Some stories about high school teams transcend time. They are not always about winning a state title —something the 1999 Capitol High football team proves.
Now a generation later, the camaraderie and passion that lifted the Lions to overcome tragedy off the field and adversity on it still resonates. Both were on display when Capitol honored the 1999 team that finished as the Class 4A runner-up Thursday night at Memorial Stadium.
Capitol’s 42-21 win over Lusher Charter provided a suitable on-the-field backdrop. There were cheers and glances toward the field, nodding and approving of each big play by the Lions. The former players exchanged greetings and hugs. Most took turns visiting with their coach, 85-year-old Roman Bates, who sat near the end of an aisle in the bleachers.
“This is crazy, just to be here,” said Johnny Dumaine as he scanned the stadium. “You know, this is the first time I’ve been back in this place since we beat Eunice … that was what, the quarterfinals? Just to be here and be with all these guys is worth the drive.”
Dumaine, now an assistant coach at a Dallas area high school, was one of several former players who traveled from other states. The claim to fame for Dumaine was setting a Prep Classic record with 20 tackles in the 16-0 title-game loss to John Curtis, which ended an 11-4 season punctuated by triumphs and tragedy.
Bates surprised some when he declared that 1999 could be the year the Lions made it to the LHSAA’s Prep Classic in the spring. Then fate intervened, putting title aspirations in the back seat.
Capitol player Patrick Jordan was killed in a car crash and offensive coordinator Edgar Fullwood suffered a stroke during the summer. Defensive coordinator Michael Johnson died not long after two-a-days practices began.
“Tragedy … that is the first thing that comes to mind when I think about that season,” Keith Smith said. “It was so hard, but we were determined. There was just so much (going on) that it took us a while. But we put it together.”
Smith played a variety of roles, including wide receiver, kick returner, defensive back and running back.
“The thing most people never understood was the discipline … We were disciplined and they didn’t always see it,” Smith said. “Coach (Bates) always had a plan.”
Through six games in 1999, the Lions were 2-3. Not what you would expect from a team that would play for a state title. But this Capitol team rolled off nine straight wins, including playoff shutouts of Bogalusa and Eunice.
“We were undersized and we had to learn a new defense,” Dumaine said. “Everything that happened made us close as a team. And we played with so much heart. We were determined to win.”
Willie Stargell and the Pittsburgh Pirates laid claim to the “We Are Family” mantra in 1979. The Lions put their own spin on it 20 years later. Proof of how united this Capitol team was visible on the Superdome field.
The players wore long red and white-striped socks part all season. Bates said he and the coaches would wear them too — if they made it to the title game. And Bates did. Ah, the things you do for family.
After receiving a framed copy of the 1999 team picture, the players and former coaches formed the “family circle that was a postgame staple during Bates’ Capitol career.
There were a few cheers and chants. Yes, the circle for 1999 Lions remains unbroken.
The anniversaries of three tragedies were last week. Saturday marked one year since the shooting death of LSU basketball player Wayde Sims, a former University High standout.
It also was the two-year anniversary of the pneumonia death of U-High volleyball/basketball player Brionna Ross. Former Brusly High pitcher Carli Jo LeBlanc and her mother, West Baton Rouge deputy Donna LeBlanc, were shot and killed three years ago.
The good news? Pope John Paul II football coach Charlie Cryer underwent successful liver transplant surgery– hopefully paving the way for a different kind of celebration next year.