It was shortly before his Horace Mann Lions were scheduled to take the field against Dalton for the Hudson Valley Football League championship when head coach Matt Russo received a voicemail from someone he had never met.
It was a simple message, but it hit home with the Lions players.
“It was from a guy named Ethan Hill,” senior Rae Rae Silverman said. “Coach didn’t even know who he was, but apparently he was the captain of the Horace Mann football team in 1975. He said, ‘Beat Dalton today.’ And then he said, ‘Do it in honor of Paul Zimmerman.’”
Zimmerman was the legendary New York Post and Sports Illustrated sportswriter who died last week at 86.
“He also went to Horace Mann and played football here,” Silverman said.
Then the Lions proceeded to do just what Hill had asked, scoring the game’s first points on a 10-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Brody McGuinn to wide receiver Kelvin Smith late in the third quarter, then adding another score in the fourth quarter on a 35-yard scoring jaunt by Ben Metzner as Horace Mann won its third HVFL title in the last four years with a 14-6 victory over Dalton.
“It was a great game,” said McGuinn, who earned the third title of his career. “This game was almost like last year’s title game.”
Horace Mann defeated Dalton 7-0 in another tightly contested game in last year’s championship.
The game was a 0-0 affair halfway through the third quarter when Horace Mann finally broke through. Faced with a fourth-and-15 from Dalton’s 25, McGuinn teamed with Metzner on a 15-yard pass that just barely picked up the first down.
“They had to bring the chains out from across the field and it was very close,” McGuinn said, “but also very exciting that we got the first down.”
It got even more exciting for Horace Mann on the very next play when McGuinn found Smith in the end zone for the touchdown and a 7-0 Lions lead.
“We wanted to get in the end zone the entire game, and we were getting so close but we always wound up punting,” McGuinn said. “So it felt really good to finally get in the end zone and get a score up on the board.”
Dalton answered with a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, but rather than going for the tying extra point, the Tigers opted for the two-point conversion and a potential one-point lead. But the conversion failed and Horace Mann was left clinging to a 7-6 lead.
“I don’t know why they went for two,” Silverman said. “But they didn’t get it, so we still had the lead.”
That one-point cushion soon ballooned to an eight-point advantage when Metzner added his 35-yard score later in the fourth quarter for a 14-6 Lions lead. But victory was not a lock just yet for Horace Mann.
With time winding down, the Tigers marched down the field and reached the Lions’ 10-yard line with just over a minute to play: Time for four shots in the end zone and a possible tie game. But the Lions defense was having none of it. Dalton fired three consecutive incomplete passes before Metzner picked off the final pass to seal the win.
“Our defense really stepped up and stopped them,” McGuinn said. “Three straight incomplete passes and then Ben gets the pick. Yeah, that was pretty crazy.”
That’s three championships now for Horace Mann’s senior class. And for guys like McGuinn and Silverman, it never gets old.
“I thought it was very surreal,” Silverman said. “That’s the only way I can explain it. Three titles. That just feels great.”
A lot entered McGuinn’s mind as he was taking a knee in the game’s final seconds. But mostly he was thinking about what a spectacular run it’s been at Horace Mann the last four years.
“When I took the victory knee it felt great,” McGuinn said. “I was just so excited and happy for everyone on the team. And we were just happy to get coach another championship.“
Then McGuinn thought of that pregame voicemail again and what it meant about being part of the Horace Mann football family.
“That was pretty cool,” McGuinn said. “I mean he graduated in 1975 and now he’s calling to wish us luck. It’s like it goes on forever. You’re still always part of the football program at HM. That stuff never ends. It really doesn’t.
“And it’s so amazing to see that people still remember their time at HM. Football never dies in that sense. It’s just really cool.”