They stare at the untied ties hanging around their necks. In the humid weight room at Cypress Bay High School in Weston, several players from the varsity football team are confounded by the unfamiliar swatches of silk in their hands. Despite going to school in the affluent suburb, many of these young men have never worn — much less actually tied — a tie before.
A few players mill around, repeating to one another what Coach Mark Guandolo has preached every day in practice. "This is a business trip," coach says. "We're going there to do a job."
This is no ordinary game, though. In two days, the team will play in front of a national television audience on ESPN. Cypress Bay — ranked in the top five of Florida football teams — will fly to Houston to play the Texas state champions. Private schools have traveled out of state, but no Broward County public school team has ever made a trip like this.
It's Thursday, just two days before the October 4 game. Getting ready for the trip, the players speak in the same sports clichés as the college stars and professionals they watch every weekend on television. "We expect to go out there and give it everything we've got and leave it all out on the field," linebacker Austin Gamble says.
"This isn't a vacation," says Eddie Cabrera, a defensive back. "We're focused and disciplined and prepared for a great game."
"I expect it to be a battle," senior running back Vincent Mantuo says.
"We're blessed to be in the position we're in and to get to do the things we do," quarterback Zach Green adds.
As they speak, some fidget with their dress shirt collars. A few sophomores try to decide whether the fat end loops around the thin end. At one point, a defensive back turns to a photographer and asks, "Sir, do you know how to tie a tie?"
For the players, the game in Texas is an opportunity to impress college scouts in a big game, maybe even get a highlight on SportsCenter. For the school, however, it means national notoriety and money. Playing on national TV could attract better players to transfer to Cypress Bay, and better players means possibly adding new sponsors, which already include Rolex and Outback Steakhouse.
The team files out of the weight room, leaving one player alone with his thoughts. Sitting quietly on a weight bench in the middle of the room, Leslie Tripp adjusts his gold shirt and black tie. He examines the black wristband above his left hand with the word Mom stitched into it.
Ordinarily, Tripp, a senior and starting center for the Lightning, has a voice that carries down the hallways and a coy grin that can keep him out of trouble. But that Tuesday, two days before he was supposed to fly to Texas for the game, Tripp came home from practice to find an ambulance in front of his house.
"I knew from the way the paramedics weren't, like, rushing around that it was either really, really bad or not bad at all," he says. "My stepdad didn't even want me to come into the house."
Tripp's mother died of a heart attack that night.
The next day, Coach Guandolo held a chapel service for the team at the church across the street from the school.
Tripp says he decided to play. "These guys are my best friends. A lot of them were at the hospital with me the night it happened. Being around them is how I'm dealing with this. I can focus on football and the hard work we've put into this season, and it keeps my mind off things."
A teammate's mother had the wristband made in a rush and two more for Tripp's best friends. "There was no chance I wasn't making the trip," he says. His voice trembles a bit. "My mom would've killed me if I missed this."
Once everyone is dressed, the players gather outside the cafeteria for a final team meeting before the trip. There are jokes about which linemen will be the worst to sit next to on the plane and who will be sleeping on the floor at the hotel — there will be two beds and three players in each room.
Principal Charles Scott Neely calls out to Zach Green as soon as he sees him in the cafeteria. "You look good all made up, Green," Neely jokes. Then he finds Tripp and tries to make him smile. "Tripp! What in the world did you do to your hair?"
The players munch on food from the 125 goody bags put together by Guandolo's wife, Cindy. She started organizing the donations for the bags last spring. Each player got a sub, fried chicken, a cookie from Grampa's Diner, snacks from Wrigley's, and some fruit, an energy bar, and a Vitamin Water from Whole Foods.