The game of football is often more about the things that happen off the field than the things that happen on it. A team only functions if the players unite behind the scenes and buy into their coach's process. That cohesiveness translates onto the gridiron, where some of the best teams operate not only as a football squad, but also a family.
And so it was with Whitworth that, after an intense match versus Pacific Lutheran — a game in which the Pirates rallied from a 41-24 fourth-quarter deficit to win, 45-41 — that the most pivotal moment for the team came after the game had been to decided.
Senior defensive lineman Daniel Portillo, surrounded by teammates, got down on one knee and proposed to his longtime girlfriend Kristin Jensen. Amidst a raucous crowd of men in pads, or, as head coach Rod Sandberg calls them, Dan’s family, Kristin said yes, leading to cheers all around.
“Those kind of things make the game of football special,” Sandberg said. “We talk about family all of the time. A football isn’t special. A family is. You see it when a player gets hurt and has to go to the emergency room and everyone on the team finds time to visit, or with a wedding proposal after a huge game … This is a really, really close team.”
That familial bond was on full display during Saturday’s impressive comeback, during which the Pirates scored three straight touchdowns in less than 10 minutes — two by tailback Duke DeGaetano, who totaled 159 yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries — to sneak away with a narrow victory and improve their record to 5-1 overall, 3-0 in the NWC.
“It was an emotional win,” said Portillo, who finished with three tackles and 1.5 sacks for eight yards. “We’d gone back and forth with them over the years. It was a huge win for our seniors since it was the last time we get to play those guys. It was a hallmark of our offense to take the ball and score at the end of the game.”
Indeed, with the game on the line and the Pirates facing a 2nd-and-5 at Pac Lutheran’s 10-yard line, DeGaetano rushed for 10 yards and scored the go-ahead touchdown with 41 seconds on the clock.
On the ensuing drive, the Lutes stalled out on Whitworth’s 23-yard line and the game ended in the Pirates' favor.
“Our defense stepped up in a big way,” Sandberg said. “We got four straight stops and then two things happened: we got a lot more aggressive and started daring them to throw it. They wanted to run out the clock, but we stopped their running game. And then, when they did throw it, our defensive backs made some great plays. And on our offense we just kept feeding DeGaetano. I think they wanted us to try and run it. I don’t think they thought we could score three times in a row.”
Despite some of the gaffes that seemed to put the game out of reach — including a Pacific Lutheran 93-yard pick-6 to start the fourth quarter — the team continued to, as Sandberg explained, “have confidence in themselves and patience to give it everything they had.”
It helps to have a 5-foot-10, 196-pound bruiser on your side.
“[DeGaetano] put the whole team on his back,” Sandberg said.
Then came the aforementioned post-game festivities.
“It was a fun game to be a part of,” Sandberg said. “But I’m definitely into football more for just the wins and losses. After the game both teams came out and held hands and one of the guys from Pacific Lutheran stood up and said a prayer. That was really something.
“Then we sang our fight song for the fans and then we had Dan’s proposal. It was really special.”
The proposal was planned way back during the preseason. So what if Whitworth had lost? Did Portillo have any contingency plans?
“People kept asking about my backup plan in case we lost,” Portillo recalled. “I said I didn’t have one, because I knew we were gonna win.”