One by one, 40 senior football players from Corona Centennial walked through a line of teammates more than 60 strong, receiving handshakes, thank yous and goodbyes late Friday night at Cerritos College.
Matt Logan, the head coach, was at the front of the line greeting each senior with a hug. Sometimes he'd whisper into an ear, or rest his head on a shoulder or helmet, smile and speak from his heart.
"I'm so proud of you."
"You worked so hard."
"I'm excited to see what the future holds for you."
I've been covering high school sports in Southern California since 1976, and what I saw following the Huskies' 62-34 semifinal playoff loss to Bellflower St. John Bosco reinforces the reasons teenagers should want to play football in an era where some are questioning if the sport is too dangerous.
The truth is the positives outweigh any negatives, especially if you're playing for a coach named Logan.
Lots of private schools have tried to lure away Logan, in his 21st season. Someone might succeed one day, but let's hope not. His presence and values are so needed where he is.
For the second consecutive season, Centennial lost to St. John Bosco in the Division 1 semifinals. The Huskies offered no excuses even though their star quarterback, Tanner McKee, couldn't play because of concussion protocol.
Centennial has become the lone public school willing and able to compete against the likes of St. John Bosco and Santa Ana Mater Dei. The Huskies brought more than 100 players on yellow school buses. They fell behind 27-0, then somehow closed to 27-20. These players are so well coached that no deficit is considered insurmountable. But the absence of McKee couldn't be overcome.
Afterward, Logan went all out to express his gratitude to the seniors so important to his program. And you could tell from the players' faces the feeling was mutual.
Yes, winning matters, but losing with class, dignity and respect matters, too, along with learning lessons that can last a lifetime. Centennial has won many times, as in 10 Southern Section titles and 18 league titles.
Logan prefers winning to losing but never forgets he's an educator first.
And to see McKee, with his head held high, even smiling, after suiting up for a final time and never getting to play tells me what an experience he's had training and learning under Logan.
He'll soon leave on a two-year Mormon mission, and I predict he won't forget the conversation he had with Logan, whose head rested on McKee's helmet as he spoke into his left ear.
There were so many leaders on this Centennial team. Plenty can thank their parents for raising them right. And plenty can thank Logan for preparing them for ups and downs they'll encounter in the years ahead.
"It's different types of emotions for the kids," Logan said. "It didn't end the way we wanted. I'm very proud of this group. We went through a lot in the off season. They stuck together."
There are no guarantees when a coach sends his players off into the real world. Did they learn something? Did they listen? Do they know the difference between right and wrong?
"There's a lot of good kids on this team that will do very well in the communities they live in, if not ours," Logan said.