NEW FRANKLIN Despite the fact it earned them the outright Principals Athletic Conference championship for the second straight time and also a home game in the first round of the Division V playoffs, and that it earned their head coach, Jim France, the state record for career victories, the Manchester Panthers’ biggest win of the high school football season was not a come-from-behind 58-42 decision over arch-rival Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy in the regular-season finale on Oct. 27.
Instead, the Panthers’ most significant victory of 2017 came the night before on that same field at James R. France Stadium.
The Panthers were practicing, making their final preparations for the Royals, when a visitor arrived.
That, in itself, is not unusual. Their practices are open so a lot of times, the Panthers will get company – a former player or coach, a community member or just a fan wanting to watch, talk to France or both.
This time, though, the guest was extra-special.
It was their junior quarterback, Robbie Wagner.
And he was on his feet, albeit carefully so, and under his own power.
"He stopped in to see us on the way home from a doctor’s appointment," France said on Nov. 8, two days before the No. 4 seeded Panthers fell to top-seeded South Range 34-14 in a a Division V, Region 17 semifinal.
Almost exactly three weeks earlier at France Stadium in the third quarter of a game against PAC newcomer Northwest, Wagner had gotten seriously hurt on what turned out to be the final play of his football career. Taking off and scrambling out of the pocket when he couldn’t find an open receiver, her eschewed a chance to get out of bounds safely on the Manchester sideline and come back and run another play. Instead, in trying to get a few extra yards, he stayed in bounds and was ultimately involved in a helmet-to-helmet hit with a Northwest defender.
"He landed just a few feet away from me," France recalled.
He immediately knew, as did everyone else there on the Manchester bench, that something was wrong.
"Our team trainer, Brian Sifferlin, and our doctor, Ben Burkham, were on Robbie right away," France said. "They kept him still and attended to him. They saved his life or at least kept him from suffering paralysis."
Still, Wagner broke his neck and sustained a concussion, and, according to France, he will never play contact sports again. But it well could have been a whole lot worse.
So after all that, then, what happened that day at practice as Wanger returned to the stadium for the first time, was a seminal moment not just in the season or any other Manchester season, but also in the lives of everyone involved.
"Practice just kind of stopped and the kids went over to greet him," France said. "To see him back with us and walking across that field, was great."
France has three chlidren of his own, including two sons who played for him at Manchester and now coach for him in Jason and Jeff France. He also has hundreds of other "children" in the person of former players over the decades. So he knows that what is happening with Wagner is much, much deeper than just football. It’s about life, and the quality thereof. And in this instance, it’s a good story with a seemingly happy ending.
"I have seen plenty of broken legs and arms," said France, now in his 46th season at Manchester and his 47th as a high school head coach. "But I have never seen anything like what took place with Robbie.
"Bad things sometimes happen in sports. In almost every case, the players come back to play again, but that won’t be the case this time. I feel terrible about that. It’s very sad. Football means a lot to Robbie."
The Wagner family declined to allow Robbie to be interviewed for this story.
Robbie, his neck in a brace, attended the CVCA game and also the 38-12 first-round playoff victory over Fairless at France Stadium.
"It hasn’t been something where we’ve said, ‘Hey, let’s win this game for Robbie,’ but he’s still very much a part of our team," France said. "There have been a lot of fund-raising events already for the family, and I understand there are a couple more planned.
Wagner, who attends the Portage Lakes Career Center, hasn’t resumed classes yet, according to France.
"It’s getting close to the time when we have to figure out if he’s coming back soon or we have to set something up for him to be home-schooled," France said.
But the mere fact those determinations are needing to be made, is a real blessing.
"It’s just a nice feeling the way it has turned out after he got hurt that night," France said.
It’s what you would expect any head coach to say after the biggest win of the season.