By JIMMY WIGFIELD
When it was installed, the artificial turf at Saraland’s Spartan Stadium cost roughly $12 per square foot with a limited warranty.
But a certain foot of turf near the north goal line has an incalculable value and a lifetime guarantee that what happened there will be forever remembered, although it went wrong in many ways before turning out right for Saraland. Those involved will carry with them for the rest of their lives an assurance they know how to defy the odds, to survive walking the edge of a cliff with nine toes hanging off the side and pirouetting on the 10th.
It’s a mere foot but it will have miles and years of influence as the site where arguably the most consequential play in the history of the school’s football program unspooled. Imagine the historical marker:
“Here on Nov. 18, 2022, Saraland’s defense stopped Homewood at the foot line on a two-point conversion in overtime to save a 57-56 playoff victory and set in motion a chain of events which changed the history of Saraland High School and the city of Saraland.”
Saraland coach Jeff Kelly theorized without the stop not only would the Spartans have been denied the Class 6A state championship but Ryan Williams may not have been selected Mr. Football; scholarship offers which flowed to many of the players like Bayou Sara after a rainstorm may have been staunched to a trickle; and the school and community would not be enjoying the intrinsic rewards and ennobling effects of the long-savored Blue Map.
“We won the state championship and that rising tide lifted all the boats at Saraland,” Kelly said.
That play chiseled into stone everything that followed — Saraland’s two best performances of the season in a semifinal rematch with Theodore, followed by a Super 7 triumph over Mountain Brook.
“When you look at our playoff run, the thing that gets overlooked is the second half of the Homewood game and having to hold them off and find a way to win,” Kelly said. “Without that play, you don’t have the storyline of going back to Theodore and getting redemption. You don’t go up and win the state championship and all that goes with it — the memories these kids will take with them the rest of their lives.”
That play even allowed Kelly to eventually stamp out the nagging criticism he couldn’t win the most significant games after three previous losses in the state finals, two with Saraland (2014, 2018) and one with Jackson (2009).
“Sure, that stuff is out there,” Kelly said. “The thing I didn’t fully appreciate is the satisfaction of winning your last game. Even if you go deep in the playoffs, if you don’t win the last game, you feel like you have failed.”
‘Everybody wanted us to lose’
After losing to Theodore 27-26 in October, the Spartans weren’t assured of such a postseason run and wobbled defensively in two of the three games which followed — allowing 31 points each to McGill-Toolen and Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa.
“Everybody wanted us to lose,” linebacker Jamison Curtis said.
Saraland grew indignant about the regular-season loss to the Bobcats, causing linebacker Chris Thompson to ask his mother, who owns a shirt business, to design a T-shirt which said, “Saraland University, Revenge Tour.”
“After the loss to Theodore, it was all business,” Thompson said. “Some of us would sit around at the lunch table every day and talk and say, ‘It’s five weeks and it’s nothing but business.’”
Added defensive tackle Antonio Coleman: “The loss to Theodore put a fire in us. Before that, we were cruising. Theodore showed us we had to work harder.”
Homewood was not expected to offer serious resistance in the quarterfinals as the Spartans positioned themselves to avenge their narrow loss to the Bobcats, who were by that time ranked No. 1 in the state. And when Saraland took leads of 27-0, 37-14 and 44-21 over the Patriots, a convincing win seemed assured and fans began leaving.
“One of my fears going into it is we played unconscious the first half, then everybody started thinking about the matchup with Theodore the next week,” Kelly said. “We relaxed in all three phases and just about lost.”
The sun had long since retreated and frigid air descended on the field but it felt even more funereal when the Spartans were drawn into a looming catastrophe and couldn’t catch their breaths.
“It was just like a cold practice,” Thompson said. “It was really cold. Every hit felt like a ton of bricks.”
With temperatures in the 20s, Saraland’s huge lead and the Spartans’ composure melted.
“We had people fighting over two heaters,” defensive tackle Jimmy Byrd said. “I didn’t even realize what was happening until they cut it to a touchdown.”
Molten lava was cascading from Homewood quarterback Woods Ray, who was 36-of-52 passing for 326 yards, ran for 159 yards and accounted for seven touchdowns in the astonishing comeback.
But the lava was finally stopped a foot away, just before it crossed the front door and turned Saraland’s house to ashes.
When Ray scored on a 3-yard run in overtime to make it 57-56, the Patriots chose to try for the win with a two-point conversion. That another run by Ray was stopped despite numerous mistakes in execution by the Spartans’ defense on the final play was as incredible as diverting a tidal wave with a fish net.
For the do-or-die two-point conversion, Homewood surprisingly limited its options, calling for Ray to throw a dig route to Charlie Reeves, who motioned into a three-receiver stack to the left side of Saraland’s defense and would work free long enough after his fellow receivers crossed and muddied the waters. Reeves had been Ray’s favorite target in the game with 13 catches for 107 yards and two touchdowns.
The Patriots had exhausted their two-point plays in the huge rally and if Reeves wasn’t open, the plan called for Ray to run.
“There was never a question whether to go for two or not,” Homewood coach Ben Berguson said. “We were on the road in a hostile environment with the momentum. We had run out of two-point plays. Woods had a run-pass option. If the pass was covered, run the football. I felt good with it because the game was in Woods’ hands.”
The Spartans’ defensive backs on the play were Delvon Gulley, Xayvier Crenshaw and Williams, the five-star receiver who was put into the game for his coverage speed.
Saraland defensive coordinator Brett West chose man-to-man coverage because the Patriots had success against the zone looks.
“We had some time to think about it,” West said. “They had attacked the zone very well, going high and low against it. I was sitting there telling them, ‘The motion is coming and we haven’t looked great against it, so we went man and I challenged them that when they go in motion, you’ve got to do a great job of beating that man across (the formation) and covering it up.’ And we’d have more defenders closer to the box as well with a five-man rush instead of four with zone coverage. … Our attitude was they can’t run between the tackles.”
Ray — who had run for 160 yards in the second half either on designed plays or scrambles — was forced to do exactly that.
West called Grizzly Black, a short-yardage defense which excels against the run with the outside linebackers walked up but is a gamble against the pass if pressure doesn’t reach the quarterback.
“Both teams were tired but I was probably more nervous than they were,” West said of his players. “They seemed confident.”
Thompson was also disgusted after seeing a 27-point lead vanish.
“That’s the only play from that game I’ll talk about,” said Thompson, who led the Spartans with 11 tackles that night, including the one that helped wrestle Ray to the ground inches from scoring. “I can’t tell you how many times I think of that play. I had a lot of trust in my teammates and in whatever coach West calls. It was on us to get it done.
“Coach is always talking about playing like it’s your last play and laying it all on the line. That was it.”
A lot of what ifs
But the bewildered coverage and missteps up front for Saraland started at the snap.
“If we had all done what we were supposed to do, they probably score,” West said.
Williams and Crenshaw, who had followed Reeves across the formation, lost their receivers when they crossed. Gulley didn’t jam receiver Jackson Parris at the line and instead followed him on an out route.
“If (Gulley) does jam like he should, Ryan and him would have run into each other and probably left a man wide open,” West said.
Instead, Crenshaw and Williams settled just into the end zone and into Ray’s sight line. The traffic jam that followed made Ray hesitate to throw the ball as Reeves drifted back inside and was bracketed front and back.
“We had a busted coverage but we gave great effort,” West said.
Ray also didn’t see Hunter Drake, the widest of the three receivers, who drove inside on a slant and was momentarily open.
That is because Coleman, Curtis and defensive tackle Jermaine Paramore were squeezing Ray out of the pocket the way a patty melt oozes out underneath a spatula. But the pressure didn’t get applied as planned.
Paramore got a little too far outside of his gap when Homewood’s right tackle set himself hard inside.
“I wanted to strike him as hard as I could,” Paramore said.
If Paramore had stayed in the correct gap, the Spartans’ season may have ended.
“The quarterback probably runs wide and Chris wouldn’t have got there in time,” West said.
Byrd got tangled in a double team and Coleman shoved the center almost into neighboring Chickasaw.
“When the ball was snapped, I wanted to put him on his back,” Coleman said. “I got to the quarterback but I went upfield too far. I thought he might get the touchdown.”
Saving the season
With the walls caving in around him, Ray ran for it.
“When he passed me, my heart stopped,” Curtis said.
Added Paramore: “I saw something (in a) white (jersey) go past my face and I grabbed what I could.”
Byrd, Thompson and fellow inside linebacker Cam York saw Ray coming toward them and reacted.
Byrd came off the double team and hit Ray, who tried to stretch the ball across the goal line.
“Thank God I didn’t fly upfield or try and split the double team,” Byrd said. “When I saw (Ray) step up, I tried to beat him to the end zone. I got a good piece of him and I’m glad the linebackers stepped up and met him. I was able to slow him down and give them enough time to get there.”
York didn’t drop back far because he thought Ray might throw another slant he had nearly intercepted earlier in the game.
“I saw Jimmy hit him and Chris go for the ball, so I came up and hit him,” York said. “It was helmet to helmet.”
Thompson — who didn’t play most of the second half when West went to his nickel defense with an extra defensive back — had finally convinced his coach to put him back in the game.
“The quarterback was running at us and extended the ball and I thought, ‘This is it,’” Thompson said. “When he started running, Jimmy slowed him down and he started falling and extended the ball. I had no intention of hitting him — I wanted to get the ball.”
There was no measurable breathing on either side of the field as Thompson and York arrived simultaneously and the ball fluttered out of Ray’s desperate hands and into Thompson’s inches from an alternate history.
“I got it and didn’t even look back,” Thompson said. “I ran out of there with the ball. I had to let everybody know!”
York knew too, even with his head throbbing from the collision.
“I knew he didn’t get in,” York said. “I was feeling it but I kept celebrating anyway.”
Berguson said Thompson was right to go after the ball, not Ray.
“The linebacker did a great job tackling the football, not Woods,” he said. “I thought for sure Woods would score.”
Ray has not dwelled on the anguishing last play of his high school career.
“He is a very humble person,” Berguson said. “He said that night he was just short. I love that kid.”
In the rewind, Curtis and his teammates knew they had overcome the errors on the play with a supreme effort which changed so many lives.
“That play saved our season,” Curtis said. “Without it, we wouldn’t have won state.”
After the initial shock, Homewood has also embraced the value of a foot.
“They were heartbroken,” Berguson said of his players. “This is one we will be talking about forever. It reiterates that football is truly a game of inches. Everything this offseason has been about getting that extra inch. That game has been a great motivator for us.”
Getting on the Map
Saraland went on to beat Theodore 21-6 in the semifinals and Mountain Brook 38-17 in the state championship game to finish 14-1.
With the Blue Map securely in the trophy case, scholarship offers began pouring in.
“It provided an opportunity for our players to get exposure and recognition,” Kelly said. “College coaches put merit into kids who know how to win.”
Since winning the state championship:
Williams — who has committed to Alabama — has also gotten offers from Georgia, Miami, Georgia Tech, Colorado and Texas.
Quarterback K.J. Lacey has been offered by Auburn, Alabama, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Texas, Texas A&M, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Pitt, Mississippi State, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Florida State.
Byrd, the only senior starter on defense, signed with Belhaven.
Coleman has been offered by Alabama and Tennessee, among others.
Curtis has been offered by Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Missouri, Georgia Tech, Memphis and Troy.
Running back Santae McWilliams has been offered by UAB, Georgia Tech, Memphis and Marshall.
Receiver C.D. Gill has been offered by Georgia Tech, Memphis and Central Florida.
Receiver Jordan Dees has been offered by Liberty.
Snapper and H-back Baxter Turner has been offered by South Alabama as a preferred walk-on.
Offensive lineman Tyler Crenshaw has been offered by Belhaven, Faulkner and Huntingdon.
Offensive lineman Kyron Wilson has been offered by Faulkner and Birmingham Southern.
Kicker Hunter Kirkland has committed to Huntingdon.