Sports have a way of bringing people together. Not only can being on a winning team create a sense of accomplishment, but lifelong friendships are often created.

Layne Pryor and Michael Ryan are both seniors on Monroe City’s Class 1 state championship team. Neither played as freshmen. Pryor didn’t decide to come out for the team until this season.

Both admit they had reservations on joining when they did.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Pryor said. “I was nervous. I really didn’t know what it meant to be a Panther until this year.”

Ryan played in middle school but skipped out on his freshman year before rejoining as a sophomore.

“I didn’t know if I would belong or if I would blend in with my other classmates since I didn’t put in all the time everyone else did,” Ryan said. “But they made me feel included from the beginning.”

For Ryan, the year he sat out was especially tough. Not only did he struggle with not being on the field for the first time in three years, he was also reminded every Friday night of what he was missing.

“My freshman year it was the first year of the new facility and I was sitting there in the marching band and I just wanted to be out there with all my friends,” he said. “I remember going home and asking my parents if they saw this play or that play during the game.”

The decision not to play four years ago was not solely Ryan’s.

“(My) dad didn’t really want me playing because of all the risk of concussions,” Ryan said. “And I would be sitting pretty high academically. But after the season, my parents told me I could go back out for the team if I really wanted.”

The Panthers made it to the district championship during Ryan’s freshman year and finished with an 8-4 record. The next season, although Ryan did not see the field on the varsity, the Panthers struggled through a 3-8 campaign.

Ryan wasn’t certain what to think.

“Like coach (David Kirby) always says we really did get baptized by fire that year,” Ryan said. “That year it seemed like it was just so negative and there was no end in sight. I don’t think we really had any goals that year. We were just out there to have a good time.”

The good times continued during Ryan’s junior year, but only this time it was in a winning way. Monroe City bounced back with a 6-3 regular season before making a run to the Class 1 state title game.

“We didn’t want to go through another year like my sophomore year,” he stated. “And we had more players step up and lead the team.”

It was also more fun for Ryan because he earned a starting spot on the offensive line.

“I stepped into the left tackle spot and for the first time really I got that taste of being a starter on any varsity team,” the starting lineman said.

Ryan never relinquished his starting spot as he started all 15 games on the line for the Panthers last year and this season.

He also accepted a more important role on the team.

Ryan was chosen to lead the team in prayer before the beginning of each practice and game.

“I think (my leadership role) is going to be a great stepping stone,” he said. “I want to be a minister so having the prayer leader spot on the team has helped me step out with my faith. I honestly never saw myself in this spot.

“I never was the most athletic kid by any means. But starting 30 consecutive games and being in a position to be someone the younger kids look up to, it just goes to show you if you set your mind to it and work hard there is an opportunity to do whatever you want to do."

Pryor said experiencing everything this season was more than just being a teammate to 50 other players.

“Those guys became more than just my teammates,” the lineman said. “They are my brothers. Going 15-0 is the one thing in my life I am most proud of. But the thing that matters the most is I ended up finding a home.”

Ryan echoed the same sentiments.

“Besides all the win and success, I have built a lot of friendships I did not have before,” Ryan said. “Guys like Cole (Pennewell) and (Jon) Saxbury, I never really had a history with them and we don’t really have much in common. But we all love the game of football. And now we are comfortable talking to each other about anything, not just football.

“It would have been one of the biggest mistakes of my life if I had not decided to come back out for the team my sophomore year.”

Panthers coach David Kirby mentioned hearing Ryan and Pryor profess the real meaning of the team makes him prouder beyond all the wins.

“It touches my heart,” the coach said. “We have tried to build up a family atmosphere with this program. This group truly embodies that. Layne and Michael’s comments reaffirmed exactly what Monroe City football is all about, family.

“It makes me very happy to see we are building up good football players, but also developing the next generation of husbands and fathers.”