At least three times near the end of Saturday’s 2A state championship game in Salem, I turned to my girlfriend in the press box and told her “this game is over.” I was wrong all three times.
If ESPN Classic had access to a video of high school football, this game would have belonged in the highlight reels.
Giles 20, Brunswick 19, in overtime.
That would have been classic enough, but consider how it got to overtime.
Giles is not known as a passing team, far from it. Giles runs the single wing and throws only when necessary. Until the Spartans final drive of regulation, they had attempted six passes, two of which fell incomplete. The other four were caught, by the other team.
The final interception came when Brian Mann threw a third down pass downfield that was picked off by Dajuan Steward at the Brunswick 21 with 2:11 to play.
My first comment: “That’s the ball game.”
Brunswick, which had been stopped on 4th-and-2 at the Giles’ 28 on its previous possession when Mann tackled quarterback Darren Owens behind the line of scrimmage, ran three plays and then punted. Brett Whitlow returned it 13 yards to the Bulldogs’ 49 with 55 seconds still to play.
Remember, the Spartans aren’t a passing team, and now they had no choice.
“We are not a throwing football team, but sometimes we can throw it, and we have guys who can go get it,” Giles head coach Jeff Williams said.
One of those ‘guys’ was 6-foot junior Dakoda Shrader, who earlier in the final period was laying on the sidelines in obvious pain with a shoulder injury. He didn’t stay out of the game for long.
“It was just a tremendous job by our medical staff of getting him in back in there because he is a kid you need in certain situations like that with not much time and you can throw it like that,” Williams said. “He makes catches like that all the time.”
His catch was still to come. First, Tyler Perdue started the drive with a pass that was caught by Dusty Boggess for 18 yards. That was followed by a time-preserving spike, a 1-yard run and another incompletion, bringing up 4th-and-9 with the seconds ticking down.
By then I had put on my coat, had put away the binoculars and was ready to head to the field when my girlfriend said something that got my attention, and I turned around to see Whitlow running loose for 16 yards to the 14.
Still, what chance did a team that rarely passes have in this situation with time for maybe two more plays.
It turns out, plenty.
First, another spike and then Perdue fired a pass into the end zone toward Boggess, who was open, but would have needed to be Manute Bol as the ball sailed over his head.
Once again, I made another comment, with little hope for the Spartans.
No wonder. That left eight seconds on the clock and 14 yards to cover. Running the football wasn’t going to work, and that is what they do best.
While Mann, who scored Giles’ lone touchdown up to that point, and would later score in overtime, stood on the sidelines with his hands on his helmet in silent prayer, Perdue rolled to the left and threw toward the left corner of the end zone. Perhaps the ball wasn’t alone on the way to its target.
“Me and Tyler work on pass routes each day before practice and he just threw it up and he knew I could go get it,” Shrader said. “We are just like brothers, God gave us a hand, God gave me a good pass.”
Perdue confirmed the duo had practiced pass routes together, but certainly ‘not that one.’ He was well covered, but the quarterback for a team that rarely throws the football made the perfect throw.
Shrader, who said he had caught about six passes all season long, rose over the defender, reached up with two hands and caught the ball. He landed with both feet in the end zone.
Touchdown, with 1 second left on the clock.
It may have been the most exciting 7 seconds of football of the season for the 15-0 Spartans. It was definitely the most important.
“I didn’t know what to think, he caught it and it was just amazing,” Mann said. “The crowd went wild, you can’t describe it in words. We had faith in our team and that is what came down to.”
Suddenly, my attitude went from doubt to shock, and then the realization that the Spartans were an extra point from a most improbable victory.
Then, Whitlow missed the extra point way to the left, sending Brunswick from sheer horror on the previous play to jublilation knowing they had another chance.
“We wanted this and we got here,” said Brunswick’s DeAndre Jones, whose Bulldogs were playing in their first state championship game. “We gave them a fight, we just didn’t come out with the win.”
Forty-eight minutes weren’t enough, and the winners were everyone who witnessed this game. Too often these events are are called classics because they have fantastic finishes, but this was good from the start, even if there were eight turnovers, and five by the Spartans after having just 11 in the previous 14 games.
Giles got the ball first in overtime and scored on three plays, a 3-yard run by Mann. This time Whitlow nailed the extra point. Up next was Brunswick, which also scored on the third play, a 9-yard touchdown pass from Owens to Quantrel Hardy.
All that stood in the way of a second overtime was an extra point by Darren Hays. He made it.
Much earlier in the game I had made the comment that too often these games come down to an extra point.
That is exactly what happened.
Remember Hays made the kick, but the Bulldogs were called for a penalty, backing the ball up five yards, meaning he had to do it again.
Extra points are never automatic in high school football, and it wasn’t in this case either.
His kick sailed wide to the right, and while several members of the Bulldogs lay on the turf in absolute dispair, the Spartans hustled to the middle of the field to celebrate the 2A state championship.
Perhaps they were as shocked by winning as the Bulldogs were by losing. It had appeared only seconds before that Brunswick would be champions and not Giles.
What a game. If these teams played again, it could go the other way. It was that even.
“It is different, it is crazy, some how we came out on top,” said Williams, who took over as head coach in 2008 for local legend Steven Ragsdale, who led the Spartans to three previous state titles.
Already cold and wet from a miserable day in Salem, Williams was being interviewed after the game when a pair of Spartans signaled for us reporters to move and they drenched him from behind with a cold bucket of water.
No complaints here.
“I said something like that could happen today,” said a smiling Williams, who earned the trifecta, winning a state title at Giles as a player, assistant coach and head coach. “I thought about it all week, but that was a surprise.”
No one was more happy for Williams than the players themselves. Just ask Shrader.
“It is more special for Coach Williams to get his first one,” Shrader said. “It is great for us and I am very excited, but Coach Williams getting his first one, that is always great.”
Making the trip to Salem through Giles County, there were signs all over the place cheering on the Spartans. The signs were there, the people were in Salem, and they were all ready to celebrate with the team after the game, with literally hundreds and maybe even more waiting to celebrate with the Spartans.
“We are just excited, it is just unbelievable,” Williams said. “Look up on that hill right now, they want a piece of them.”
Giles not only won the school’s fourth state title and first since 2005, but also finished off a remarkable 15-0 record.
“It is a grinding playoff to go five games, but somebody was looking out for us,” Williams said. “I guess the good Lord was looking out for us because we got healthy into the playoffs and stayed healthy. We were fortunate enough to make it this far and win it.”
After doing interviews and returning to the warmth of the press box, it was time to try and do justice to one of the best high school football games I have seen.
I have often been asked why I do this job. I was told when I decided to become a journalist not to expect to get rich doing it and were they ever right.
There are reasons why you do things with your life. Sure, I would like to make more money, quit paying rent like I have been doing for the 26 years in the different places I have been, have more close relationships and actually live a normal life with regular hours and good pay.
It wasn’t my best work, which was unfortunate. I needed a little more time to proof-read my story, but a stadium employee wanted to lock up and leave, meaning we had to leave too.
The end result were a few mistakes that could easily have been fixed with a little more time. Unfortunately, it is in print and can never be erased.
Still, what a game it was, an experience that Giles fans and I will never forget. My girlfriend, who is not a sports fan and has never understood my passion for games us sports fans love so much, might finally understand why I do what I do.
In fact, as we made our way back down Interstate 81, I turned to her and said, “That is why I like this job so much.”
Some days it’s not a job. There are times when it is a privilege. Saturday was one of those days.
Brian Woodson is the sports editor for the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.