On the night meant to honor him and his five senior teammates on the Tolton Catholic football team, Johnny Cleek stood in his cleats on the sideline with his uniform pants on and the cast on his left arm hidden by a letterman jacket's sleeve.
Cleek broke his thumb making a tackle in the Trailblazers' home game three weeks ago. As the third-year team went on to claim its first consecutive wins – against Harrisburg on Oct. 4 and against Missouri Military Academy last week – Cleek could only watch.
Friday was Tolton football's first "senior night," and Cleek could still only watch his team (2-6) fall 48-0 to the Class 2 sixth-ranked South Callaway (7-1).
"I would've given anything to have been on that field tonight," Cleek said.
The chance to play football, he said, was one factor that brought him to Tolton when it first opened its doors three years ago.
"I wanted to go somewhere to really embrace my faith and then, also, the fact that they had football," he said. "It was something I always wanted to play but never had an opportunity to. So that made it a plus-plus."
Cleek caught the program's first long pass that led to its first ever touchdown in the squad's 2011 junior varsity debut. He became a versatile weapon for the Trailblazers, and they missed him on Friday as they surrendered 21 unanswered points to the Bulldogs after one quarter. At halftime, Tolton was trailing by 34.
In the locker room afterward, Cleek was with his fellow seniors. They shared silence and hugs.
"Being a part of the Tolton community's really important, and the football team especially," said senior linebacker Anthony Cofano. "We're all brothers and it was hard to come out on the last night of playing on this field and lose that badly."
Still, Cofano spoke positively.
"You don't hear of many people saying, 'Oh, I was the first graduating class of any school,'" he said. "Next year, we'll be coming back for homecoming and we're gonna see all the people we played with and were around. I don't know, its just kinda cool."
Tolton coach Chad Masters said he's been proud of where the program has gone in three years. The two wins this season is the team's most and its shown its best offensive production.
"We're light years ahead of where people thought we would be. This senior class is a big part of that and will always have a special place in this program's history," he said.
Cleek has been there from the beginning, Masters said.
"He's an unbelievable kid, an unbelievable kid," Masters said. "A lot of times as coaches we talk about making a difference in a kids life, (but) sometimes kids make a difference in our lives, in our program's lives."
Cleek will remain on the sidelines for the season's final two games.
"There's a lot of guys I'm proud of on this time and a lot of guys are fighting still," Cleek said. "It wasn't a pretty game, but I didn't see my teammates quitting. And that's what makes me proud as a senior, to see the future of this program's gonna keep fighting."
Supervising editor is Nina Pantic.