Six people closely linked to the program died, during and around the season. But they didn’t endure a single loss on the field.
They had captured two similar titles. But this was the first one won during a pandemic.
The community was already tight. But it brought them even closer together.
In high school sports in Pennsylvania, winning a state championship is the ultimate accomplishment. But for the Steelton-Highspire Rollers, not only was 2020 an epic season. It was one for the record books—and one for the storybooks.
Now, a few months removed from the state title, what the Rollers really accomplished is beginning to sink in.
When they do allow themselves the luxury of looking back, they don’t think about the trophies, the school records and the accolades. They remember the people and the relationships and the life lessons.
“For us, COVID-19 turned out to be a blessing in disguise,” said Andrew Erby, who’s been Steel-High’s head coach for seven years. “What it did for us is make us embrace the opportunity. It made us appreciate our loved ones. We hugged a little tighter. It really gave us a reality check. It made us realize that life is real, and made us thankful for what we have, because life is not promised to you. A lot of bad came from COVID-19, but it made us closer as a family.”
On a cloudy Friday afternoon, last Nov. 27 at Hersheypark Stadium, Steel-High defeated Jeannette 32-20 to claim the PIAA Class A title. After starting a COVID-19-delayed and shortened season with a 43-6 victory at Upper Dauphin on Sept. 26, the Rollers followed with 11 straight wins, some convincing blowouts and others nail-biters.
The year’s squad finished the season as one of the highest scoring teams in the illustrious history of Steel-High football. But as the special season was unfolding, Steel-High resisted the temptation to take a step back and view the big picture.
“Coming into the season, once we were able to get back to our workouts, our goal was to embrace every single game and every single opportunity,” said Erby. “We wanted to have fun every single day and enjoy it. I wasn’t a real ‘big-picture’ guy. It made us realize that this opportunity was special. I wanted to make it a good time. I didn’t want there to be any pressure.”
Before the year started, there were lingering doubts as to whether the PIAA would even conduct a fall season in 2020. But the Rollers doubled down on that uncertainty and turned it into desire, chemistry and intestinal fortitude, originating from the top and trickling down to all 30 young men on the roster.
“I think the key to our success was the leadership academy that we implemented at the beginning of the season,” said Erby. “We (the coaches) wanted to step back and implement core values on how to handle things. That allowed us to lean on each other. We talked about Roller pride. We talked about tradition. It prepared us to handle anything we might face.”
Steel-High has been playing high school football for more than 125 years, and the Rollers have fostered a proud tradition, one that has made them one of the most successful programs in Pennsylvania. Before this year, Steel-High had captured nine other state championships, the most recent being back-to-back titles in 2007 and 2008.
The neighboring communities of Steelton and Highspire have long been linked by the school district and the success of the high school’s athletic programs. In staying true to themselves, the members of this year’s football team were very much playing for each other and their hometown.
“This state championship separates itself from the others, just because of all of the circumstances leading up to it,” said Erby. “There were so many things out of control around us. But from week to week, we found a way to get it done, at practices and at games. It wasn’t easy for grown men, and it wasn’t easy for young men. It was special because we made it through it.”
Every scholastic season in every high school sport is filled with adversity. This concept of “a perfect season” simply does not exist.
But what separates state champions from the pack is how they face adversity, how that adversity is handled. As time passes, that may be how the 2020 Steel-High Roller football team will be best remembered.
“I think what sticks out in my mind is how a group of kids were committed to ‘The Room,’” said Erby. “What that means is putting the team first and the community first. We had a special group of men who worked very hard. We were trying to do our best to stay safe, to make sure families were OK. We didn’t have one single case of COVID-19, and that just showed our kids did what they needed to do. It really did take a village.”
Certainly, Steel-High’s state championship will serve every member associated with the team well, moving forward. Overcoming adversity at an early age has a special way of preparing young men for the inevitable life challenges that the future holds.
“We look at ourselves as life coaches, not just football coaches,” concluded Erby. “I’m more than a football coach. These kids need us off the field. I thought my coaching staff did a great job of mentoring this season. A state championship was a bonus.”
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