Mattamuskeet’s ‘Heroes of Hyde County’ return football to the road less traveled

Published 7:53 pm Wednesday, November 23, 2022

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By J. Mike Blake, HighSchoolOT contributor

Editor’s Note: This article is being reprinted with permission from HighSchoolOT. 

SWANQUARTER, N.C. — Hyde County has a population of less than 5,000 people.

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The welcome sign tells no lies when it says “The Road Less Traveled.”

To get to Mattamuskeet High from the west, just follow U.S. 264 East for a few hours or maybe more. The school will be on your right… eventually. Can’t miss it.

Mattamuskeet has itself been on a less-traveled road too, trying to map its way back onto that field just off the highway, to light the spindly stadium lights and play football once again after a four-year hiatus.

Getting to the school is long, easy, scenic.

Upon reaching the county line at the Pungo River, you still have about 35 minutes to go to reach Mattamuskeet High. There is one gas station along that stretch. There are few cars heading in either direction. There are plenty of wild turkeys, deer, and black bears to be mindful of as you drive.

Most sections of the road have a canal running along one side or a thick barrier of trees that makes you feel walled in. Sometimes the canal is on both sides, and you feel like you’re on a bridge. Sometimes the trees are on both sides, and you feel like you’re being funneled to a land that exists out of time. Other wide swaths have seemingly endless farmland, where the black dirt — loam — is the most fertile in the state.

Getting football back at the school has been long, hard, and not nearly as pretty as the drive.

Upon arrival, the lights are cutting through the dreary late-October sky. There are about 100 people in the stands, each greeted by the wind from Lake Mattamuskeet, which sits across from the school parking lot, hidden by the treeline. You enter the stadium and are struck by how far you can see past the other side. Behind the opposite end zone there’s a skyscraping radio tower (the school operates one on-campus) and miles of flat land, uninterrupted by tree, tractor, or building. It looks like something from the Texas Panhandle but greener and more eerie.

This game isn’t just significant because it’s senior night, or the last game of the season, or a chance to get the team’s first win in years. That there’s a game happening at all is itself an accomplishment.

In April of 2020, the N.C. High School Athletic Association agreed to let Columbia and Mattamuskeet play 8-man football, something that hadn’t been done in the NCHSAA since the 1960s. Both teams had struggled to get enough players to play, but their previous choices were limited: 11-man football or none at all. Neither school was able to get its program off the ground in the pandemic season that was pushed to the spring. They tried again in the fall of 2021 to no avail.

The urgency was growing at Mattamuskeet, which had not fielded a team since 2017. Would it ever happen?

Columbia and Mattamuskeet scheduled two games against each other but neither panned out due to injuries at Columbia, dooming its season just a few weeks in.

But there was Mattamuskeet — through good and bad but still playing nonetheless — in a finale that was five years in the making.

The Lakers lost that night, falling 48-36 to Father Capodanno. But never had the score mattered so little.

The home fans gave the players a hero’s welcome afterward, lining up along the fence to give each player one last high five as they left the field, a thank you and a congratulations.

They had made it to the finish line.

A last chance to play

“If we do not have a season this year, we’re done. Mattamuskeet football is dead.”

The words from then-Mattamuskeet athletics director Tommy Loftus were passionate, direct, and he meant every word. Because of the stop-and-start-and-stop-again nature of Mattamuskeet’s program since going dark after the 2017 season, Loftus had been spending about $5,000 on reconditioning football helmets that were then never used before needing to be reconditioned again.

“It’s been five years. If we can’t get back on the field this year, we’re not going to do football anymore. We’ll figure out something else to do.”

Find eight players who want to play football and start the season, Loftus said. If you can start at eight, you can always add more, “Because once them boys see that…”

Mattamuskeet opened the year with nine players and on the road at Pungo Christian Academy. Pungo Christian doesn’t have lights, so the game started at 4 o’clock — in August.

“It was hotter than blue blazes,” said Loftus.

An older referee needed medical attention and the game had to be completed without him. Mattamuskeet entered with nine players on its roster but went some plays with only six on the field because the other three were cramping.

“But they were still playing hard, still doing it,” Loftus said.

Mattamuskeet lost 38-18, a respectable score for any school that had been on hiatus for that long.

Loftus was proven right. Three more players showed up to Monday’s practice. A few more trickled in later on.

The Lakers ended with 17 on the roster, three of them seniors.

Senior Ismael Cuevas knew the last game of the year — by far the Lakers’ best performance of the season — was out of reach. He had just left the game a few plays earlier with cramps and knew that Father Capodanno would be taking a knee on the next play to end the game.

He still asked coach Richard Perry if he could get back on the field.

“I just wanted to be out there one more time.”

The coach agreed, and Cuevas — who had heroically ran back a 60-yard interception for a touchdown in the fourth quarter to give the Lakers a chance at winning — limped his way to his safety position and limped back to the handshake line seconds later.

He smiled his way back to the locker room.

“It’s kind of sad… but it’s something you can look back at.”

A coaching staff of 1, a team of 17

Part of Mattamuskeet’s challenge for football is a numbers game. The county lost 21% of its population from 2010 to 2020. Mattamuskeet had always been a small school, but with just 94 high schoolers in 2019, the last available date of NCHSAA data, it was in the bottom 1%. There are just three NCHSAA members with fewer students, and one of them is also in Hyde County — Ocracoke School, which you can only access by ferry.

Combined, Mattamuskeet and Ocracoke (42) would still be smaller than the next-biggest school, Highlands, which had 139 high schoolers.

And it’s no surprise the Lakers find themselves in the same boat as Columbia, their neighbors to the north. Hyde County is 99th out of 100 in terms of population. Tyrrell County, home to Columbia, is 100th.

Combined, they’d still be dead last in county population.

Perry was the head football coach at Mattamuskeet in 2007, and he was in that position for most of the next decade. When football went away, he did not. For four years, he coached practices with players whose seasons never came.

He speaks with kindness to his players, even when correcting them about things that should be obvious.

“Hey we’re not on kickoff it’s our ball!”

His players had ambled to the wrong side of the field to start the second quarter. There’s a helpfulness and earnestness in his tone.

“I love them. I love the game.”

Perry has no assistant coaches. He patrols the sidelines alone, often with one football in his hand and the other tucked under his arm. He has no ball boy, either.

“I can’t wait to come back next year. Come back and watch y’all,” said senior Jason Stotesberry after the game.

“Hey, I could always use the help, since I don’t have any help, huh?” Perry says with a laugh that resounds with a deep baritone warmth. “You boys have a safe trip home.”

Perry would like to put those footballs under someone else’s arm next year. He played semipro football in the Triad until he was 34, and, now 70, his posture is showing the wear of those tires. He can’t demonstrate some of the things players need to learn by seeing and doing.

For him to be here is a testimony in itself. He sold his business in Winston-Salem, and he and his wife tried to relocate to the Outer Banks. Every house they bid for was sold to someone else, until they thought back to how scenic Lake Mattamuskeet was.

God opened the door in Hyde County that was closed elsewhere, and for 17 years he’s been part of the fabric of the Mattamuskeet community, driving across the state’s largest natural lake each morning to come to work. He’s the only history teacher at the high school, making him a one-man-band coaching staff and a one-man-band social studies department.

He loves the school, community, and the players too much to leave them without anyone, and so he hopes that the same divine intervention that brought him here will call someone else into his footsteps.

“These kids need somebody younger,” Perry said, “but I also don’t want them to have somebody who doesn’t have the experience that it takes to coach a team back to full-game readiness.”

‘These kids just keep coming back’

The unfamiliarity with football wasn’t just present during the game. At halftime, which was set aside for Senior Night recognition, Cuevas yelled out, “Hey, where am I supposed to go?”

As the PA system read their future plans, one wanted to be an electrician. Another wanted to start his own welding company. College was never mentioned. Most of their parents either work for the school, the prison, or on a farm. Two of them could live 50 minutes apart, a struggle for whoever may be their only ride home from practice. If parents get off work at 5 p.m., the school bus will almost always beat the “latchkey kids” home.

Part of the reason why the Lakers’ first game of the season wasn’t until Sept. 2 is because other industries — farming, fishing, tourism — can be more enticing in the month of August.

“Those boys are making so much money out there on the charter boats and the restaurants, they don’t want to start on Aug. 1,” Loftus said.

But with all the participation struggles, Mattamuskeet got to its final game, having been outscored 38-18, 42-0, 60-8, 54-0, and 46-12.

The Lakers were going out with a whimper, down 42-14 at halftime to Father Capodanno. Three muffed kickoff returns only highlighted how far they still had to go.

And yet…

Mattamuskeet scored on a long drive to make it 42-22 in the third. Wideouts began to beat the defensive backs with regularity. Jabari Gibbs, a 380-pound lineman, ran in a two-point conversion. It was the football highlight of his life to date.

Hezikiah Mann, a running back, stopped being indecisive, let his competitive instinct take the wheel, and ran through tackler after tackler.

Freshman Kalen Simpson popped a ball carrier so loud it might have been heard at the lake. He did it again on the very next play and the switch had been flipped. He dealt another punishing blow on a third straight play. In the last week of the year, he had found out he enjoyed hitting — a lot.

“These kids just kept coming back and coming back and coming back,” Perry said. “I could see the improvement in them. … Some of those kids have a big future if they work at it.”

Cuevas’ interception return for touchdown was the Lakers’ highlight game for only a few plays, because when the defense held, the offense responded quickly with a 77-yard pass for a touchdown.

With 2:35 left, they had cut the lead to 12 and totaled almost as many points as they had scored in the five previous games. The Lakers even recovered the onside kick.

Hope had never been more pronounced, and it wasn’t leaving at game’s end.

Finishing what they started

“I tell them all the time, they’re heroes here in Hyde County,” said Perry. “I know that they are way more confident in everything they do. I have a lot of these kids in my classes and I can see it in their work, how their work picks up because they’re part of something that hadn’t been here for a long time.”

Mattamuskeet uses a classroom for its halftime locker room but goes into the gymnasium after the game. The locker room is up a flight of stairs to the right and by itself without a door, tucked away and aloft.

Perry stands with his pinnie bag where players are turning in their jerseys one last time.

He shakes their hands as they leave, they thank him for everything, and he thanks them for everything.

“Can we take a picture with you?” asks one of the seniors, and they do. They don’t look like a team that went winless, because they are truly not in this moment.

Cuevas is the last one out.

He wishes he had one more time with the ball. Perry chuckles and tells him to be careful what he wishes for. “What if you fumbled?”

Cuevas acquiesces.

“But still,” he says. “It would’ve been nice to go out with a bang.”

Perry smiles.

“I would say that you did.”