Talk to Houston High School head football coach Eric Sloan about the Tigers’ 2019 season and he’ll sit back in his chair and sigh.
Then he’ll probably say something diplomatic and steer clear of pondering what might have been if things outside his control had manifested more favorably. He prefers not to play the “what-if” game.
But with a bit of prompting, he’ll go there. Because it’s there.
“It’s hard not to play the ‘what-if’ game,” Sloan said this week. “If we had all the guys for the whole season who we had penciled in in July, what if?”
Back in mid-summer, Houston was viewed by many coaches and other people in-the-know with regard to South Central Association football as one of the conference’s preseason favorites. The Tigers were also tabbed as a team poised to make plenty of noise in the Class 2 District 3 playoffs.
And why not? Houston was loaded with talented, experienced upperclassmen and boasted more than a few athletic underclassmen who were expected to help create depth that no Tiger team had enjoyed for many a season.
But sports are a fleeting thing. In many cases, little more than chance or luck determine the fate of a given team or athlete. Especially football, where injuries often part of the big picture and are often not of the variety that take only a few days to recover from.
The Tigers’ 2019 season was as classic an example of sports’ fleeting nature, and how coaches, players and fans can sometimes be left to wonder about what might have been. As has been well documented, injuries played the biggest part in altering the Houston’s path this season, but it all started with a key player leaving town pretty much on day one of official practice.
After that, it didn’t take long for an inordinate number of people in Houston uniforms to be bitten by the injury bug. On too many occasions, their injuries even left them lying at midfield during games, surrounded by coaches and emergency response personnel.
“They’re dropping like flies,” Sloan once said.
Houston’s coaching staff was forced to create a plan B, plan C and even plans much further down the alphabet. Out of necessity and by default, freshmen were being inserted as starting linemen, and starting linemen were being used at skilled positions.
Sloan said it was like a card game but he didn’t have enough cards. He was joking, but that aptly described the reality of the situation.
Still, due to the determination of a bunch of teenagers and a handful of men, brightness at times shone through the adversity. Houston’s 2019 season included a huge road win over Liberty, the Tigers’ first victory over the Eagles since 2005. The win resulted in Houston hosting a district playoff game for the first time since the same year.
But the season also included a pair of gut-wrenching losses, both absorbed after Houston led with about a half-minute to go in the game.
The sports-related use of the phrase “up-and-down” was certainly popularized from a similar series of events.
I think it’s safe to say that being a Tiger fan wasn’t easy this year.
Nonetheless, I – for one – would like to congratulate Sloan and his staff for making a weird season into one that was oh-so-close to being something very special. Same goes for the players, who never gave in to the temptation to pout or whine, but collectively manned up, took on a “next play” attitude and got about as much out of the thing as circumstances made humanly possible.
But I just can’t help playing the what-if game.
Man, what if everyone had stayed put and remained healthy? What if late leads could have held up for only a few more seconds? And what if Houston was still playing this week?
Oh well. This isn’t the first time a football team’s season prompted such questions and it won’t be the last.
I’m already looking forward to 2020. There are a lot of worthy guys who will be donning the red and black, and what if they don’t get hurt and make a few plays?
Time will tell.
Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald.