I’ve been going to high school football games every Friday night in the fall and early winter for a few decades now and most of the games are similar. But, if you keep going every Friday evening you are bound to eventually run into a game that is a bit different. Maybe even a classic!
I saw a classic in 1980 when R.E. Lee beat Upson 22-21 in overtime in their first ever meeting. I saw the 17-16 Lee win over Upson in 1986 when Chris Teal hit David Gilbert with a 42-yard TD pass with no time left on the game clock. I saw Lee’s come-from-behind 17-16 win over Washington-Wilkes to capture the 1988 State AA Championship. I saw Upson-Lee’s 12-7 win over Newnan in 1993 when Kelvin Willis took a short pass from Willie Kendall and trudged his way through the mud for a 55-yard TD with only 1:34 left in the contest.
Space does not allow me to mention a few more classics, but just let me say that I can add the Upson-Lee-Howard game from last Friday night to that list. For many reasons it was a true classic!
This one looked like it was going to be like some of the Knights’ other games this year, as they jumped out to a 17-0 halftime lead thanks mainly to four interceptions. Another interception midway through the third quarter which was returned for a touchdown made the score 24-0 and caused many Knights’ fans to head to the house with visions of an Upson-Lee rout. No so quick!
You see, this is a very good Howard football team with a very talented quarterback and running back, as well as a well-coached defense. They just didn’t visualize the same finish as the UL fans.
The Huskies got their first score with 4:28 to go in the third quarter to make the score 24-8, but no one seemed to be really worried. Certainly we would come back with a TD to regain the momentum. At least hopefully!
Well, no we didn’t! UL did take the ensuing kickoff and move down to the Howard 11-yard line before a big penalty and an interception ended the advance. This ended the third quarter and for their next two possessions the Knights went three-and-out while Howard got things figured out on offense.
They drove 60, 92, and 75 yards on their next three drives and suddenly the scoreboard became Upson-Lee’s enemy with Howard on top 27-24. Those who had left early had no idea, unless they were tuned in to WTGA Fun 101, and those who were still in the stadium were in shock. This one appeared to be over!
What happens after this is what makes this a real classic. The Knights coaches and players were not convinced that this game was over.
After a nice return of the kickoff to the UL 39, the Knights began to move the ball through the air. Give Upson-Lee offensive coordinator Bryce Robinson some credit here, as his play-calling was critical. With only 29 seconds left in the game he called for quarterback Kalen Puckett to throw a trio of quick passes to Wyquavious Battle who raced down the sidelines and stepped out of bounds after gaining precious yardage. Robinson didn’t call for the long down-the-field passes that had very little chance of being successful.
The last completion put Upson-Lee at the Howard 25 yard line with only 5 seconds left in the game. A Husky penalty moved it to the 20. On came Rich Stewart to attempt the most important field goal in his career. I don’t know what Stewart’s range is, but this 37-yarder had to be somewhere close to what we could hope for.
Well, this youngster hit it well and the kick sailed comfortably through the uprights to ignite a celebration. The game headed to overtime at 27-27!
Upson-Lee scored on their first OT possession but as fate would have it, Stewart missed the PAT. Many fans that I have spoken with since then, who had clear views, will swear that the kick was good but the officials didn’t agree. UL led 33-27.
A very tired UL defense couldn’t stop Howard and they scored easily and everyone in the stadium expected their kicker to kick the PAT for a Husky win. Well, he booted the ball straight thru the uprights but UL Coach Tommy Parks had called time-out just before the ball was snapped. He would have to do it again.
He couldn’t do it again! His kick bounced off of the left upright and the game unbelievably remained a 33-33 tie.
Howard then scored again and kicked the PAT for a 40-33 lead. The stubborn Knights weren’t finished however and Quay Reviere scored to make the score 40-39 with the extra point to come. With his defense dead-tired, Coach Parks made the only decision that he felt he could make. The Knights would go for two! Now was the time!
After a time-out to figure their strategy and to make sure that everyone knew their assignment and realized the importance of the upcoming play, the Knights trotted back on the field for what may have been the biggest play of the 2015 season.
The Knights had worked on a play for just this situation. They inserted freshman Travon Walker, senior defensive tackle David Marshall and a few others and ran a simple dive over right tackle. When it was over half of Reviere’s body lay in the end zone, the Knights had won 41-40, UL was headed for the state playoffs, and Matthews Field was in bedlam.
That is the anatomy of a classic!
Jim Fowler is a sports columnist and retired teacher and coach who worked in the local school system for many years. He is a founding board member of the Thomaston-Upson Sports Hall of Fame and is also the statistician for the Upson Lee football team, and has written a book about the history of football at R. E. Lee High School.