Sheltered from the cool November evening, Chris Mason-Hale, partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, quietly watched Western Tech play its season finale against Owings Mills from the press box at CCBC-Essex.
"It feels pretty good looking at something other than the same four walls," Mason-Hale said.
Nearly three months earlier, Mason-Hale had become Baltimore County's first public school catastrophic football injury since records were kept starting in 1967.
Mason-Hale's inspiring story leads our MDVarsity.com Year in Review since it spans the entire duration of the 2008 football season.
During an Aug. 29 preseason game at Northeast-AA, Mason-Hale, a 6-foot-1, 180-pound linebacker, moved in for a routine tackle. As Western Tech coach Al Lagon recalls, when Mason-Hale went down, "it did not look bad."
Then, the situation quickly changed.
"He told the Northeast trainer, 'I can't feel anything,'" Lagon said. "We thought it was a stinger. He was immobilized. We called 911. It became clear that this was a lot more serious than I thought."
Mason-Hale had broken the C-5 vertebra in his neck. The injury bruised his spinal cord, which caused the paralyzing injury. After two months at Kernan Hospital in Baltimore, Mason-Hale had recovered some movement in his arms and legs, but his once 180-pound frame was a frail 130 pounds.
"Most people would have asked, 'Why me?' and dig themselves into a hole," Lagon said. "Not Chris. He has a positive attitude, he's upbeat. That's why I think he's recovered as quickly as he has."
Mason-Hale was granted permission to leave the hospital for the first time on Nov. 7, and Western Tech had a plan. The date marked Mason-Hale's 17th birthday and it happened to be the team's homecoming contest and season finale.
Prior to the contest, Mason-Hale, positioned near the bench in a wheelchair and covered with a blanket, was introduced with the varsity team and greeted by a standing ovation. Western Tech cheerleaders presented Mason-Hale with a gift -- his No. 15 jersey, which was being retired. It stands as the only jersey other than the No. 1 worn by current NFL player Domonique Foxworth to be retired at Western Tech.
"He was excited to come out for senior night," said Gary Hale, Mason Hale's father. "He wanted to be here. This is a crowning achievement for him. It was a touching moment for him."
"I got a little teary-eyed," Mason-Hale said.
For good measure, Western Tech won the finale 36-0 over Owings Mills, but Mason-Hale left at halftime to return to the hospital. Lagon told MDVarsity.com that Mason-Hale was finally released from Kernan Hospital on Dec. 19. He is still confined to a wheelchair but is improving, especially in his upper body.
Homecoming and Milestones: Allegany welcomed back head coach Tom Preaskorn, who spent the 2007 season serving with the U.S. Army in Iraq. The Campers posted a 9-3 record and reached the Class 1A West region final. Wilde Lake coach Doug DuVall made 2008 a farewell tour, announcing his retirement prior to the season. The Wildecats responded with a season to remember -- going 12-2 and reaching the Class 3A state final, where they lost to Westlake. During the 2008 season, DuVall went over the 300-win mark, joining only two other coaches in Maryland history -- current Good Counsel coach Bob Milloy and retired Gaithersburg coach John Harvill. Sherwood coach Al Thomas became the second coach to collect eight state titles (joining Milloy), and the first to accomplish the feat with at least one title in every classification.
Oh What A Mess: The story that garnered national attention for Maryland high school football was not the ESPN2-televised contest between DeMatha and Good Counsel, but rather a forfeit that occurred in Cumberland.
Dunbar (D.C.) walked off the field of its Sept. 19 contest while leading Fort Hill, citing racial taunting.
Fort Hill picked up a forfeit victory and a lot of unwanted media attention.
Even the U.S. Department of Justice got involved, mediating a meeting in Hagerstown between the schools' head coaches and athletic directors where a "framework" for dealing with such future issues was proposed.
Dunbar led 14-8 in the third quarter when Dunbar coach Craig Jefferies removed his players from the field. Fort Hill claims no racial taunting took place, but Jefferies has publicly stuck to his story. An inquiry into the event made by the MPSSAA did not place blame on either party.
The incident led to McKinley (D.C.), a league member with Dunbar, being prohibited from playing a game against Fort Hill on Oct. 3.
It might have been one of the most trying years for Fort Hill, which lost a top player when he was paralyzed in a car accident before the season. Then a scheduling snafu left the program scrambling for an extra midseason game, which ultimately was McKinley.
Interestingly, Dunbar and Fort Hill went on to successful seasons -- both losing in championship contests. Dunbar was the DCIAA runner-up to H.D. Woodson and Fort Hill was the Class 1A state runner-up to Dunbar of Baltimore.
In the postgame interview following Fort Hill's state final loss, coach Todd Appel summarized the season by saying his team stuck together through adversity: "These kids were unjustifiably accused They were backed into a corner They wanted to continue to fight and prove they are good kids."
Team On The Mend: The morning of Sept. 26, Loyola place-kicker Dennis Woolford, who also played for the boys' soccer team, died in a car accident on his way to school. Instead of canceling or postponing its game later that day, the Dons went on to rout Archbishop Curley 41-0.
Loyola went on to complete a perfect season, winning the MIAA A Conference title and finishing No. 2 in the state poll.
Loyola is no stranger to tragic events. Only four year ago, Van Brooks, a promising star athlete on the football team, was paralyzed during a contest against Georgetown Prep.
What's Done Is Not Necessarily Done: Joppatowne reached the Class 1A state semifinals in 2007, at least it did so on the field -- but not in the record books. The Mariners forfeited their first three wins of the 2008 season for using an ineligible player, and since that individual played for the 2007 team, Harford County opted to make Joppatowne forfeit its 2007 season.
The MPSSAA upheld the decision to make Joppatowne forfeit its 2007 season, and stripped the team of its region championship and state semifinal appearance. In the football playoff program, Joppatowne was credited for three playoff losses in 2007 -- the region semifinal, region final and state semifinal (which it actually lost on the field), making Joppatowne the state's first 0-13 team.
The Joppatowne coach confirmed that the ineligible player did not compete in a couple of the 2007 playoff contests. The MPSSAA told MDVarsity.com the ruling that Joppatowne would forfeit those postseason games was upheld because the Mariners would not have made the playoffs in 2007 had they forfeited the contests in which the ineligible player participated at the time.
Forfeits are not uncommon in Maryland. In fact, on average, there are between six and 10 forfeited games each season. But what makes the Joppatowne situation unique is the fact an infraction discovered during the 2008 season was used to make a team forfeit games from a year earlier.
The silver lining for Joppatowne in this situation: The Mariners battled back from their 0-3 start and reached the state semifinals again!
Sheldon Shealer covers high school football for ESPNRISE.com