ATLANTA -- More than the twitching cramps in both calves, it was the stinging pain from the 13-10 loss in Georgia's Class AA state championship game that finally sent Gus Roberts to his knees.
For four quarters Calhoun's junior defensive end had poured every ounce of effort he could muster into the game. But as Buford converted a third-and-5 with a gutsy halfback option pass in the closing minutes to seal a second straight title win against Calhoun, Roberts sat helplessly on the bench with ice bags wrapped around both calves.
Moments after the game, as several of his teammates lay face down on the Georgia Dome turf, Roberts limped toward the field, then dropped to the ground. He was overcome with emotion and the realization that, for the moment, the Yellow Jackets' first loss far outweighed the memory of the 14 previous wins.
"I've dreamed of winning a state championship here since I was 7 years old," Roberts said. "I grew up around this team, and we really wanted to win it.
"I was just praying in those last few minutes that we could somehow make a good play. It was frustrating to watch."
Just a few feet away, Calhoun quarterback Nash Nance, resting on one knee and with his head bowed, pounded the turf with his fist.
It was a scene I have witnessed three times in the last week as area programs Calhoun, Boyd-Buchanan and South Pittsburg all had state-title hopes fall short by six points or less.
"We just didn't make the plays on offense that we usually do," said Nance, who led an offense that had averaged 44 points in the previous four playoff games. "We hurt ourselves with turnovers and penalties. Our defense played great all night, and I was hoping we could get one more stop so our offense could have one more chance to do something.
"But God really blessed us with a great year, and there really wasn't much more we could do. We'll have a lot of great memories from this season, but once the playoffs started it seemed like every week just went by faster and faster, and now it's over."
Long after most Calhoun fans had filed out of the Dome, the players began to emerge from the locker room and stack their travel bags into a pile. Some players fidgeted with iPods or cell phones. Most walked with their heads down and quietly moved aside as players from Clarke Central made their way toward the field entrance for the AAAA title game.
As the Clarke Central players whooped and clapped their hands excitedly, preparing for their shot at ending the season with a championship, the contrast was noticeable with each passing Calhoun player.
"It will take a long time to get over this one," Calhoun coach Hal Lamb said. "We really thought this was our year. I'm going to keep coaching and the younger kids will come back and keep playing. But some of those seniors will never play again. Those are the kids you think about right now and feel really bad for."
Just ahead of Roberts, two other juniors bumped fists and one said to the other, "It's up to us to get it done now."
"I'm going to follow the leadership I learned from my seniors this year," Roberts said. "As soon as we get back from Christmas break, I'm going to be ready to do whatever it takes to help us get back here and try to win it again next year."