Gorman: Sad ending for last Tigers
Stephon Byrd sat on a wooden bench in the Wilkinsburg locker room, staring straight ahead in a state of disbelief.
Byrd had broken off a 51-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter against Serra Catholic, a scoring play he described as one that “felt like it was the TD to win it.”
There would be no happy ending for the Wilkinsburg Tigers, who learned last week their high school would officially close at the end of the school year.
Wilkinsburg once was a powerhouse program, winning the first three WPIAL football championships from 1914-16 and again in '22 and '57. That glory was a distant memory, the century-old trophies a product of a bygone era.
These Tigers endured diminishing numbers, taking to heart coach Michael Fulmore's motto to “Stand Tall, Be Strong” by finishing last season with 13 players.
They withstood the two-game suspensions of two players this fall for their part in a brawl with Monessen that caused the game to be stopped in the third quarter.
This was the final insult: A sparse crowd sitting under the grandstands at historic Graham Field to see the Tigers play their final high school football game in their red and blue uniforms.
Tyrone Bennett watched his alma mater, Peabody, play its final football game in 2010 before closing, so he understood the gravity of this game.
Just two weeks ago, Graham Field was packed with Wilkinsburg alums for the final homecoming. Now, there were more Serra Catholic fans at the grass field with no lights.
“At homecoming, we had 1,000 people here,” said Bennett, the food service director for Wilkinsburg School District. “Now you can see ...
“Of course they're sad. It's the last season, and morale is down.”
Cliff Simon had to be here for this one. A 1973 Wilkinsburg graduate, he coached the Tigers from 1978-96 and again from 2005-11. He wore a T-shirt celebrating the school's 500th victory in 2010. With 510 all-time victories, Wilkinsburg soon will own the most wins of any defunct high school in WPIAL history.
“That homecoming was a grand finale to a great program,” Simon said. “Wilkinsburg has a history of good teams in football and basketball. Wilkinsburg always has that heart and desire and a lot of pride.”
It was a bittersweet moment for Simon and Howard Elerby, a retired Wilkinsburg middle-school teacher and former girls basketball coach who sat next to him in the bleachers.
“I never missed a game,” said Elerby, who wore his red Tigers basketball jacket over a gray Wilkinsburg sweatshirt. “I just wanted to see it one last time.”
What they saw was the thrill of Dremar Everette's 74-yard touchdown pass to Daniel Scott, only to be negated by a holding penalty.
Then Byrd broke the big run.
“He's one of Wilkinsburg's greats,” Everette said of Byrd. “It was only right for him to score the last touchdown.”
But Serra answered with a touchdown to take the lead with 7:06 remaining. Wilkinsburg had one more chance, forcing a third-and-14 at the Serra 19 with 43.6 seconds left before Khalil Smith broke a 39-yard run for a first down. The Eagles ran out the clock for a 23-20 victory.
It was the 17th consecutive loss for Wilkinsburg, a streak that ends with the program's demise.
After, Everette collapsed in the end zone of exhaustion. He was in tears as teammates helped him limp into a locker room where the words “Pain is temporary, Tiger Pride is forever” are painted on the walls.
“All my life, this is where I grew up playing football. I wanted to end my high school career as a Tiger,” said Everette, a junior who doesn't know where he will attend school next fall. “I wasn't thinking about this being the last game. I was just thinking, ‘We've got to get this win.'
“That was the last time I would play here. Now, it's one of the saddest moments of my life.”
Same for Byrd, the last player to take off his red Wilkinsburg jersey and reluctantly hand it in.
“Red and blue run through my veins, and I'll cherish it,” said Byrd, a senior. “I can't believe it's over.”
The Tigers soon left the Wilkinsburg locker room at Graham Field feeling the same way they did about their football finale: Empty.