leadership, and of his ability to be a critical member of a team, even without getting the chance to practice and play, Phillips and the KF coaches nominated him for the Black Lion Award.

The award gets nominees from across the nation and Stewart, it was announced Wednesday, would be a recipient of the award.

The Black Lion Award honors Major Don Holleder.

Holleder was an All-American football player at Army who died in combat in Vietnam in 1967 as part of the 28th Infantry, known as the Black Lions.

The award goes to high school football players who best, “exemplify the character of Don Holleder: leadership, courage, devotion to duty, self-sacrifice and an unselfish concern for the team ahead of himself.”

“I know they care about me,” said Stewart about the coaches and teammates that helped him get through two seasons in which all his work and practice never got a chance on the field, “I know they are there for me and I’ll be there for them.”

A 4-6 record isn’t entirely what these Bulldogs wanted, because even after excellent efforts and near-upsets, such as leading for three quarters against Oscar Smith, “we still got tired of hearing, ‘oh, you guys played really well,’” said Brown, “You play the game to win it.”

At the season-closing awards banquet on Wednesday, Phillips said the combination of what the Bulldogs have done the last two seasons and next year’s expansion of the regional playoffs means a Division 5 playoff spot is a realistic bar for King’s Fork in ‘07.

“I’d have great pride coming back and seeing that,” said Miller, “to see a team that was 0-10, and then see that team go to the playoffs.

I could say, ‘look at them now.’”

“I look forward to coming back here and seeing big things from this program,” said Brown.

“I can say I was there when it started,” said Stewart, “we laid a good foundation for what will happen in the future here.

That’s sort of something you can tell your grandkids.”