PITTSFIELD >> As the Taconic football team competed in its biggest game of the season on Friday against Wahconah, starting senior running back Anthony Whiteley was sitting in a hospital bed, following the game via updates on Twitter.
Whiteley injured his shoulder in the first quarter against the Warriors, and was awaiting discharge as his teammates started to pull away.
He followed along as Devon Walker forced a Wahconah defensive back into committing a critical pass interference penalty on fourth down in the second quarter. He was still scrolling through his feed when quarterback Jake McNeice and Walker connected for a 71-yard touchdown to take the lead on the first play of the third quarter. Ironically, his replacement, Lucien Almeida, made the interception late in the game to seal the 28-18 victory.
"I actually didn't tell them anything. Devon and the other leaders, McNeice, [Brandon] Peaslee, all of them, they stepped up. I didn't have to tell them anything," Coach Jim Ziter said. "He got hurt in the first quarter, so we didn't have time to talk about it. Lucien went in and did a great job. At halftime, that's when they said they wanted to do it for Anthony."
When the clock hit zero and the team gathered in its postgame huddle, there were cheers of joy and excitement after beating the No. 1 ranked team in the Western Massachusetts media poll. Some players remained stoic.
Walker lifted Whiteley's No. 22 jersey in the air as they broke down the huddle.
"Don't forget about our brother," Walker said as the team dispersed, signifying how Whiteley was still a part of the victory even if it was only in spirit.
"We know he would've done anything to be able play in that game," Walker said. "Unfortunately he couldn't because he got injured. We know last year he missed a couple big games, so we were like — we can't let him down."
Whiteley missed time last year with injury as well. He needed to be lifted off the field on a stretcher during last year's Western Mass. Division V championship game against Hoosac Valley. This injury was less serious, but he couldn't help but feel a similar sense of disappointment for not being on the field in a big game.
"I was pretty upset because I thought I let my team down," Whiteley said. "I didn't know how serious it would be. It didn't hurt as bad because I had a lot of adrenaline. It felt awkward, but it was a sense of deja vu."
That downtrodden feeling did not last long. Once the game was over, the congratulatory texts and calls starting flowing in. McNeice and Walker were some of the first people to reach out to him. The senior signer caller was there to pick up Whiteley as he left the hospital, taking him to their customary postgame meal at Applebee's.
"They know that I'd do anything for my team and knowing that they have my back like that means a lot," Whiteley said. "It's great knowing you can trust the person to the left of you and the right of you. It means a lot."
Ziter said the close-knit caring atmosphere among the players, especially his seniors, has helped the Braves get off to a 5-1 (3-0 in the Suburban North) start. He said the 2016 class has done a great job in turning around the program.
"These seniors, they brought the program together and brought the young guys up," he said. "The juniors that are here now and the sophomores and the young freshmen, [the seniors] made the program to where kids want to play now.
"When I took the job four years ago, they were the biggest class as freshmen. Now each class is pretty much even and they're bringing kids out that want to play football. ... These guys sold the program. They sold it in the school and talk it up to the kids in the youth level. They've done a great job of putting the program where it's at."
Contact Akeem Glaspie at 413-496-6252