CLIFTON — When it starts hurting, when the pain settles in, that’s when the fight grows hardest.
About 9 p.m. last Oct. 24th, the Clifton Cubs were feeling that pain. The outlook seemed grim. On the heels of three straight losses, Clifton trailed Bruceville-Eddy at the half, on the road, in a critical district game.
In years past, the Cubs quite likely would have faltered in the midst of such piercing persecution. This time, though, they simply gritted their teeth and plowed ahead.
Clifton erupted for 35 unanswered points in the second half on its way to a 47-15 victory that late October night, signaling a kind of tidal shift in the Cubs’ confidence. They returned home to beat Marlin the next week, and ended up making the playoffs for the first time in nine years. The Cubs didn’t stop there, either, tallying a sweet 44-35 bi-district win over Palmer to reach the second round of the postseason for the first time since 1994.
“I think the biggest adversity we faced was just recent history,” first-year Clifton coach Chuck Caniford said. “We had to exorcise those demons.”
The Cubs cast those demons out, and didn’t even need to call an exorcist. For its resolute efforts in turning around a proud program, Clifton is the winner of the Tribune-Herald’s 59th annual Jinx Tucker Award.
It’s actually the third time Clifton has attained the honor, but the first since 1967, when the Cubs shared the award with Bruceville-Eddy. Clifton also won the trophy in 1963.
The Trib staff doles out the honor after every high school football season to a program that shows team success, improvement throughout the season, sportsmanship, fan support and a will to win in the face of adversity. It’s emblematic of Tucker, who garnered national respect during a 33-year run as sports editor of the Tribune-Herald. Three years after Tucker’s death in 1953, Dave Campbell, his successor at the Trib, founded the award.
Caniford landed the Clifton job last spring, after a nine-year stint as head coach at New Braunfels that included eight playoff appearances and two state semifinal trips. He was a big-school lifer, looking to downsize in population but not in expectation.
His friend Marty Crawford, former superintendent at West, had coached with Caniford at Euless Trinity, and suggested that he check out Clifton.
So Caniford took his friend’s advice. He came away buoyed over the potential bubbling just below the surface at Clifton. Ultimately, it was the only job for which he applied.
“This just jumped out as a place where we saw a lot of potential,” Caniford said. “I think the biggest thing we saw was that these kids wanted it really bad and were willing to do what it takes. That’s the key. It’s not about the talent. In high school in Texas, it’s nice to have great players and all that, but you can win a lot of football games with good, hard-nosed kids who are willing to work hard. That’s what we saw here.”
Still, the players needed persuading. The Cubs were 2-8 in 2013, and the program hadn’t posted a winning record since that last playoff season in 2005.
Caniford, who oozes an easy confidence, made a convincing argument. If he were a lawyer, he’d be Tom Cruise in “A Few Good Men.”
“Our past coaches weren’t necessarily bad coaches, but Coach Caniford from the start brought a new sense of thinking,” said lineman Jason Schmidt. “He brought us motivation. He actually made us believe that we were going to be able to do it, instead of past coaches where they didn’t necessarily believe we could do it.”
Ask Caniford, and he’ll insist that confidence is merely a byproduct of preparation. So the Cubs hit the ground running in the sweltering heat of the summer, approaching conditioning drills and weightlifting sessions with a newfound sense of gusto.
“I think it started from the first day of two-a-days,” Schmidt said. “Straight from the start, there was no slacking off with him. I realized, not sure if everyone else did, but I realized that we were going to be a lot better than we were before. At least more physical, and more mentally prepared and ready to finish the second half.”
“I’m going to most remember that our practices were different than any other practices I’ve ever had,” said defensive end Charles Anz. “We were more intense, we hit harder, the fact that we worked as hard as we could to get the best that we could.”
The Cubs roared into the season feeling strong, then immediately felt their knees buckle. West clobbered Clifton, 50-6, in the opener, prompting a test of the Cubs’ fledgling faith.
“They’re working hard, go through the scrimmages and have success,” Caniford said. “Here they go, they’re starting to believe and you get in your first real game and you lay an egg. That was a big one, a big hurdle we had to overcome, getting that first win of the year especially after that performance.”
The Cubs didn’t crawl in a hole and wallow in self-pity. A sign hanging on the wall of the team’s weight room illustrates their blooming tenacity. Printed underneath a photo of a grizzly are the words, “I don’t always kill things. But when I do it’s because they were things, and I’m a bear.”
The week after the humbling West loss, Clifton hit the road and mauled Rosebud-Lott, 51-0. A new, firmer die had been cast.
“Usually we weren’t a second-half football team,” running back Jaren Brooks said. “The first time we picked it up in the second half and became a football team and actually won, we were like, ‘Yeah, we can actually do this. We can go to the playoffs, go further in the playoffs and actually win.’ ”
Their mettle was stretched again in Bruceville-Eddy. Three straight losses to playoff teams Bosqueville, Crawford and Rogers pushed the Cubs into a corner, and then they fell behind 15-12 after two quarters against the Eagles.
“That was the scary part for us,” Caniford said. “We’ve lost three in a row and the temptation for kids who haven’t been in the program, who haven’t been successful, is to say, ‘Aw, here we go again.’ But they just kept fighting, they kept working. They bought into the fact that there’s not a magic pill, no magic play. It’s just grinding every day, grind and grind and grind, and eventually you’re going to break through. And they did.”
The players said the community embraced them like never before. Clifton owns a rich football tradition dating back to 1919, and the program ranked No. 49 all-time in wins — and fifth among Central Texas teams — entering the 2014 season. It had just hit a lull.
Suddenly, old timers around town were approaching the players, thanking them for rekindling past glory.
“You hear more when you’ve got a winning football team,” Brooks said. “You hear more about us and how we’re doing, what we look like, how much has changed, everything like that.”
On Thursday afternoon, several dozen Cubs powered through offseason weightlifting drills in the fieldhouse, as pulsating pop music screamed over the speakers. For the ones coming back, the road is just beginning. Clifton’s seventh and eighth grade football teams both fashioned unbeaten district records in 2014, and Caniford said the hope is to build a tradition that perpetuates itself.
“Then when those guys get to us and they’re sophomores and juniors, that’s all they know. All they know of Clifton football is that you’re supposed to win,” Caniford said. “That’s what we’re after, something that can sustain itself year after year.”