Every season has an end.
Theirs ended as heroes.
In the moment -- denied a recurring dream of decades by inches and moments - perhaps the Linton Miners football squad couldn't see themselves as clearly.
Someday, however -- when the years have dulled the pain and brightened the glories of a thousand shining moments, they'll remember this season.
Even when they're older, the thrills and chills they gave a community won't be forgotten.
More importantly, they'll be remembered -- one of seven Miner squads over the past 26 years who've given their all.
"This team played their heart out," City Councilman Jathan Wright suggested.
Along the way, they've provided a season pass to a city enthralled by their winning ways, illuminating the Friday Night Lights all the way to a semi-state berth.
The past four seasons brought a 44-9 record, Miner football's dominance of opposing squads such a fact of life that the team never trailed behind an opponent until Friday evening.
Not many cities Linton's size see such remarkable regular runs. Here, it's become almost expected -- everyday heroics.
The scoreboard Friday registered the first loss of a 13-1 season, to be sure -- a 17-14 victory for their arch foes the Crusaders of Indianapolis Scecina.
For that dark moment, denied a shot at the state finals, tears from the benches and the bleachers may have blurred the memories of back-to-back 13-1 seasons and semistate appearances.
Still, as the crowd gathered, piling onto the field to salute them, Scecina's squad seemed slight, winners in name but surrounded by a relatively scant crowd, here on Linton's home field.
Instead, a sea of red and blue surrounded the young men and young woman who'd carried the complex, immeasurable weight of a city's dreams on their shoulders with grace and aplomb.
"Hurt's a part of life, unfortunately," said Linton's Athletic Director Charlie Karazsia. "Seven times we've been here, and seven times we just can't quite get over that hump. But the seniors can go out with their heads held high, and the underclassmen have something to strive for next year."
Still, Karazsia knows the toll the loss takes. For many of these kids, a state finals berth has been a dream since they were scrimmaging in schoolyards.
"I feel bad for them. I just feel horrible for them," he observed. "But they've got nothing to be ashamed of. You just don't hang your head down over a season like this."
With an undefeated regular season, a conference championship, and sectional and regional wins, the Miner squad was used to breathing the rarefied air of winning.
So it was, when the heartbreaker of a loss came in those final moments, Miner fans crowding around the end zone expecting the win were stunned, shaken -- and then still resoundingly proud.
Scecina, win though they might, knew how close they'd come to losing -- and walked away knowing they'd played a Miner squad who played sharp as the razor's edge.
For much of the night, the teams were evenly matched -- tied for a sizeable part of the evening.
Scecina scored the first touchdown and extra point, taking it to 7-0, but was quickly answered with Linton making it 7-all at the half.
Linton rallied ahead 14-7 in the third quarter, then was quickly answered with a 75-yard Scecina run into the end zone. From there, the game stayed 14-all throughout a scoreless fourth quarter.
"I knew, from going to school here, that coming here we were going to have a great game," said 2011 Linton-Stockton High School graduate Anna Heath. "And now, with 43 second left in the fourth quarter, I think my intuition's been proven very right."
Then came overtime -- and a series of sudden death plays that left each team with four downs, and the necessity of scoring.
"It's pretty nerve wracking," observed Molly Wright, 16. "But I think they can do it."
In those moments, a community's hope shone brightly.
A city's pride was there in the fathers. Mark Kaiser, who quarterbacked the 1986 Miners to their first semi-state berth, screamed himself hoarse in the end zone as a dramatic overtime played itself out.
"Ten more yards! Ten more yards!" he screamed. "You going to let ten more yards stop you? Never!"
Linton's pride, too, was there in the sons -- felt so deeply that for a moment, the win seemed capable of being carried on sheer force of will.
"It's going to be close, but I really think Linton will do it," said Kyle Bedwell, a junior high student. "I have faith in them."
In the end, only a field goal by Scecina followed by a slight shortfall in the Miner end zone -- so close the crowd was flustered when the Crusaders tentatively took the field to celebrate -- ended the Miners' year.
Koye Kaiser, who carried his dad's proud football tradition onto the modern era as a running back, felt the loss deeply.
When defeat came, he lay down near the end zone, the grief of the loss felt so strongly a Scecina player helped him up. Shaken, his tears flowing freely, Kaiser's heartache visibly moved those around him -- so many struggling for
"We're definitely proud of these kids," Wright said. "They gave it their all."
The grass on the playing field is brown now. The red,white and blue balloons are being popped, and the banners depicting this season's seniors were being collected from the fences.
Winter's onset seemed closer now, with wood smoke filling the air as every exhaled breath produced a mist in the evening's chill. Hanging low in the overcast, starless November skies, the clouds seemed complex, tattered remnants of a dream.
Another season is gone down to fond memories, and the state finals next Friday now a mere afterthought. On Monday, the players return to classes, and the simple business of high school.
Still, hope -- like heroism and pride -- springs eternal. There is always tomorrow, the children crowding the sidelines inspired by their teenaged heroes today.
Standing smiling, his fist punching the air with every Miner play, Brian Hamilton, 9, watched the game. And, inspired by the promise he saw in the team, he made a vow of his own -- one day, he'll play for the Miners.
One day, he promises himself -- as his heroes on the gridiron Friday did before him when they were younger -- he'll take it to the state finals.
"One of these days the ball is going to bounce our way," Jathan Wright suggested.
One more year. One more chance. One more try.
One day, in their hearts, they know dreams can come true.
Until then, what they had were heroes.