Dec 08, 2017

In Season of Transition, Two High School Quarterbacks Accept the End

Reporting Texas

Cedar Park High School senior Mak Sexton sings the school fight song after a playoff game against Magnolia. Photo courtesy of Clark McDonald

BASTROP — The lights burned down on Bastrop ISD Memorial Stadium on a recent Friday night. A father watched his son cling to crutches.

Before the Cedar Park Timberwolves met the Magnolia Bulldogs for their bi-district matchup in the Class 5A, Division I playoffs, Bob Sexton, a 51-year-old general contractor and former NFL trainer, stood on the sideline near the 50-yard line wearing a black Cedar Park booster club fleece. He was waiting to speak with his son, Mak.

Once Cedar Park’s star senior quarterback, Mak saw his high school career end in October during the first quarter of a game against Georgetown. He had just rushed for a one-yard touchdown on Cedar Park’s first drive of the game. Then he was lying on his back with a broken femur. He was carted off the field wearing an air cast.

Later, his mother and a Cedar Park trainer left his hospital room, leaving Mak and his father alone.

“I let my team down,” Mak said to his father, tearing up.

On this night in Bastrop, Sexton, the father, watched Mak, a team captain, hobble out for the opening coin toss, wearing his No. 7 jersey and sweatpants. Sexton then spoke with his son briefly on the first series of the game while Cedar Park played defense. And then it hit him.

“I don’t know if it’s possible, but I think I want them to win more now,” Sexton said, “because when the season’s over it’s gonna be even harder on (Mak).”

Quiet and with dirty-blonde hair, Mak stands about 6-foot-1 and weighs a shade over 200 pounds. He typically doesn’t evince a ton of emotion, unless you tell him he’s undersized. A college coach told him as much at a camp after his junior season.

“He was angry. He was ticked,” his father said.

Mak had been Cedar Park’s quarterback since 2015, when he led the Timberwolves to a state championship as a sophomore. He was 33-2 as a starter and had collected offers from Texas A&M-Kingsville and Trinity University. Now all he could do was watch his team with a titanium rod in his leg.

Up in the stands, another father, Dan Fiala, watched the game unfold. His son, Ryan, was Cedar Park’s new starting quarterback.

Cedar Park junior Ryan Fiala, the backup quarterback until Sexton’s late-season injury, locates a receiver. Photo courtesy of Paul Knight

In the weeks since the Georgetown game, Fiala, a 54-year-old procurement manager at Dell Technologies, had watched his son confront the fact he’s now charged with leading Cedar Park, one of the best 5A programs in Texas. After finishing the regular season 9-1, Cedar Park entered the playoffs as the state’s eighth-ranked 5A team.

Ryan, a 6-foot-5, 210-pound junior, is a more physically imposing figure than Mak. He is just as quiet. Ryan can appear almost expressionless at times. If he was nervous about making his first-ever playoff start, no one could tell.

Cedar Park was supposed to be Ryan’s team next season. But the future arrived much sooner.

He had hardly played before Mak’s injury.

Now this was the biggest football game of his life.

“I’ve always told him you’re one injury away from being (the starter),” Dan Fiala said. “And it came to reality. I don’t think he fully believed that.”

Ryan struggled with the offense to move the ball throughout the first half against Magnolia.

After another Cedar Park drive stalled in the second quarter, Mak and Ryan stood next to each other on the sideline and talked. Not much was going right. Cedar Park headed to the locker room at halftime down 14-3.

The Timberwolves opened the second half with the ball, and Ryan missed three straight throws, forcing a punt.

“He’s not quite on right now,” his father said. “I think he’ll be OK. He’ll snap out of it and get back into it. He’s really calm.”

Ryan settled down in the third quarter and flung a beautiful pass deep over the middle for a 76-yard touchdown.

“We were ready to roll after that,” Ryan said later.

He tossed two more touchdown passes to give Cedar Park the lead for good. The Timberwolves beat Magnolia, 24-20, to advance to the second round of the playoffs.

Cedar Park head coach Carl Abseck gathered his team near midfield following the game. The Timberwolves had trailed by 20 at the half in the Georgetown game, when Mak got hurt. Ryan led a furious rally in the second half for a 28-27 win.

On this night against Magnolia, Ryan had to rally Cedar Park once more.

“He stayed pretty steady, and that’s what’s important,” Abseck said after the game. “You got to play steady in that position at quarterback. He’s still growing in that aspect. He’s just got to be Ryan and do his job.”

He did his job against Magnolia. Cedar Park players headed back toward the bottom of the bleachers to embrace their family members and fans. Ryan greeted his parents.

“We told him great game and that we were proud of him,” his father said.

After watching the second half from the stands, Bob Sexton appeared on the field again to find his own son.

He might have prepared a place in the back of his mind for how to deal with a loss on this night, not just for Mak but for himself. Sexton doesn’t have another son behind Mak, so he knows after this season that his ties with Cedar Park are through.

“Cedar Park football has been such a big part of our lives for so long,” Sexton said. “Thinking about it not being a part of our lives is a tough thing to think about.”

For Sexton and his son, that day came two Fridays later. Cedar Park played No. 2-ranked Manvel in the regional round.

Mak roamed the sideline on crutches.

Ryan tried to be Ryan and do his job.

It wasn’t enough this time. Cedar Park lost, 56-17.

“Now that I’ve gotten the varsity reps, I know what it takes and what I have to do,” Ryan said.

Next year he’ll get one more shot.