The red in Tom Spiteri's eyes was taking up almost as much space as the primary color and, in that regard, he was hardly alone among La Salle High's football players.
A senior never wants his scholastic career to end with a loss, especially when hopes of winning a state championship had appeared realistic and when the final game stirs too-similar, too-painful memories of the season-ender from junior year.
Coatesville 42, La Salle 35.
That was how the lightbulbs chose to illuminate the scoreboard by the end of a PIAA Class AAAA semifinal played Friday night before an overflow, eventually-rain-soaked crowd at Downingtown West's Kottmeyer Stadium and Spiteri, for one, experienced major difficulty accepting it all.
Mostly because he spent much of the evening using crutches to work his way up and down the Explorers' sideline.
"This was just like last year," said the 6-2, 285-pound Spiteri, a force at defensive tackle. "For that one (a 21-14 loss to North Penn, also in state semifinal) I was in a wheelchair and couldn't do anything.
"I was so much looking forward to being able to do things to help us win. And then there I was. Same situation. Only being able to watch."
In the first playoff game of 2011, Spiteri had damaged an ACL. In this one, 24.9 seconds from the end of the first quarter, he came limping off the field with an injured left knee, ne'er to be seen wreaking havoc again.
He was the second star and spiritual leader to experience a shutdown. Roughly three minutes earlier, wideout-safety Sean Coleman had suffered a severe sprain to his left ankle upon getting swarmed after making a catch. Roughly nine minutes prior to halftime, fullback-linebacker Mike Eife injured his left ankle and he, too, would be finished.
A left knee. Two left ankles.
After those crushing blows, what did the Explorers do? Admirably, they left it all on the field.
"I was encouraging them. Telling them to step it up," Spiteri said. "I knew they had my back. We fought well. Look what we did. Down by 21 points in the fourth quarter. We almost tied it up. Couldn't ask for better."
Well, you could, of course. And it almost happened.
The Explorers indeed trailed by 21 points, at 42-21, with 10:07 remaining. They scrambled within two touchdowns on their next series as Chris Kane hit soph Jimmy Herron with a 46-yard score. And then within one at 4:38 as Jordan Meachum scampered three yards to cap a drive given life by Andrew Carlone's fumble recovery.
Would their hat contain one last rabbit? Available for a triumphant pull-out?
Meachum's 15-yard run placed the ball at Coatesville's 29. At 2:08, Kane hit Herron at the 10 and . . . oh, he dropped it. He'd made a great move to lose a defender and almost certainly would have scored. The bounce-back play produced a 10-yard completion to Meachum. Kane was slightly high with a pass to Jon Naji, then Naji was unable to snag the next one.
Third and 10 from the 19. An interception followed.
On the play, Kane found himself under extreme pressure. As he threw he was being pretzeled toward the ground and the throw was one of those classic off-kilter jobs that easily found an opponent's hands.
"I didn't want to take the sack," Kane said. "Jimmy Herron was open. I did see him . . . Just couldn't get it to him."
Immediately beforehand, on La Salle's sideline, coach Drew Gordon was already mulling which conversion he would decide to order.
"I had two possibilities," he said. "I was going to go for the win. I didn't want to go into overtime with those guys.
"We lost, but not from a lack of effort. Down 21 points to THAT team and we still had a chance to win. Balls went through guys' hands. Off their stomachs. That's high school football. When you lose such important people to injury, you can't make mistakes. Everything has to be perfect. Jimmy Herron. What are you going to do, get mad at him? He fought like hell all night. Caught one of those balls at his ankles."
Said Kane, who finished 18-for-40 for 265 yards: "The fact that we came back like that was unbelievable. Down by 21 points. I wasn't thinking about it. I just wanted to keep playing. Most teams would have quit. Let the opponent score a couple more touchdowns. We didn't do that."
Nearby, also on crutches, was Coleman. Like most of the seniors, he'd been exchanging hugs with players and coaches alike.
"When I got hurt, initially I was just so angry," he said. "I wanted to be out there! When I realized that couldn't happen anymore, I knew I had to get over myself and channel my energy to help the team.
"To see them fighting so hard without me and Spiteri and Eife out there . . . To see them come so CLOSE . . . It was awesome."