For a few moments on a warm August afternoon Friday, Grace Christian Raleigh’s football team and its fans understood the adrenaline rush of high school football.
Quarterback Jeremie Fitts had faked his way through Wilson’s Community Christian defensive line and dashed toward the end zone, scampering 87 yards for the score. That was the first touchdown and the first lead for the upstart Eagles, playing their first varsity eight-man football game.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this is going to be pretty good,’” Grace Christian coach Keith Boutwell said.
Eagles fans, mostly sitting in lawn chairs around what used to be the school’s soccer field, stood and cheered. The 22 varsity players – 17 of whom are freshmen and sophomores – thrust their helmets in the air and gathered around Fitts as he came off the field.
“He kinda started the junior varsity team, and I thought it was great for him to score the first touchdown,” said Ryan Dempsey, one of three seniors on the team. “It was fantastic and got everyone pumped.”
The lead was short-lived, and the Cyclones pulled away to a 58-13 victory, but the loss was almost to be expected for a team playing its first game. Community Christian soon took control with a punishing ground game, helped by too many penalties and turnovers by the Eagles.
“I thought it was historic, being the first varsity team we had here,” said Dempsey, who his playing his first season of contact football. “I thought it was a great opportunity, a great moment to be here. I know we lost, but you’ll have those. We have a bright future and a lot of things to learn, but from what I saw at the beginning and the end of the game, we had the effort to compete. We have to learn from experience, and hopefully, we’ll learn quickly.”
The Eagles continued to play hard, despite giving up 305 rushing yards, committing 14 penalties and turning the ball over four times. Fitts’ pass to Ben McNair in the final seconds capped off the scoring as the sun began to set.
After a post-game prayer, Boutwell spoke to his team about the experience.
“I said, ‘Well, what do you think? This is what varsity is all about,’” Boutwell said. “They were like, ‘OK, we’re ready.’”
The game was certainly a learning experience.
“Pretty violent,” said Fitts, who rushed for 114 yards and passed for 29 more. “It was a lot more than JV was. There was a lot harder hitting and a lot faster guys, so we had to adjust. It took us a while, but we got there in the second half, especially in the fourth quarter. We picked it up. It was rough, but we’ll get better as the season goes on, for sure.”
That’s one of the goals, of course, and Boutwell also wants his young players “to get married to the weight room,” to build size and strength to match up to older, bigger players they’ll face this year.
Of course, the team wants to win a game, too.
“That’s been our goal ever since we got a team,” Fitts said. “That’s what we’re hoping for, that’s what we’re working for. Hopefully, we take practice seriously, get better and win.”