A HIGHER CALLING
THE EARLY LEAD
Greene County’s Nick Breon paused to take a deep breath before glancing toward the heavens.
The Rams were still a few weeks shy of the school’s first playoff victory, but the impact of two brave youths weighed heavily on the senior and his teammates.
“It’s nice to know that you have someone to play for,” the linebacker said.
As the eighth-seeded Rams prepared to take down another district foe, inching closer to yet another playoff appearance, the moment never became too overwhelming. They know how quickly life can change.
The 2019 Greene County football team, complete with a sparkling 9-1 record and a first round playoff win over Des Moines Christian, has become much more than the usual high school athletic team. They’ve transformed into a beacon of hope, keeping a memory of a fallen hero alive while drawing fuel from a survivor.
Perseverance embodied the Greene County football team in the early moments of their Class 2A opening round playoff game Nov. 1 against Des Moines Christian.
Trailing mere minutes into the contest, another playoff disappointment seemed imminent. Greene County was in search of Jefferson’s first playoff victory in a decade and things weren’t going their way. The Rams could’ve packed it in like many teams have before. But, the veteran laden squad had a promise to keep.
So, they dug in, clawed back from a seven point hole on two separate occasions, only to take control and win with relative ease, a 35-21 triumph in Urbandale.
Greene County found a way to avoid disappointment, battling through adversity, just like their biggest fans. It validated a life-long dream of future Ram that never was.
Many football teams have varying odds and ends to provide that extra oomph. Maybe it’s a favorite song or a childhood bond. An old towel or a ring. For Greene County, two letters symbolize a winning spirit.
Each Ram athlete and the entire coaching staff have displayed temporary tattoos on their arms during each game this fall. The markings etch out the initials “LM,” signifying the strength and passion the late Landon Martin stood for. The Jefferson resident fought brain cancer until he passed away in August, 2018 at the age of 12. He was just a handful of years short of fulfilling his dream, hoping to one day grace the gridiron as a varsity Greene County Ram.
The local football squad honored the fallen youth by carrying his middle school jersey to midfield prior to each game last fall. They’ve brought that touching tribute over to 2019, dedicating this year’s success in his honor.
Martin’s spirit hovered over the Rams as they fell behind last week. He was also there when Greene County ripped off 28 unanswered points en route to a comfortable victory. He rarely leaves the thoughts of the 2020 senior class.
“Seeing a kid fight like that with cancer, he’s tougher than we ever could be,” Breon said. “Just like with (Avril), she fought cancer and beat it. They tried their hardest and that keeps us winning.”
The Rams have also rallied around the spirits of the remarkably brave Avril Shahan, a five-year old survivor of lymphoblastic leukemia. The youngster recently completed her last round of chemotherapy last month after a two-year battle. The Rams invited her out for the coin toss prior to an early season home game. She even handed the game ball to the referees. Her strength has motivated Greene County as well.
These touching tributes have struck a cord with Greene County first year head coach, Caden Duncan. It all began with the lead-by-example senior class, a group of 15 strong, inspired by past shortcomings and a bright future.
“It’s really cool that they have something to rally around,” the coach said. “They’ve wanted to do this all year long. It’s for a really cool cause and it’s important to the guys. It’s been neat to watch them throughout the year.”
Martin and Shahan have embodied the spirit of Greene County’s record-setting run.
It’s been a season of tough luck and continued perseverance on the gridiron. The Rams are just a victory from the UNI Dome and the state semifinals, but not without their fair share of bumps and bruises. Backup running back Joel Ward tore a ligament in his leg in mid-September, a few weeks prior to three-year starting cornerback Xavier Hayes, not even a week after his birthday, breaking his leg in practice. Two key parts lost in mere moments. Emotional injuries like those can derail even the most stable of units. Not this resilient squad.
What the Rams have pulled most from Landon and Avril was how to keep pushing on. How to fight when the battle was at its most grueling.
“(Avril) is the cutest little girl. She fights. She’s tougher than any of us,” Breon said. “And Landon, he’s a survivor. That stuff just takes over your body and you just can’t fight anymore. That makes us want to fight harder.”
Greene County, in its second year of doing so, brought in more than 3,000 pounds of Play-Doh thanks to a month-long fundraiser. The entire 2020 senior senior class along with a few coaches surprised the patients at Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines with a personal delivery. It was a touching moment for all involved, one that really shed light on the power of high school football.
“We basically went through the entire hospital, it was really cool,” Duncan said. “The seniors got a little perspective there. It was pretty neat for me to be apart of, individually.”
The Des Moines visit shed let on what’s important. That there’s more to life than nights on the gridiron. But if Greene County is going to spend its time on something they love, they better do it right. Now is when they make noise and show the state what Ram football stands for. These magical playoff moments don’t come around often. Mission No. 1 is to reach the Dome, and if they can bring along others for the ride, why not.
“We know, like with Xavier, your season could end at anytime. That’s our thought in the back of our heads, ‘dang, something could happen and you’d be done playing forever,’” Breon said. “Landon, he never got to play (high school football). What he’d probably want us to do is keep winning. Working our tails off.”
Eighth-seeded Greene County travels to Algona (10-0) for the 2A quarterfinals at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 8. Winner advances to the state semifinals in Cedar Falls.