Out of the corner of his eye, Corey Hart saw his opponents walk off the football field. It was the slow walk of a losing team: many helmets down and shoulder pads sagging.

Hart swiveled his head back to his Thornton Academy teammates who were still kissing and touching the Gold Ball that goes to the victors. They had just beaten Windham 35-14 for the Class A state championship. It was Thornton’s second title in three years, and its players had every right to whoop and holler.

Hart had earned his celebration with his catch of a 15-yard touchdown pass from Austin McCrum to give Thornton a two-touchdown lead early in the fourth quarter.

Now Hart had a different idea. He made a motion to his teammates indicating he was leaving but would be right back. He had something to do.

The junior wide receiver ran about 25 yards to intercept the Windham players. He grabbed some hands. He said something. Maybe there was an embrace or two. Then he turned and headed back to his teammates, who were still over the moon.

Got friends over there, Corey?

“No, I don’t know any of them,” said Hart. “They played a good game. I wanted to give them credit.”

He was in a gee-whiz-isn’t-this-great mode but had time to think about the team that had the 14-7 lead at halftime but suffered the loss in the biggest game of the year. “I think we all know how that feels,” said Hart.

Empathy at 16 or 17 years old. Imagine.

Hart was a junior varsity player and in the stands at Fitzpatrick Stadium when Thornton Academy beat Lawrence for the state title in 2012. He was part of the team but not part of the joy. Which is why he could describe the plays he made in Saturday’s game, talk about the freezing cold and explain why his fingers didn’t feel numb. But he couldn’t talk about winning this Gold Ball.

“I don’t know the words. I’m sorry.”

McCrum said the same thing, pausing from signing autographs for young fans. Another junior, he watched the 2012 championship game while standing on crutches. “I dreamed when I was a little kid about playing with the big boys,” he said. “This is what I’ve always wanted and now I’m at a loss for words.”

He shunned the long-sleeved shirt many of his teammates wore under their jerseys. He shunned football gloves, too. “I wore them when I was a kid and it was real cold. I fumbled the ball. Now I’m superstitious. No gloves.” No sleeves, either.

Tyler Fleurant, a senior captain and linebacker, walked to the locker room with his arm around a teammate. He was on the sideline in 2012 but didn’t get into the game. He tried to explain the feeling of accomplishing something bigger than himself, and like Hart and McCrum came up short. They had prepared to beat Windham by executing the Xs and Os of a playbook. Not one had prepared for the moments after the last seconds ticked off the scoreboard clock.

That’s why it was so unscripted, like Hart peeling away to give tribute to Windham. Or McCrum savoring the moment his fingers touched the Gold Ball. “During a game (in this weather) my fingers get real dry and the cold ball feels so slippery. I kept moistening my fingers and I was all right.”

He grinned. “I had no problems holding the Gold Ball.”

Two years ago, Andrew Libby was the first to line up to shake the hands of Lawrence High players in a scene similar to Hart’s. Libby shook the hands of the equipment manager. He looked for more people wearing Lawrence blue and gray. He wanted, he said that day, to show Lawrence how much he respected them.

They’re just kids. After two state titles in three years, Thornton will be the target du jour in 2015. With its college-like campus, its new dorms for foreign students and financial resources, Thornton is already viewed by outsiders as a faceless football factory

That’s just wrong. The new champions are teenagers with perspective. And some heart.