WILLIAMS BAY – By the end of the fourth quarter, death threats and violent profanities rained from the stands. Some fans used obscene hand gestures to express their anger. The officiating crew had nearly lost control of a Williams Bay Bulldog crowd that felt cheated.
The Williams Bay defense had just forced a punt and now quarterback John Higgins crouched behind the center in Rio Viking territory.
The Bulldogs were down 14-8 and were knocking on the red-zone door. They had not yet found a way to bust it open.
On first down, Higgins ran for 4 yards. On second down he fumbled a poor snap and recovered the ball for a 7-yard loss. On third down – incomplete pass.
It was fourth and 13 with 4:58 left in the fourth quarter. It was parents’ night, and the stands were loud.
The press box floor bounced above vibrating bleachers. Feet stomped. Hands clapped. Voices and whistles echoed and disappeared in the wind over the corn fields behind the stadium. The school band bellowed fight songs and brassy rock n’ roll covers. This was Friday night football. At its loudest and most emotional.
Higgins took the snap and looked right. He turned left and burned down the sideline, dodging defenders who leaked through gaps in the struggling Bulldog offensive line. It appeared to be a 14-yard gain for a first down.
There was plenty of time to score. A touchdown and an extra point could win it. Five games into the season, the Bulldogs have a chance to triple their win count from the previous five years combined.
Flag. A familiar sight at this point, but one that had rarely meant good news for the Bulldogs.
No flag had been thrown earlier in the game when what looked like a neck-twisting face-mask of one of the Bulldogs chilled the hearts of Williams Bay parents. The flag wasn’t always there when they needed it. But it was certainly there when they didn’t.
It was a block in the back, but some Bulldog fans insisted it was a bad call.
The players were hitting harder and faster than they had all night. The energy in the stands was at fever-pitch. Emotions were high, distractions everywhere. The pressure was on and bodies were flying all over the field.
It was hard to tell from the press box.
The referees marched the ball back 11 yards from the first down marker. Ten-yard penalty from the spot of the foul. Repeat fourth down.
Before the Bulldogs had a chance to snap the ball, another flag. The refs deliberated. They talked to coaches on the Williams Bay sideline. They pointed to the stands at fiery parents who shook their fists, fuming over the controversial calls they felt their team had endured all night.
A flustered Mike Coolidge, the Williams Bay athletic director, ran up to the press box and told the announcer to alert the crowd — the referees have threatened to clear the stadium if the jeering doesn’t stop.
“Tell them sportsmanship is a real thing,” he said.
A member of the officiating crew brandished a flag toward the fans as a warning. His gesture stoked their outrage. Insults and severe threats poured from the bleachers.
The announcement came. A chorus of boos erupted.
Finally, Higgins took the snap. He looked downfield. No one was open.
The pass rush closed in. He scrambled right and sprinted on a diagonal line for the first down marker. He appeared to go out of bounds on his own a full yard past the marker. But the referee spotted the ball a few inches short and dangled his flag at the irate crowd. The fans responded not as if it were a warning but an insult.
The ball was turned over on downs.
The Vikings sputtered offensively and could not get a first down. The Bulldog defense was in a frenzy. Grunts and hits reverberated throughout the stadium. Time was running out — just over two minutes left. The Vikings had to punt. One more chance.
But the Bulldogs fumbled the kick, and the Vikings recovered.
A Rio player taunted the Bulldog’s post-game huddle on his way to the locker room.
“That’s right, we didn’t give them nothing tonight!” he shouts at the Williams Bay players, who have taken a knee around their coach.
The Bulldogs ignored him.