STOCKTON -- There's no better feeling for an offensive lineman than watching a teammate score in the distance, then sprinting downfield to celebrate a long touchdown.
That's what junior Spencer Stark was doing as Central Catholic High School's Chris Lein was leaving behind all defenders on the Raiders' fourth play from scrimmage in Saturday's Sac-Joaquin Section Division 4 title game against Escalon.
But as all 6 feet, 2 inches and 305 pounds of Spencer rumbled toward the end zone, it was all he could do to resist craning his neck toward the stands at Lincoln High, to look for his dad among the blue and gold-clad crowd.
John Stark, who never missed one of his son's games, wasn't there.
Spencer's father, a kindergarten teacher at Whitmore Charter School in Ceres, died suddenly and unexpectedly Friday afternoon. According to Central Catholic football staff, Stark had shoulder surgery Tuesday and was recuperating at home when a blood clot caused a stroke.
Spencer left Friday's football practice when he got the news, and the team was told at the end of practice.
They took to the field Saturday with an interlocking "JS" sticker on their helmets, and with a grieving teammate starting on both offense and defense.
"It honestly wasn't tough for me to play today because I knew my team had my back and I knew I can ask them for anything," Spencer said. "Just knowing that, I knew I could come out here and do what I needed to do to get the job done."
Following Friday's practice, Central Catholic coach Roger Canepa and another staff member visited the family, never even considering asking Spencer if he would be with the team Saturday.
Turns out, they didn't have to ask.
"Spencer wanted to play," Canepa said. "We went over and spoke to him and the first thing he said to us is, 'You know I'm going to play tomorrow.' I told him he could do what he wanted, and then his mom said, 'He's playing because his dad would have wanted him to.' "
Central Catholic didn't need such a dose of inspiration heading into this game. The Raiders clearly were the better team Saturday while cruising to a 52-10 victory behind the dominance of their offensive and defensive lines Spencer's group.
"We had a lot of inspiration today," said Terrell Elder, who had three sacks of Escalon quarterback Phillip Kimble. "He's one of my best friends and I was trying to do well for him. We all played our hardest for Spencer and we have to keep pushing because we're doing it for him the rest of the year."
"Our feelings are indescribable," said quarterback Garrett Ardis. "It was good to have Spencer's presence out here today and to see his reaction after such a big win like this.
"His dad was at all the games and was such a big supporter of us. It means a lot to Spencer that his dad was somewhere, still able to watch his son win the section championship."
For most of the 48 minutes, Spencer was able to contain his emotions, or at least channel them into the controlled aggression needed to be a lineman.
But after the final gun, when the team met at the center of the field, Canepa tossed Spencer the game ball and said, "You're the best, buddy."
Spencer could contain it no more.
"When Chris made that first catch, it hit me right then," Spencer said. "When we came out after halftime and scored right away, it hit me again. But it all caved in for me at the very end."
And in the official team photo, the one that will mark the 16th section title in the storied history of Central Catholic football, those emotions will be on display.
Top row, far left. The eyes won't lie.
Spencer Stark, heartbroken champion.
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2150. Follow him at twitter.com/modestobeek.