It is playoff time and the weather has turned cold. I have been in a lot of winter weather games but none exactly like December 7, 1984. It seems almost unbelievable to me that it has been 30 years, but the 4A State Championship game of 1984 will forever be etched in my mind.
Common sense will often tell us that there is a time to quit. The victory is beyond hope, or we don’t have what it takes, or we tried hard but it’s over now. “You have to believe,” or “winners never quit” are great sayings, but is it realistic to think that such attitudes really exist in high school athletics? You can judge for yourself but I can tell you that I saw it for myself some 30 years ago.
Let me start by saying we had great people involved in our team. Mike Sasser was the head coach, Donnie Rotch the offensive line coach and Alan Baker was in his first year as defensive back coach. We had some players who were great individuals and I will not name them all because I would certainly leave someone out. We also had some characters that made football fun. I was the defensive coordinator and I pushed them really hard.
We lost the first game to Jackson and our best running back got into it with Coach Sasser and walked off and quit. We were short on runners so we had to turn to sophomore named Joseph Williams. It was our first opportunity for an excuse for losing-we don’t have any running backs. On September 28th we hosted the Escambia County Blue Devils. I think it would be an accurate description to say that they blew us away in the first half. I don’t remember the exact score (like 28-0), but we could not tackle their great runner Murray Hill. They ran the FB up the middle most of the second half and the game ended 35-14. We were 2-3 at midseason and common sense would tell you to pack it in. For some reason this group refused to give up.
Our schedule lightened up the second half of the season and we won 5 in a row including a victory over W.S. Neal. We won our area and made the playoffs. We beat Keith and then had to go to Mobile to play a UMS team that we had beaten 15-3 in September. It was a great game. UMS kicked a field goal to tie the game with 6 seconds left to send it to overtime. We missed a field goal in overtime so all UMS had to do was score in any manner and they would win and end our season. On 3rd and goal at the 2, Rob McKinney, their great runner lunged for the goal line. Roger Jones, our backside LB, hit him just before he scored and the ball came out. David Brittain recovered and we had new life. Steve Jennings picked off a pass and Joseph Williams plunged into the end zone and we won 23-17. This Tiger cat had nine lives.
It was suppose to end the next week. Elba was the big boy on the 4A block, where former Miller coach Mack Wood had an undefeated season and dominated most opponents. But in the second round, they were upset by Pike County, a team they had defeated earlier in the year. Pike County had great talent, had a 7 game win streak, and they rolled into Brewton feeling like a champion. As the defensive coordinator, I guaranteed our players we would stop their great rushing attack and speedy backs. In reality I didn’t sleep at all that week.
T.R. Miller won 31-6. I don’t remember much about the game except I finally got some sleep Friday night. I considered it to be a huge upset. We beat Tallassee 17-7 the next week and suddenly we were on a 9 game win streak and were playing at Cherokee County for the state championship.
We took the team to Gadsden to spend the night, which was a scary situation when you consider who we had on our team. Cherokee County had a great back and a great rushing attack and as defensive coordinator I can tell you I did not sleep at all the night before the game. That Thursday night, it got down to 9 degrees. We got on the buses to drive up to Centre to check out the stadium the next morning (we had to wait for the air tanks to thaw out on the buses). There was no grass on the field and they were attempting to thaw out some low places that had ice in them with a torch. Coach Sasser was not happy about the condition of the field but as defensive coordinator I figured a bad field might help slow down Cash Covington their great back. Turned out I was wrong about that.
It was about 20 degrees at game time which was a heat wave compared to the night before. Somebody lit a fire of some kind on our sideline and people were leaning across the fence to try and stay warm. I had on everything you could think of to try and handle the cold. It is the one time I can remember standing on the sideline in the middle of a game thinking about how cold I was. We were behind 12-0 just before half when a play occurred that would be the difference in the game. Nobody remembers the play to this day. I remember it because I was the defensive coordinator and he did what I had coached him to do. I would consider it to be one of the ten most important plays in the history of our school. Their great back Covington broke a run and appeared headed for the end zone. It looked as though we would be 3 touchdowns behind going into the half. Our backside LB was once again Roger Jones, the one who had forced the fumble at UMS in overtime. He ran to the ball with everything he had and managed to chase down a faster back in Covington just before he reached the goal line. It was an incredible play made possible because we had become a team that ran to the ball as hard as possible on every play. Cherokee County did not score and Roger was the primary reason why.
At halftime we were discouraged. Again common sense would tell you to let it go. We had a great year but they were better and we were behind on the road. Thank goodness this team had no common sense. They just tried to do what you asked them to do. I told the defense if we would keep them from scoring in the second half, we would win the game. We drove down and scored in the third quarter, but they responded with a TD of their own after we fumbled. We were behind 18-7 in the 4th quarter. It would take a miracle but we still had some cat lives left. Joseph Williams ran a 20 yard TD and after we forced a punt, the offense go the ball back on our 16 yard line with 3 minutes left in the game.
Coach Sasser had worked on the hook and lateral play all season without running it. With 3rd and 12 at our 14 yard line he called it. It worked to perfection as James Weaver caught a pass and lateraled the ball to a streaking Williams. It gave us a 42 yard gain, a first down and a lot of momentum. We were back from the dead again.
A few moments later our QB Kevin Ladnier hit James Weaver for a first down on 4th and 4. Three incomplete passes later gave us a 4th and 10. Under pressure, Ladnier threw a great pass to Weaver who caught it at the five, broke a tackle and scored. We led 20-18 with 47 seconds left.
Cherokee completed a couple of passes and got down to our 27 yard line. They lined up for a 44 yard field goal on the last play and I laughed. I had watched them kick in pre game warm ups and he couldn’t kick it that far. When he hit the ball my heart sunk for a minute because he hit it good. When it came down short, we were state champions.
It was 30 years ago. I wish I could remember more, but time has stolen some of those memories from me. I never did feel the cold again after James Weaver caught the pass. Even today, it is hard for me to go to a T.R. Miller playoff game in cold weather without thinking about 1984.
Down through the years I have given the “never quit” speech often and some time my players look at me like it is just words. I feel badly for those that think that way. We did not just talk about it in 1984, we lived it. Just like a cat with 9 lives.
Last Friday night we won the Miller-Neal game in overtime in a very exciting game. During the game, our quarterback Jones Manning was injured. He continued to play but eventually we had to replace him with our back up quarterback, Chardian Johnson.
Chardian is a junior who also plays defensive back and wide receiver, so he is use to being in the game. Back up quarterback is one of the toughest jobs in all of football. Chances are you will not be called upon in the heat of the battle. You might get in at quarterback if your team has a lead or if you are so far behind the game appears to be lost. Yet you must be prepared, for if the starter goes down, your team will depend on you to play with skill and lead the team to victory. The hard part for Chardian is that he prepares himself to play receiver and defensive back (he also kicks off for us), but must still understand all of the quarterback position as well. In his case, it was the tenth game when we called upon him, and in the biggest game of the year. He performed admirably, and his play was certainly a factor in our winning the game. It’s tough to be the back up quarterback. You must be prepared when your number is called.
I have a black lab and his name is Riley. He loves to come by the practice field late in practice and see the players and run on the field. One of Riley’s great joys in life has been chasing squirrels in our neighborhood. (I have written about this before). One of my neighbors (who will remain nameless) has been trying to cut down on the squirrel population and has been trapping the squirrels over the last year or so. Everyday I let Riley out into the back yard and I tell him “Go find some squirrels.” He bolts out the door only to find no squirrels left in the neighborhood. But he still runs out the door everyday as if the squirrels will be sitting there eating acorns. Yesterday I opened the door and he took off and what did he see? He saw two squirrels at the big oak and the chase was on. His number was called and he was ready.
I am not comparing Chardian to my dog. But as the back up he has to be ready at a moment’s notice. He goes to practice day after day and there are no squirrels to chase. Then suddenly the biggest squirrel of the season is sitting right in front of him and he has to be ready to go.
Thank goodness for back up quarterbacks who are always ready to chase a squirrel.
It was Homecoming this past weekend and I saw Will Fountain. He was part of the class of 1999 and they were celebrating their 15th year reunion. Will told me that he still had the ball from the 1998 Neal game. “I need to bring it to you and let you put it in the field house somewhere. It was signed by the whole team.” I had forgot about the ball.
In the pros they often give out game balls to different players for different reasons. We don’t do that in high school primarily because of the cost of the balls. I can only remember one time that I gave away a game ball. It was the Neal game on October 30, 1998.
We were nearing the end of the decade and it had been quite a battle with W.S. Neal. We were coming off a four year period where both teams had been great. In fact before the 1998 game, Neal had been undefeated 4 of the last 5 times we had played them. We had played them twice in the semi finals and let me assure you that playing Neal twice in one year is way too much. It was exhausting emotionally and I was spent at the end of those seasons. Part of what makes our rivalry so interesting is that so many people are intertwined and connected to both teams in different ways. So it had been for Will Fountain. His older brother James had played for us earlier, but the Fountains had always been Neal people. His father Donnie had been one of Neal’s greatest players in the early 60’s. His cousin Hugh had been Neal’s coach from 1989-1995 and his uncle Jim and taken over in 1996. He also was an outstanding player at Neal in the early 60’s. But Will’s mother Catherine had been Homecoming Queen at T.R. Miller to the best of my memory, and all of the children had gone to Miller.
Will was playing wide receiver and was our punter. I had been really careful not to say anything to our team in those years negative about Neal, partly because I had a player on my team whose uncle was their coach. It was just another twist in the Miller-Neal thing. I can imagine that Donnie was pulled by the whole thing as well, and I just didn’t talk to Will about it. Then came October 30, 1998.
I felt like we were a little better than Neal for the first time in years. I remember they hurt us early with some runs but we got that under control. We had a lead at halftime but understood that they were still dangerous. Garrett Akridge was our quarterback and he got hot in the second half. But no play was bigger than his pass to Will Fountain. Will was a solid player and had good hands but no one had accused him of being speedy. Garrett dropped to throw and Will took off on a fly route. The defensive back kind of froze for a second and Will ran right by him and caught the ball on the run. It was right on Neal’s sideline and after he caught the ball, he was streaking down Neal’s bench. You could see on the film his uncle Jim watching him as he ran by. I wondered as I watched what Jim must be thinking. I can safely say that this was as fast as Will had run to that point in his life. He scored on what was a big play in the game. It helped ignite us and we went on to win 38-7.
After the game we gathered in our old locker room underneath the stadium bleachers. There is nothing like a winning locker room after a big win. I told one of the managers to bring me one of the game balls. I talked to the team about the win and then said something about what it must be to have part of your family on the other sideline and to make one of the biggest plays of the game to help us win. And I gave the game ball to Will. I really believed he deserved it.
I had forgotten about it. I have not given away a game ball since and will probably not again. We went on that season to get to the state championship game, only to lose to Deshler. But October 30th, 1998 was Will Fountain’s night. He has the game ball to prove it.