Time is what Paul Friel needs.
Time and a few more warm and willing bodies to fill out the racks of empty shoulder pads sitting in the Johnson High School equipment room.
With an already slim roster, the Knights coach has watched as injuries ravaged his depth chart this season. Numerous Johnson starters have missed time at some point this fall, forcing 20-something lonely Knights to take the field on more than one Friday night. A little more than 53 yards across the field, they face about three times as many players wearing different color jerseys.
Don’t underestimate the effect that can have on the psyche of a 16-year-old.
The lack of program depth has led to the cancellation of junior varsity games, thrust underclassmen into early action, and kept numerous Knights on the field for nearly every play of every game.
But visit a Johnson practice, and nobody’s hanging their head. Nobody’s feeling sorry for themselves. Small bands of Knights hustle through drill after drill, from one station to the next, just the same as their more well-rested counterparts elsewhere.
The opponent the coming Friday night won’t have pity on their predicament, so why should they?
Their fight has been evident throughout the season, especially in recent weeks:
- A 56-55 loss to West Hall, the product of a failed two-point conversion try for the win with 20 seconds left in the game.
- A 41-23 loss to West Forsyth, a game the Knights led deep into the third quarter.
- And finally, a 16-13 win over East Hall last week, led by quarterback Anthony Prophet’s gutsy return from a knee injury that kept him on the sidelines in the first half.
But too often, fight isn’t enough when the other guys have fresher players fighting just as hard.
"I’m down about the season, especially for the seniors, because we felt like we were ready for a big year," Friel said. "But I’m real proud of the kids and the way they’ve handled the adversity. I was talking with (Johnson High School principal) Damon (Gibbs) and (athletic director) Stan (Williams), and I was telling them ‘It’s hard to believe this is our last week.’
"You know, as miserable as this season has been, you think you’d be like ‘Oh, thank God it’s over.’ But it’s kinda like, ‘man, if we just had five more weeks’".
2008 was already a tough year for Friel, and his team’s 2-7 start to the season has very little to do with it.
John Friel, Paul’s father, teacher and counselor, died prior to the season. It was his dad’s tough love that kept the coach from self pity when things weren’t going well.
"It’s been tough," Paul Friel said, searching for the words to describe the close relationship he had with his father. "He was a big supporter in times like this. He would kick me in the backside when I started feeling sorry for myself."
Now without that fatherly guidance, Friel is learning to practice what he so effectively preaches to his players.
And there’s no doubt Paul Friel can coach. Anybody that saw his Knights upend a more talented Gainesville team in 2006, can attest to his ability to scheme with the best of them and coax every drop of talent out of his players.
So it’s a shame that Friel’s got only nine wins in his three-year tenure at Johnson to show for it. Especially because it’s not like the team this year is devoid of talent.
They’ve got a gamebreaking threat at quarterback in Prophet. A bulldozing 200-pound sophomore running back in Mantevius Rucker. A do-anything-you-ask-me-to-do spark plug in Mick Shannon. One of the biggest offensive lines in the area, led by Justin Hadden, Major Borders and E.J. Wright. A pair of fiery linebackers in Gilberto Espinoza and Josh Owens.
And there’s more where that came from.
The problem is, there’s not a whole lot more.
And that’s what needs to be fixed for Friel to get the Johnson program where he wants it. But it won’t be easy and it won’t happen overnight.
So give him time. And if you’re an able-bodied Johnson student, give him your time and your sweat.
That’s what he really needs.