By Mike Kays
Phoenix Sports Editor
Vian High School’s football team has talked the talk and walked the walk en route to an 8-0 start and No. 1-ranking in the Associated Press Class 2A poll.
In last week’s 75-0 win over Wilburton, which will join Vian as one of District 2A-6’s postseason qualifiers, the Wolverines passed the 500-point mark for the season. At 515, they are averaging 64 points per game. Just as impressively, their defense has allowed 15 points and no rushing touchdowns, putting their average margin of victory at 62.
So when the seniors approached coach Brandon Tyler last week with a risky senior night request, they brought along their resumes and portfolios for backup. Their proposal: Allow Cole Cato, the team’s manager the past four seasons, to enter the game as a running back so he would have the opportunity to score a touchdown.
The problem is that Cato, who has been with most of these seniors since kindergarten, suffers from a degenerative condition involving his bladder and kidneys. He had reconstructive surgery on his bladder at a young age but over time, his kidneys have shown signs of failing and he is presently on a list of patients requesting donors.
Therefore, to suit up and take a hit is a risky proposition. Tyler, aware of that, told the team to take it up with Cato’s parents, Jimmy and Dawn Cato.
Jimmy said yes, but with the assurance that there be no contact involving his son.
That kicked the plan into motion.
After Wilburton went three-and-out on its opening possession, Vian took over near midfield. Moments later, running back Rowdy Simon cut loose and headed toward the sideline. When he got to the 2, he intentionally ran out of bounds.
In came Cato. The Vian side of the field knew what was happening. Across the field, Wilburton coach Brian Kirkhart thought he did.
Speaking by phone on Sunday night, Kirkhart said he thought Cato was simply a senior who had received little playing time and was getting his due. The former Okay head coach didn’t know the full story until a certain scribe called him Sunday evening.
“Really?” he said in a clear tone of surprise. “I’m shocked.”
But not as much, say, if one of his defenders had swept around the edge and caught Cato from behind with a shoulder to the back. His players were simply trying to do what no team has done this year, keep Vian from imposing its will.
Cole just became part of that flow.
“I’ve always loved the game but I’ve never been able to play,” he said. “I’ve always wanted the chance to suit up, just once.”
And his parents went with it, because Simon and his backfield mate and brother Rylee assured them he would be safe.
“I was a little worried that someone could sweep up from behind, and I did a lot of praying,” Rowdy Simon said. “But we felt like we had everything covered.”
They did, with a warm blanket.
Both Simons were lead blockers out of the backfield on a “46 Power,” a simple run behind the right side of the line which meant running behind tackle Rob Boyd, a University of Tulsa commit, and right guard Cody Monholland. Plus, left guard Andre English would pull and provide additional support.
It was more like a presidential escort to the end zone for Cole.
“It was like I had a semi in front of me,” he said.
He waltzed in untouched.
“First thing I remember was the (Wilburton) safety shaking my hand and hearing our crowd give me a standing ovation,” Cole said.
It served as the opening salvo of a long, long night, not unlike those experienced by the seven other Vian opponents.
But a risky shot nonetheless to start it off.
“When those kids told me they weren’t going to let anything happen, I believed them,” Jimmy Cato said. “And they did exactly what they said they were going to do – protect Cole and get him into the end zone. That’s something he’ll have for the rest of his life.”
The delivery didn’t surprise Tyler.
“These kids are tight and they’ve always been there for each other,” he said. ”I told them that someone would have to give up a touchdown and they went with it.”
Giving up touchdowns hasn’t been easy for a squad which has seen its starters taken many a second half off. Being up for an intense four-quarter battle may be the only area of concern as Vian seeks to advance past the quarterfinal round, where it lost to Hennessey last year, and get the state title they barely missed in 2006, losing 21-20 to Millwood.
“I’m not really worried,” Rowdy Simon said. “We’re so focused on accomplishing our goals, we’re staying in shape for four quarters.
“But yeah, I’m getting a little tired of not playing in the second half.”
The Wolverines have walked every necessary walk up to now, so there’s little room to doubt that will change in the quest for their ultimate goal.
And they’ll have a fulfilled team manager in tow.