Sunday night’s Gonzaga-DeMatha matchup for DC’s Catholic league title was, objectively speaking, the greatest event in the history of mankind. Sporting or otherwise. (Non-believers can watch it all here.)
Gonzaga came back from a 20-point deficit and won, 46-43, on a walk-off, um, hail mary. The big play was the third of three touchdowns scored by both teams in the game’s final 30 seconds, and inspired a delirious rush to the field from the grandstands as kids celebrating the miracle ran over fences and committed excusable vandalism. You had to be there. At least, me and my 12-year-old son Eddie had to be there. What we’d gone through just to see all the craziness will be instant family lore. Sports fans in DC are blessed with the greatest prep league in the country, the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC), which most years has multiple teams ranked among the top squads in the country in both football and basketball. Couple tidbits of the talent level: DeMatha as of a few years ago had more alumni in the NFL than any high school in the country; and Gonzaga’s Kris Jenkins went on to hit the buzzer beater for Villanova to beat North Carolina in the 2016 NCAA title game. The annual WCAC postseason hoops tournament is appointment spectating in the McKenna household. (We saw Markelle Fultz play for DeMatha in that event only a year before he was the top pick in the NBA draft, and he was just another guy. No jokes about Fultz still being just another guy. Too soon.)
So we know well that big WCAC events are a very tough ticket. The basketball title games always sell out. The football championship isn’t hard to get into in those years when it’s played in a big college stadium; the 2017 game was at the University of Maryland’s home field in College Park, a 54,000-seater outside of town. But this year’s version was played at Catholic University’s Cardinal Stadium, a venue with a capacity of just 3,500. There was even more pre-game hype for this year’s championship than usual, thanks to Gonzaga’s controversial-fumble aided semifinal upset of St. John’s, the top-ranked team in the city and second-ranked team in the nation and the conference’s current heel thanks to the impact of eight-figure donations from alum and Under Armour founder Kevin Plank. The online pre-sale sold out immediately last week. There would be some tickets at the gate, we were told in the days leading up to the game, but they’d go fast. So me and Eddie got to the field at 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, what we thought was two hours before game time, only to find the Gonzaga team practicing and the stadium otherwise empty. A university security guard told us we had the wrong day. “Come back tomorrow,” he said. Along with feeling dumb, I blamed the Catholic confederation for scheduling its biggest game for the Sabbath.
But, as Eddie rightly mocked me for being an idiot, I told him to accept that we’re going to miss the big WCAC to-do this year. We already had tickets for the whole family to go to the Baltimore Ravens game on Sunday. Then Eddie kept mentioning Gonzaga-DeMatha even as we watched Lamar Jackson’s startling starting debut, and he was checking the score on the ride home from Baltimore via texts with friends. DeMatha was up 20-0 early, and by the time we got home to DC, it was halftime and Gonzaga was down 26-14.
But Eddie still wanted to go. And as sports-ed out as I was after the Ravens trip, I knew that since I’d screwed things up on Saturday it was my fault Eddie was so invested. So we headed over to the Catholic U. field again anyway. And found, as I was sure we would, that all tickets were long gone; it looked like the crowd inside was several times the listed capacity. A security guard told us nobody else would be allowed to enter the overstuffed stadium.
So we watched the third quarter standing behind a fence outside the venue, with a gaggle of others who’d been shut out because of the WCAC’s moving the championship to the smaller parochial facility. We found a spot where you could see the scoreboard and any action that occurred between the 30 yard lines. But the end zones were blocked by the grandstand and a huge equipment trailer in front of us, so to tell what was going on we depended a lot on reactions from the overwhelmingly pro-Gonzaga crowd, which let us know their boys were still in it.
The other obstructed viewers around us had all disappeared by early in the fourth quarter, with DeMatha leading, 33-21, when the same security guard who’d given us bad news earlier mumbled to Eddie to come over and he’d let him in. When the gate opened I shuffled in behind. The place was so packed, finding a view that was even as good as what we had outside the stadium was a chore; we ended up being sardined among a horde of Gonzaga rooters/fire code violators standing in an entryway aisle in the grandstand near the 35-yard-line. The level of play and tension inside the stadium made us forget the hassles and ignore the non-stop jostling from being among the masses. The whole final quarter was just one highlight after another, with 35 points scored in the period, the last ones coming as time expired on a 60-yard heave from Caleb Williams, a sophomore who’s been programmed to be a big-time quarterback for years and sure looks like yet another WCAC product en route to greater things.
As Gonzaga kids basked in joyous mayhem all around us, I walked outside and found the security guard who’d let us in and thanked him for his role in a memorable night for me and my boy. “That was crazy, right?” he said.
When we got to the car, Eddie wanted to reflect on what we’d witnessed.
“It seemed like destiny!” he said.
I loved that take. Not only because my kid said it and he was as right as right could be. But also because I’d used that same damn line last month while babbling through an earnest fatherly lecture about the greatness of sports spectating and using my having watched Kirk Gibson hit that home run against Eckersley in the 1988 World Series as my prime example of the best moments seeming like they were pre-ordained. And now Eddie was using my words! That meant he’d listened to me! One last miracle on a night full of ‘em.