There are times when Jason Hall’s head swells with pride. He still pinches himself some days because he is the head football coach at Washington High School, in charge of one of the most prestigious programs in the country.
Every year when the Tigers play McKinley, students at Washington High School cover the hallways of the school in orange and black handmade signs. And by cover, they cut out holes for the light switches.
Hall invited his mother, Brenda Sweazy, up from Columbus and gave her a tour of the school. He was proud of what the students and community did.
“I don’t care how old you are, you’ve always got a special bond with your mom,” Hall said, about 20 minutes after Massillon beat McKinley 37-29 and perhaps shook a monkey off his back in the process. “In her eyes, I’m still her baby.”
Hall’s mom travels from Columbus for every single one of her son’s games.
Saturday was special.
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Massillon had not beaten McKinley in the last three regular-season games. In fact, last year, the Bulldogs beat the Tigers in the closing seconds and, in turn, ended their season and playoff hopes.
Just before kickoff Saturday, Hall invited in former players Eric Wright and Ellery Moore to speak to the team.
Wright asked the players a simple question.
“How many of you seniors have touched the victory bell?”
It is a traveling trophy on wheels, large enough to represent the pageantry and enormity of this game. The school in possession of it, must bring it to the next year’s game, and leave it if they lose.
Wright’s question dangled in the thick locker room air.
He looked around.
Not a single hand raised.
“I think that really hit home with me,” Hall said.
Whether Hall wants to believe it or not — he chooses not to — his legacy is tied to how well he does against McKinley. Short of winning Massillon’s first state title in the playoff era, losing to McKinley may be forgiven, but never forgotten.
The same can be said of senior quarterback Kyle Kempt. He came to Massillon from Oregon as a ninth-grader. He was reportedly offered as an eighth-grader by Stanford. Kempt is about 500 yards away from becoming Massillon’s all-time leading passer.
But he hadn’t beaten McKinley before Saturday.
“When I came here, all I wanted to do was help this team win,” said Kempt, who completed 16 of 32 passes for 285 yards and three touchdowns. “I wouldn’t say I felt pressure. I felt anticipation to play this game. I took all week this time and soaked everything in. I had fun.
“McKinley is a great football team. And this was my last shot against them. ... I didn’t breathe easy until the clock was at zero.”
Hall didn’t worry about breathing easy.
In his fifth year at Massillon, he practically didn’t enjoy the win ... not all that much.
He threw down two leftover hot dogs from the concession stand and was already talking about Nordonia, next week’s playoff team.
“We have to find a way to turn it around and get ready for Nordonia,” said Hall, who used to coach there.
Hall approaches coaching at Massillon unlike anyone before him. He never came to Massillon for a short-term career. He doesn’t worry about losing to McKinley.
“To say I approach the McKinley game any different than the rest of the games would be saying the other nine games mean something less,” Hall said. “We approach every game like we want to win them. I think that’s how you have to do it.”
He may do it that way. His team may, as well. But changing the culture of a community is much more difficult. If Hall had lost to McKinley for a fourth year a row, he might not have been given those two leftover hot dogs.
Perhaps Hall has a point. All games are important.
But this one is more so. An entire community feels better this morning.
Deep down inside, Hall knows it. That’s the very reason he swells with pride. It’s the reason he gave his mom a tour Thursday.
“We’ve got a special thing going here,” Hall said. “I think when you have a chance to share that with someone and what a special place Massillon is — I mean there’s nowhere in the country where people do as much as our staff, our students and our community did this past week. You don’t really know that until you’re embedded in it.”
Together, Hall and Massillon are learning a lot about themselves. They’re doing it with a smile on their face for the first time in three years now.