New pal moms

It’s an odd feeling for a mother, watching her little boy become a young man. In those early years, there are firsts of everything — steps, scraps to knees and days of school. As those boys grow, the days are dotted with sports practices, music lessons and homework help.

But nothing feels quite like Friday night; watching from the stands as that little boy on the brink of manhood steps out on the football field. The moms of New Palestine High School football players know that feeling well, they say. The excitement, the tension and — win or lose — the all-consuming pride.

On Friday at Lucas Oil Stadium, when the Dragons made their second consecutive appearance in an IHSAA State Final, was no different. With tears in the eyes, voices rasping from shouts of encouragement, these mothers watched their sons — all 60 of them — take the field just as they have all season long. The Dragons fell 64-61 to Fort Wayne Snider on Friday at Lucas Oil Stadium after a thriller of a game and an undefeated regular season.

Through it all, the player’s moms said they’ve bonded just like their boys and formed a new family, a much bigger and louder one than they ever expected. They share meals together, partake in traditions and buy into superstitions.

And just like they have so many times before, they’ll pick up their boys, dust them off and help them find their footing again after heartbreaking loss.

“They have nothing to hang their heads about,” said Lisa Neligh, whose son, quarterback Alex Neligh, wiped away tears while accepting the Phil N. Eskew Mental Attitude Award moments after New Pal lost its only game of the season.

Each young man who takes the field feels like her own, and she hollers with the same enthusiasm and happiness for whoever made the play. Other moms say they feel the same.

“You’re not there cheering on your own child; you’re cheering along all of them,” Neligh said. “And it doesn’t matter who does what, who scores, who makes the tackle — the entire crowd just erupts.”

When Heather White’s family moved into the New Palestine school district earlier this year, she never thought her son, Jordan Workman, would fit in so quickly. Jordan joined the team for his senior year but found himself immediately considered a valuable member.

That was different, his mother said; he had come from a school where the coaches focused on the key players or those destined for college careers on the football field.

“It’s not about a couple of players here; it’s about the whole group. It’s very different. It’s very family oriented,” she said.

In a way, these ladies are the team behind the team.

It’s not unusual to have crowds of 20 or 30 boys at their house for dinner on any given night, and they can’t begin to guess much money they’ve spent on pizza throughout the years. They come together to make about 150 turkey or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the players for every away game.

They don’t have to, but that’s what mothers do.

For Neligh, nerves about an upcoming game tend to set in Thursday night as she gears up to watch her sons, Alex, the team’s senior quarterback, and Zach, a freshman ready to fill those cleats next year. She’s at the stadium an hour before the games, ready to watch her boys exchange passes on the sidelines during warm-ups.

She tells them the same, simple thing every night before they take the field: play hard, and play smart.

In the stands, Neligh sits in the same spot next to the same people; swapping seats could jinx the team, she noted. She and some of the other moms have taken to writing their names on bleachers to reserve their special spots.

When they visit other teams, they try to keep the same seating arrangements, and it was no exception at Lucas Oil Stadium on Friday night.

Neligh was right on the 50-yard line seated high above the field. She perched herself on the back the stadium seat, putting her head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd so she could see every inch of the field.

In moments of high tension, she stood stand and clapped; her cheering shouts and high fives were reserved for the best of plays. By halftime, when New Pal was down 42-21, she said her nerves were shot, but her pride never wavered.

That dedication to red and black goes back years, Darcie Brickens said.

For some, their sons have been playing together since first grade in the New Palestine Cadet Football League; others joined at middle school age. Even then, she could tell there was something different about this group of boys, she said; from the start, they just seemed like champions.

And from what their parents can recall, the 2015 senior class has only lost a total of three games in their football careers; Friday makes four.

Earning a position in the state finals once was awesome; to do it twice was unthinkable, Kate Judy said. The team ended 2014 with the gratification of a state title and came back in the fall with a hunger that only a championship can satisfy.

To watch all the hard work and dedication take form on such a grand stage — not once, but twice — was rewarding for everyone, even when it didn’t go the way they hoped.

On Friday night, some mothers watched their sons play football for the last time. Every touch and every tackle was bittersweet, and just like each Friday night before, nothing felt quite like it.

The next few days will be tough, Neligh said. But they are a family, she added; they’ll get through it.

“I really think they’re going to need each other,” she said.