- Niki Chan
It was already 90 degrees on the September morning the Monday before West High School’s 2016 homecoming football game, and the team had hit a new low.
The Panthers had lost to Davis High School Darts the prior Friday in a contest that was never close, marking their fifth game—and their fifth loss.
In the wake of the latest drubbing, four varsity starters and 15 others had failed to show up for morning practice. Those who had come were clearly unmotivated and, coach Justin Thompson realized, simply sick of being on a losing team.
The Panthers were well on their way to a second consecutive 0-9 season at a school that, historically speaking, is one of the most successful in Utah sports.
Thompson, who’d joined the school’s faculty at the beginning of the year, had to work hard that day to steady his emotions.
“If I’m here to develop character and leadership, I can’t get negative,” the 41-year-old coach said in West High’s weight room as players prepared to start their work-out two days after the poorly attended practice. “At the same time, it’s hard to look at a kid in the face who didn’t come to practice, and tell him it’s OK.”
He hadn’t been able to sleep the night before. At 2:30 a.m., he finally gave up trying. The team was supposed to gather again in just a few hours. Should he send his players to the weight room? Do sprints? Simply call off practice altogether?
How would he coach a team that had given up on itself?
How, he wondered, would he coach a team that had given up on him?
In the weight room, later that morning, he looked into the faces of his players.
Football, he told them, mixing sports metaphors, was designed to teach young men how to get off the mat when they are knocked down.
They mustn’t give up hope, he said.
He talked about his father, who died in June. His dad had abandoned his family when Thompson was 3 years old and though there had been reconciliations, they would go years without talking.
"I wondered a lot, why did my dad give up on my family and give up on me when we got older?" he said. "I think it was largely because he just didn't believe that he could do what needed to be done to keep up, he just gave up hope."
Thompson hadn't learned his dad was dying until hours after cancer had taken the man's life. "He had two granddaughters he never even laid eyes on, he never even met," he told the players. "I can't think of anything sadder than that, and again, in my opinion, it was because he gave up hope."
His voice softened as he told them they had to decide what kind of men they wanted to be—the kind that got back up or the kind that stayed down.
And then he unleashed.
"I WILL NOT QUIT ON YOU," he bellowed. "DON'T YOU QUIT ON ME. WE CAN GO ZERO AND ONE HUNDRED. BUT DON'T YOU QUIT ON ME. AND I WON'T QUIT ON YOU."
He eased down a few decibels.
"If you are defeated by this, you're going to be defeated by everything," he said. "Life will defeat you. If you can't handle losing a football game, life will defeat you. You will not be successful. It's—just—football. You have to build the habit.
"You don't quit. Ever."
- Niki Chan
At 122 years old, West High's football team owns one of Utah's most storied football histories, with the second most wins in the state.
That history was part of Thompson's inheritance when he left his job at his alma mater, Skyline High, to replace Keith Lopati at West. But he also was bequeathed the daunting burdens of having lost every one of their nine games last season, growing rumors that a newly built football stadium had "cursed" the team, and a roster made up of mostly minority students who viewed a white coach coming from a well-resourced eastside school with grave suspicion.
"He doesn't know anything about us, about how hard it is down here—the struggle. He doesn't have the grits to be here with us," one player, who asked not to be identified, says of the initial perspective he and his teammates had of the new coach.
"Whether it's a teacher or a family member, most of these kids have been let down by someone," Thompson's 22-year-old offensive line coach, Zach Russon, says. "It's hard to embrace new guys coming from a completely different culture, and it's a tough thing to do to put your football life in the hands of others."
With his tanned features, wiry frame and brown, crunchy beard, Thompson more closely resembles a surfer or rock climber (something he pursues privately) than a football coach. He played running back and defensive back for Skyline, and promptly began coaching the sophomore squad after he graduated from the Millcreek school in 1993.
"Coaching is a little bit like narcotics," he said in early August, during the first of many interviews before, during and after the season with a City Weekly reporter, who also attended games and talked to coaching staff and multiple players. "It gets in your bloodstream. It's probably not healthy, but it's exhilarating."
In December 2015, West's principal recruited the University of Utah graduate to coach the school's team, following a 12-12 record as Skyline's head coach.
More than 100 kids showed up for preseason workouts, but as the days and weeks wore on—and as Thompson enforced a policy that had his players doing 100 push-ups or lunges for every practice they missed—the roster shrank. And shrank.
- Niki Chan
Only 12 kids from the program made it to more than half the pre-season workouts, with a total of close to 70 players ultimately compromising the 2016 team.
"They want to be successful," Thompson said, but "they lack the habit to be consistently dependable and reliable. It's been a challenge seeing some kids three days in a row. One reason or another, they vanish."
- Niki Chan
It took a few months before he came to understand why. Yes, some were simply undisciplined. But many of his players had after-school jobs. Some were caring for younger siblings.
And then there were the bright lights of more successful schools—including West's nationally ranked rival, East High. Many students who had come up through West's youth development program ultimately left for another high school. By the summer, "we'd lost two-thirds of our critical players that we thought were Panthers for life," Thompson says. "They made heartbreaking decisions."
When Thompson asked one parent why his son left for East, the parent replied, "I want to put our child in the best possible situation."
West senior and offensive lineman Colby Tapusoa says his younger brother, a freshman, was among the students who transferred.
"Football to us is like a lifestyle; we grew up into it. Football to us is another way out of here. A way of trying to get our family out," Tapusoa says. "For him, personally, he saw he'd have a better future coming out of East."
- Niki Chan
GAME OF INCHES
The season-opener on Aug. 19 against Timpview wasn't foreboding so much as confirming. West had a lot of work to do.
Before the home opener, the following week against Skyridge, the rock band Journey—whose last Top 10 hit came before some of the Panthers' parents were born—blasted through the stadium's sound system.
"This," one player mused aloud sarcastically, "is why we can't win games."
At halftime, Skyridge was up by 14. In the locker room, West's players banged on lockers, stamping out a metallic rhythm. One player broke in with an emotional cry. "We've worked too hard, too long to keep losing. Fuck, man," he said in tears. "You guys got to be willing to die for it. They're coming into our house. Our house!"
Thompson asked his players to calm down and focus on winning one play at a time. "This is not about a losing streak; this is not about home field," he said. "It's not about respect. It's not about disrespect. It's not about who we're playing. I couldn't even tell you who we are playing. This is about us. One play at a time."
But when the game was over, Thompson couldn't help but look across the field at the Skyridge team and fans.
"Two hundred people celebrating on the field from the opposing team," he said. "It hurts your pride."
The only thing worse than watching Skyridge's fans was the news that came after the game: Junior Brydee Johnson, a team captain who led prayers before each game, had suffered a lacerated liver when he was kicked in the stomach during a tackle. He would be out for the season.
A week later against Timpanogos, having penned Johnson's number 21 on their legs and arms with Sharpie, the Panthers showed they could, in fact, move the ball with ease—if only between the 20s. And even when wide receiver John Abercrombie broke four tackles en route to an 85-yard dash into the end zone, the score was negated by a penalty. Later, on his very first varsity play, running back Faysal Aden fumbled without being hit.
"We can't get out of our own way," Thompson said after the game. "It's just constant self-inflicted wounds."
As halftime approached, Timpanogos was up 17-0, but with nine seconds on the clock, Abercrombie scored a touchdown—this one stuck—with senior running back Craig Tauteoli pounding in the conversion.
For the first time in a long time, the Panthers went to the locker room at the half feeling as though they had some momentum, emerging to hold Timp to a single field goal in the third quarter. A Tauteoli touchdown made it 20-15.
In the final minute of the game, the Panthers found themselves in an unfamiliar position—on offense with an opportunity to win.
And, for a miraculous moment, it seemed they were about to. As quarterback Romeo Johnston dove toward the end zone, Tapusoa says, "I got up celebrating, thinking this game was done, and then I see the ball come up. It was a fumble."
He froze, speechless. "We were right there," he recalls. "We let it slip out of our hands."
Tapusoa walked off the field with his helmet still on. He didn't want anyone to see his tears.
- Stephen Dark
As the losses mounted, so did the mockery from West's students, particularly on social media.
From Aden's perspective, the trolling only served to further bond the team. "I really felt that when we received criticism, when they talked trash about us, we had each other to go to," he says. "We encouraged each other, sooner or later we're going to get that win." But they didn't—not in the next game, nor the one after that. The Panthers dropped both contests by four touchdowns.
On the sidelines, the hopelessness was becoming more and more obvious—and West's opponents piled on. Syracuse fans on the east side of the field put up a sign reminding their opponents of "the curse." As a 14-14 halftime score vaporized, players clutched at their own shirt collars as if holding on for dear life.
"Let's go," one player urged another in increasingly hollow tones.
As the possibility of a second no-win season was at hand, the players' commitment to attending practice further waned. Some excuses during the season were better than others. But Craig Tauteoli's was the best, by far.
Tauteoli is one of nine children. His family lives on a 6-acre property in Taylorsville, where they raise pigs. He missed one practice because all 80 pigs got out one night at 3 a.m. after one dug its way under a fence. On a separate night, in equally wee hours, his family's donkey started kicking their boar.
As much as Thompson had to monitor all his players, he had to pay attention to his own behavior, too. When he got into face-to-face confrontations with referees over questionable decisions, he had to rein himself back and bow his head before their staccato reprimands, fighting every impulse to fight back, knowing how his behavior would impact the players.
"I've noticed if my kids have any excuse for why they may be losing, they'll take it," he says. If they saw him blaming an official, then their response would be, "Great, we have to beat the officials, too."
As the losses mounted, though, many players didn't seem to need much of a reason at all to miss practice, and the results were predictable. At the midpoint in the season, Davis was up by four touchdowns at the half, and never had to look back.
But seemingly buoyed by Thompson's "I WILL NOT QUIT ON YOU" speech, others fought through the pain.
A few days before homecoming, Vili Makoni's grandfather fell into a coma. "I felt, what was the point of playing for the team. We were losing so bad, you know?"
Makoni nonetheless forced himself to go to practice, where Thompson hugged him and assured him that everything would be all right.
The Panthers were 0-5, having been outscored 176-49. They had been written off by fans, ignored by scouts, mocked by fellow students and abandoned by fellow players. Their lives off the field were complex, messy, hard.
But every day, when they got to practice, Thompson was there—to yell at them, plead with them and level with them. And, when the moment called for it, to hug them and remind them that everything would be all right.
- Niki Chan
IN THE AIR
The night of the homecoming game against Viewmont High, in the Panthers' locker room, the players sat on the benches, knelt on the floor and looked expectantly at their coach.
"The game tonight will be won or lost based on who can run the football," Thompson told them. He urged them to play like they never had before. To risk a little bit more. To try a little bit harder.
"Nobody believes in you except the people in this room," he said. "Go out there and earn it for yourself; enjoy every second of it. I think it's going to be a special night."
It was cold and rainy on that evening, but as the players ran out of the locker room in their red-and-black uniforms, something was different. The stands were packed, reflective of how much homecoming means to students and parents alike.
Not in the stands on that night: Landon Kavani Johnson, who wore No. 23 for West prior to graduating in 2015. Now Johnson was in jail, following a scuffle at a Salt Lake City apartment complex that resulted in the shooting death of another youth. A number of the players knew Johnson well, and Thompson had briefly talked to him about joining the coaching staff.
Tauteoli views Johnson as an older brother. "He's been a good guy to me, never overlooked me at all, always been there," Tauteoli says. "I miss him. I just hope a lot of people don't start judging him for what he did."
He had asked Thompson if he could wear Johnson's number. The coach had advised caution given how it might be interpreted, but ultimately gave Tauteoli the right to decide for himself.
Viewmont covered 70 yards in seven plays to score a touchdown on its first drive. Tauteoli answered back with two runs for 75.
"Craig sparked us, he lit the fire, he just ran like a maniac; he's a buffalo, a wild animal," Abercrombie says. A few plays later, Tauteoli muscled his way over several defenders and into the endzone.
Down 14-12 at the half, Thompson gathered his team. "It's time to make a decision," he told them. "You're playing a team from the suburbs who have everything going for them in the world. Raise your hand if you've got a lot going against you."
A forest of gloved hands rose into the air.
"This game means so much," Thompson said. "You're making a statement of who you are as people."
And they did. By the end of the third quarter the Panthers found themselves in completely foreign territory—with a 26-21 lead. And Thompson started to feel something that was almost surprising after so many defeats: being in the rhythm of coaching a successful football team.
West 2015 graduate Pita Mahina played for Coach Lopati—someone he's still close to—but, about to leave on his LDS Church mission in December 2016, he asked Thompson if he could help the coaching staff. The Viewmont game "was one of those moments, like, 'damn, this is really happening,'" he says. "You could feel it in the air. Even like the fans, sitting there in the rain, they were all into it."
And then an interception by Viewmont, followed by a touchdown put them ahead, 27-26.
If West's coaches expected them to collapse, to give up, they didn't. They fought back. In the last minutes, quarterback Romeo Johnston threw to Abercrombie, one of West's best playmakers, but he dropped the ball. Two minutes later, Johnston threw again to Abercrombie, but the throw was too soft and a Viewmont linebacker batted it away.
- Niki Chan
While Viewmont celebrated, West's players stood frozen on the field, their helmets tilted to the ground. And then they gathered around their coach.
"You guys came up on the play short," he told them. "You can be proud of how you competed tonight. I'm extremely proud of you guys. You chose to win. I'm more proud of you guys than I've ever been of a team."
As the players stumbled toward the locker room, Thompson marveled with Russon. "We battled," Thompson said. "That was the first time we ever hit them back."
"They cared," Russon said. "They didn't give up tonight."
Thompson put his arm around a sobbing Makoni, who had promised his grandfather a win before he died. "I'm so proud that you had the courage to make that promise," Thompson told him.
By the fourth quarter, Johnston says, it was "nerve-racking that we were about to win the game. I was just imagining the victory and the whole stand going on the field, cheering." And when the clock ran out, he says, it hurt.
But while the final score "says who wins or loses," Johnston says, "It doesn't say how the game went, or how like it was a battle."
Or how the fans cheered. And the team came together. And they weren't beat by their own mistakes but by another football team. And how it really was all right.
"It was a good feeling, even though we lost," Tapusoa says. "I'm still happy to be with those guys. It was crazy, great fun. I didn't want it to be like anything but what it was."
Tauteoli adds, "I wouldn't say we lost. I'd say we ran out of time."
- Niki Chan
In American movies about sports, this is where everything changes. Where the Panthers realize they can win. Where they get up off the mat and punch back, harder than ever before. But that's not how life usually works and that's not what happened at West.
"After that loss, it ended in such a heartbreaking way, it kind of cut our legs out from under us and destroyed some of that progress," Russon says. "We came back Monday and we had a ton of guys missing. It hurt us losing after that big, big buildup."
Thompson tried to keep the practices positive, but seniors told him, he says, that "they've been through so many weeks of failure they feel like they're running on empty."
Despite his initial energy after seeing his team fight to the end against Viewmont, Thompson was also struggling. "I'm super-discouraged as well, tired of losing, and just tired, actually tired," he said at the end of the season. "It's been a long nine months of hard work for no wins."
Against Hunter, the following week, it was clear that many players were disillusioned. "I felt like they didn't want to play anymore," Tauteoli says of his teammates. "They wanted the season over with."
Instead of celebrating after scoring a 70-yard touchdown in that game, he walked to the sideline, threw down his helmet and started swearing at the fans and other players, cursing through his tears, "raging at the fact that I was the only one that wanted to win, wanted to fight, to get back up and keep going. I felt alone. I felt nobody else wanted to win as bad as I did."
The following game, at Layton, was as bad a loss as West had suffered since it was blanked by Timpview in the season opener. After the game, as the rest of the team filed onto the bus, juniors and West rising stars Makoni and Cole Dunkley, both limping and battered, nevertheless gathered up shoulder pads. Makoni was crying, but wouldn't tell Thompson why.
The coach says Dunkley told him, "They were just sick of it, just sick of the way they were giving up."
Brydee Johnson returned to the locker room to lead the team prayer in the final game of the season at Granger. "It was hard," he says. "I wanted them to go out and play all their heart, and go show everyone there what we worked for."
Thompson, though, offered his players a realistic pregame assessment of where they stood. "I'm very, very proud of much of what you've done and not very proud of other things you've done," he told his boys. But, he continued, "If anybody here thinks they've done everything perfectly, then, you know, you're beyond what I can do to help you."
He urged them to win, but more than that, he hoped they would play in a way that would make them feel proud. "I hope the people you care most about in the world short of your family are right here," he told them. He urged them to play in honor of their teammates, whether the seniors for whom this would be their last game, "or the young kid you have high hopes for." What they couldn't do, he said, was play for themselves and think they'd succeed.
The players walked out to the bright lights of the Lancers' field, holding hands one last time, their cleats clicking on the concrete.
But once the game started, "they just kind of looked physically defeated," a resigned Thompson said, post-match.
- Niki Chan
At a time in his life when he had no father, Thompson had his football coaches. "They were fathers to me," he says. That's the kind of role model he wants to be for the kids in his program.
Many of them, he knows, "have their own stories of hardship and regret, of abandonment, of people in their lives who are bad role models. I felt like I wanted those kids to understand that we have common ground."
Did he succeed in his first season at West? What Abercrombie heard, when his coach talked about having not really known his father, was that "he would never do that to us. He'd never give up on us."
If nothing else, Thompson says, his players saw what it looks like when someone doesn't quit. Maybe they saw it in him, maybe in their fellow players. And maybe a few saw it in themselves.
"The only redemption you can take from this experience, is to practice and play so hard that you know nobody can take that away from you. They have to be able to look back on the experience honestly and be able to say, 'Well, we weren't a very good football team. We battled through nine straight games, and with no hopes of making the playoffs, we still went out there and gave it hell.' They'll always know whether they quit or not on the team. I want them to be able to go out and say, 'I didn't quit.' That's my No. 1 hope."
Sometimes hope, along with determination and even faith can come in something as a fleeting as a text. At 6 a.m. the day after the final game, Faysal Aden messaged Thompson. "When does off-season training start?"
An elated Thompson replied, "This text makes my year. You are a stud. We'll take a couple weeks off to get our bodies right, then we'll start crushing."
The grit in that solitary text, Thompson says, is what he looks for. "Not to say something but do something." Much like Makoni and Dunkley picking up gear at the end of one of the last games, Aden displays that quintessential drive Thompson yearns to see.
It's simple to define, he says. "I will do what needs to be done."