Seniors Rally Behind Grief-Stricken Teammate

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Three years ago, the Payson Longhorns football team played only days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on America.

Friday night, 10 of those remaining Longhorns will play mourning yet another tragedy.

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Longhorn sophomore quarterback Miles Huff (10) steadies himself for a handoff on a power play. Action took place at a Tuesday practice session on PHS field. The players were prepping for tonight's season-ending clash against Flagstaff Sinagua. Game time is 7 p.m.

Tuesday morning, senior fullback/ linebacker James Gibson's mother died at Payson Regional Medical Center.

Those close to the teenager know he's struggling over the loss of his mother, with whom he had a very close relationship.

Throughout the past week, students and teammates have rallied around Gibson.

Senior teammate Tyler Williams and senior class president Katie Ford were among those to comfort him.

"They took me to the movies and to lunch," he said.

Tuesday afternoon, Gibson and tailback Luke Apfel, who is nursing a sore knee, watched practice from the sidelines as a steady stream of well-wishers offered Gibson their sympathies.

The teen, who was among the freshmen who played after Sept. 11, said he wanted to participate in tonight's game in memory of his mother.

Coach Jerry Rhoades said he would comply with Gibson's request and the senior would be in the lineup.

In or out?

The status of Apfel, a two-way performer who has been the Longhorns' leading scorer and ground-gainer, won't be decided until kickoff.

Midweek, Apfel said he could not straighten his leg and there was some soreness, but he was hopeful he would be back at full strength for the game.

According to Rhoades, if Apfel is not available, Cash Armstrong will play fullback and Tyler Williams will be moved from fullback to tailback.

Tonight's clash, which is set for a 7 p.m. kickoff on PHS field against the Flagstaff Sinagua Mustangs, will mark the end of one of the most bizarre seasons in recent PHS gridiron history.

When the campaign opened with preseason practices in July, the team was without the services of line coach Jack Morris who, at the age of 34, died six months earlier of complications from a stroke.

Early in the season, the team appeared to be on a roll as it won four consecutive games and earned a spot in the state football rankings.

But the wheels began to come off the Longhorn wagon starting with a homecoming loss to the Prescott Badgers.

Since that defeat, the Horns have dropped five games and now sport a 4-6 record.

During the losing skid, the players suffered through a myriad of injuries that had starters sidelined almost every game.

Among those injuries was a freak accident that shelved senior guard/linebacker Greg Barnes for a period. While Barnes was attempting to block an extra-point attempt, a teammate's helmet struck his knee, forcing it to hyper-extend.

At one early October practice, only 12 varsity players were dressed out.

"Everything has gone downhill since Jack's death," Rhoades said.

In most seasons, the coach said, the Longhorns would be a good matchup for the 3-6 Mustangs. But with the injuries and tragedies that have plagued the Longhorns this year, Rhoades is not sure of what to expect.

"Is there anything else that can happen?" he asked.

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