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The Healing Power of Football

Dr. Pacifico, 2000 Rebels, story of never giving up like few others

Rebel linebacker Stephen Pacifico (51) gets the defensive signals from the sideline during a game in the 2000 season. Photos submitted

By Stefan Cooper
Blount Press Row

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons says it can feel like “an electric shock” or “a lightning bolt down the arm,” which sounds pretty neat, if you’re Thor.

Dr. Stephen Pacifico and wife, Lindsey, son, Sawyer, and daughter Sydney Phillips.

Dr. Stephen Pacifico remembers his arm went numb in the 2000 season opener with Alcoa. The third-year surgical resident at the University of Tennessee Medical Center had suffered a stinger, a nerve pinch at the neck/shoulder junction that leaves the arm warm and without feeling for several minutes.

“I wouldn’t wish that on anyone,” Pacifico said.

Removal from contact, and Maryville’s star linebacker would be fine. The course of high school football history in Tennessee had other plans.

Maryville went on to lose to Alcoa, 14-7, that night, the Rebels fumbling on the goal line on the game’s final play. It quickly got worse.

Two weeks later, Heritage shut out the Rebels, 28-0, in a rout every bit as convincing as the score. After a Week 4 loss to Halls, Maryville was 0-4, the 2000 Rebels facing the prospect of becoming the first team since 1963 to finish the season with a losing record.

Then there was the other stuff.

Maryville’s starting quarterback in the Alcoa game was a sophomore making his first start. He’d begun the season fourth on the depth chart, but injury to two of the other three had left them unavailable. The season’s projected starter, senior and eventual Marshall signee Scott Wilks, had been implicated with a handful of players in a counterfeiting prank at the school, prompting a United States Secret Service visit to Maryville.

Wilks, 18, made all the papers and took the brunt of the fallout.

Pacifico gets a hug from his mom, Michelle, after a game.

Paired with the injuries from fall practice, and the Rebels were in a tailspin before the jamboree. When the stinger signaled Maryville might also lose Pacifico for a few games, the time had come for a line in the sand, the Rebel linebacker said.

He was held out of contact in practice for the duration of the season, but there was no way he was missing any games.

“You go as hard as you can as long as you can until you can’t go anymore,” Pacifico said.

Limiting contact for Pacifico to game night was doable because he’d been a starter on defense since his sophomore year, Maryville’s 1998 championship season.

“He was our middle linebacker for three years so he was the heart of our defense,” Rebel defensive coordinator Jim Gaylor said. “We knew what we had. He had a good grasp of what we wanted to do and the checks we wanted to make.”

It’s difficult to overstate how much of a role the injuries played, Pacifico said. Excepting the Heritage loss, Maryville had been anything but blown out in its first four games. Knox Central pulled out a 21-14 squeaker, a margin Halls equaled a week after the loss to the Mountaineers.

“We hadn’t played as bad as our start had made us look,” Pacifico said.

Pacifico signs an autograph for a young fan.

There was even talk Maryville had made a mistake in turning the program over to so young a coach. Former offensive coordinator George Quarles was in only his second season as head coach.

“He silenced the critics, I think,” Pacifico said.

The way the Rebels closed ranks, Pacifico in particular, turned things around, Quarles said.

“The thing I remember about him the most is he loved his team,” he said. “He wanted to do whatever he could to make the Maryville High School football team better.”

Pacifico was even willing to move back to running back, the position he’d played throughout his youth, but more on that later.

As players returned, Maryville got stronger. At halftime of the Halls game, the Rebels down, 21-0, Quarles threw the switch that lit it all up.

Wilks was a phenomenal athlete, speed, size, strong throwing arm, but there wasn’t anything like him at any of the receiver spots. Backup Nick Giles didn’t throw as hard, but he was plenty accurate.

At halftime, Quarles moved Wilks to one of the flanker spots, put Giles under center, and the Rebels were no longer a team better than their record; they were a cause.

“We got a lot of guys back,” Pacifico said. “We had a team meeting of just the players. I like to think we had some decent senior leadership. We believed we were a better team than people thought we were. The coaches thought the whole thing through and didn’t give up on us.

“They didn’t give up on us, and, fortunately, we didn’t give up on ourselves.”

Halls held the Rebels off, 21-14, but William Blount was a 12-7 win for Maryville a week later, a decision by Quarles to go on fourth down late in the game every bit a now-or-never move as Caesar crossing the Rubicon.

“The biggest thing was we weren’t that far off,” Gaylor said. “We didn’t have 10 or 12 guys in the locker room coming to rescue us. We had to get better, and we did. From a player standpoint, nobody jumped ship.”

The die cast, Maryville crushed South-Doyle, 31-12, a week later. Then West fell, 40-15, then Powell, then Anderson County, the Rebels clinching a playoff berth on the final night of the regular season with a 38-7 trouncing of Clinton.

In the opening round of the playoffs, Maryville finished what it’d begun eight weeks earlier, stuffing Halls, 21-3, to advance.

Once engulfed in a perfect storm, the Rebels were one the rest of the way. A prohibitive favorite, Memphis East was dismantled, 33-14, in the championship game.

As a member of Maryville’s “Rhino” goal-line package, Pacifico got within inches of what would have been his only high school touchdown, East stopping him just short. The game’s outcome long decided, not getting in did little to curb his enthusiasm as he bounded back to the sideline.

“He came running off the field and said, ‘Coach, I told you I was a running back!” Quarles said.

A short time later, the Rebels (11-4) stormed the field the most improbable champions the program has ever produced.

“We were kind of a bunch of no names from East Tennessee who no one thought should be there,” Pacifico said. “It was a bunch of guys who believed. As the season went on, you believed more and more.”

The rest isn’t history. It’s crazy.

Eight state championships followed, the 2000 Rebels launching a three-peat, the Class of 2006 four-peating and leaving an unbeaten 60-0 after four seasons. The 2007 Rebels took the program past the state record for consecutive wins, then 65 straight, perhaps putting it on the shelf at 74 with a runner-up finish.

“We were not that team,” Pacifico said. “We were not the team that had guys go off and sign with SEC powerhouses. Going through that, many times in my life when things weren’t going well, I can look back on that (season). I learned to fight through adversity and tough spots.”

Like four years of college and four years of medical school to become a doctor?

“I don’t think I really knew I was going to be able to do it,” he said.

In 12 seasons since 2000, Maryville has either finished champion or played in the championship game 10 times.

“Now, it’s expected they get there,” Pacifico said.

Pacifico and wife, Lindsey, have two children, daughter Sydney Phillips and 16-month-old son Sawyer. There’s no question where Sawyer will go to school. If he takes to football and likes defense, there’s also no doubt who’ll teach him to play linebacker, Pacifico said.

“I told (Gaylor), ‘You can retire, but you need to hang in there for 16 years so you can coach my son,’” he said.

On one condition, Gaylor said.

“I don’t want anymore years like (2000),” he said. “That was a good end to a crazy season.”




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