MILWAUKEE, Feb. 20, 2009— -- For the Milwaukee Madison Knights, fired up to host its arch rival from DeKalb, Ill., this would be no ordinary game.
"It's kind of like an Illinois-Wisconsin type of rivalry. Packers-Bears," said Aaron Womack Jr., head coach of the Knights.
But the night of the big game, Madison's co-captain --18-year-old senior Johntell Franklin -- was missing. His mother, who was suffering from cancer, had taken a sudden turn that Saturday, Feb. 7. At the hospital, Franklin was by his mother's side as she died.
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"It was shocking. I couldn't believe that my mom was gone," Franklin said. "She just gave me a look, like 'keep your head up, everything will be all right.'"
That night, Franklin needed his friends. The game was well under way when he arrived at the gym, shaken but still determined to play. Franklin said that his mom would have wanted it that way.
"When he came with that uniform on, there was like a hush over the crowd," Womack said. "I almost had to call a time-out to wipe some tears away."
But Womack, assuming Franklin wouldn't make it to the game -- let alone play -- hadn't put him on the active roster. Sending Franklin in the game to compete would mean an automatic technical foul for the Knights, giving the DeKalb Barbs two uncontested free throws in a close game.
DeKalb's coach told the head official not to bother with the foul, given the circumstances.
"I expressed to him that we should not be shooting the technical -- that we did not want one," DeKalb's coach David Rohlman said.
The referees would not budge. Extenuating circumstances or not, they said, the rules are the rules: technical foul for the Milwaukee Madison Knights. But what happened next was truly remarkable.
Darius McNeal, DeKalb's junior guard, volunteered to take the free throws. His coach took him aside.
"I turned to him, and I said, 'Now, you understand that we are going to purposefully miss these free throws,'" Rohlman told McNeal. "And he nodded in agreement. We were both on the same page."
Fans Honor DeKalb With Standing Ovation
McNeal, the team's top free-throw shooter, stepped to the foul line and purposely missed both shots.
"I missed them because it was just the right thing to do at the time. And him losing his mom, it really got to me," McNeal said, who lost his father when he was 2 years old.
Franklin's teammates and coaches jumped to their feet in a standing ovation for their arch rivals.
"They started applauding us. And so did the Madison fans at the same time," said Rohlman. "At that point I knew that we had done the right thing."
For Johntell Franklin, the small gesture left a giant impact.
"I just got teary-eyed, like, 'Oh, man, that made me feel good' that the other team was supporting me," Franklin said.
After the game, the Knights' coach wrote a letter to DeKalb's hometown paper, The Daily Chronicle, expressing how moved he was by the gesture.
"I was overwhelmed with this display of almost unheard of sportsmanship and class," Womack wrote. "As a principal, school, school staff and community, you should all feel immense pride for the remarkable job that the coaching staff is doing in not only coaching these young men but teaching them how to be leaders."
Both coaches say that the teams learned an important lesson in sportsmanship.
"It's more than just about the game, it's more than just the victory or loss, it's more than that. It's about life," Womack told ABC News "That's really why you coach, that's why you teach, why you get involved in sports."
The Madison Knights broke the game open after that time out and went on to win 62-47, but the act of grace in the high school gym that night will be remembered long after the score is forgotten.