Among the hundreds of high school football coaches who will tell their players this week about the importance of playing for a state championship, few will be able to speak from the heart like three at Navasota.
The Rattlers' journey to Friday's Class 3A Division II title game against Gilmer has unleashed a flood of memories -- some good, others bad -- for Navasota head coach Lee Fedora and assistant coaches Clif Groce and Ray Kavanaugh. They were teammates on the A&M Consolidated football team that lost in the 1989 Class 4A championship game to Tyler Chapel Hill 14-0.
Navasota defensive coordinator Bill Hoppers was a member of Ross Rogers' coaching staff at Consol in 1989. Two years later, Hoppers helped guide the Tigers to a state championship when Consol defeated Carthage 35-16.
For Fedora, Groce and Kavanaugh, 1989 was their last taste of a state final until this season.
"It still stings," said Kavanaugh, who was a senior linebacker on the 1989 team. "We sit around at reunions or somebody's wedding, and that game comes up."
All three former Consol players went on to athletic success. Fedora played baseball for Texas A&M and has grown into one of the better-known high school football coaches in the state. Kavanaugh became defensive coordinator at Consol, helping his alma mater reach the state semifinal round in 2005. Groce played football at Texas A&M and spent six years in the National Football League.
That backdrop makes their feelings about playing for the state championship more compelling. It's clear in the case of Groce, who was a member of the Indianapolis Colts team that played Pittsburgh in the 1996 AFC championship game, coming within one victory of the Super Bowl.
"This is bigger than that AFC championship game to me," said Groce, who coaches the Rattlers' running backs. "People don't understand that, but I've seen what a championship does for you.
"You won a Southwest Conference championship and you played in the NFL, but at the end of the day you're from the state of Texas. You did not win your state championship, and that was bigger than the AFC championship game."
Fedora was a standout on the A&M baseball team that reached the College World Series in 1993. The Aggies, like this year's Navasota football team, attained a No. 1 ranking. However, A&M went 1-2 at Omaha and had its national title hopes dashed.
"Not finishing [in 1989] still sticks in your stomach," said Fedora, who was a senior receiver for Consol in '89. "That's a taste that you're going to have in your mouth the rest of your life. It was a great run, but we just didn't finish it. It was kind of the same feeling I had after the 1993 season when we went to the College World Series and didn't finish the job there."
Not much was expected of the 1989 Consol team after the Tigers had gone 2-7-1 the previous season as head coach Ross Rogers took over a struggling program. The Tigers used a high-powered offense that featured quarterback Tommy Preston, Groce and Fedora, along with a rugged defense, to win their first 14 games.
The 4A championship game was played in the Houston Astrodome. Fedora remembers that it felt odd starting a game at noon.
"I talk to our kids about that year all the time," Fedora said. "The biggest thing I tell them about is being focused. I remember with that '89 team, seeing some guys talking about what size ring they were going to get. Looking back at it, I wish that never was brought up, because you're not going to get a ring unless you take care of your business."
Groce still aches over that unfinished business.
"I enjoyed every moment of the playoffs and having the undefeated season in our first year with the new home stadium," Groce said. "But the reality of it is, when you get the second-place medal it's almost like running a marathon and never crossing the [finish] line. It's an empty feeling in your body.
"I still have that empty feeling. And it's been going on for 23 years."
This will be Navasota's second appearance in the state championship round. In 1988, the Rattlers lost to Southlake Carroll 42-8 in the 3A final.
Fedora reached the state semifinals once in his first head coaching stop at Rogers. His Navasota teams were eliminated in the state quarterfinal round in each of the last six seasons.
"This is something you don't take for granted," Fedora said. "Right now it is my once-in-a-lifetime experience as a coach."
Kavanaugh, who works with Navasota's defensive tackles, remembers missing a tackle on a counter play in the championship game against Chapel Hill. He doesn't want any of this year's Rattlers to live with similar regrets.
"You don't want to be 40 years old, realizing if I had made that catch or made that tackle, it could have been different," Kavanaugh said. "When you live and breathe after-school activities and athletics like we do, you're not going to forget that stuff."