“I didn’t realize it was going to be this emotional.”
So said a parent or relative of one of Arab’s senior football players after the Knights whipped the fight out of the North Jackson Chiefs, if not one of their fans, in a 56-26 blowout win Friday night at Stevenson, securing the team its first winning season since 2016.
Arab (6-4), as it has done often this season, turned up its high-octane offense in the second half to break open a relatively close 28-18 game with a 28-point explosion in the third quarter.
The beat-down was punctuated by an incident at the end of the third quarter. Chiefs junior running back Johnny Gilliam, who passed for North Jackson’s first TD, had to be helped off the field with a lower leg injury during the break (an injury later to be determined not as serious as first believed).
As a cart came onto the field to assist Gilliam getting off the field, a North Jackson fan – later identified as Gilliam’s father – began swinging at one of the game officials.
After meeting with coaches Lee Ozmint of Arab and Chandler Tygard of North Jackson, the officials decided to continue the game but with a running clock in the fourth quarter.
“I think that was the right call,” Ozmint said afterward. “We didn’t want this game to be on CNN.”
North Jackson, a traditionally proud and successful program with a state championship in its history, struggled to a 2-8 season and the frustration showed in its finale. The Chiefs picked up 80 yards in penalties, many on personal foul calls.
Arab, meanwhile, had its usual offensive game, gaining 285 yards rushing and 220 yards passing on a cold and wet night, totaling 505 yards for the game. The defense continued its late-season surge and stopped the Chiefs for the most part until they scored with 6:47 to play mostly against Arab reserves.
Here’s where the running clock came into play. Arab took over with just under four minutes to play after North Jackson’s kickoff, and Ozmint sent his offensive starters back into the game, only to call a timeout so they could be replaced and run off the field together, many of them for the last time.
And that’s when it hit the Knights, especially the seniors but underclassmen, too. Tears were flowing as they came to the bench one last time. It was like an emotional well erupted.
Seniors hugged one another before the game ended but moreso afterward. Kids hugged parents, coaches hugged players, emotionally so.
Ross Reynolds, who capped a sensational senior season by rushing for 129 yards and two touchdowns and passing for 220 yards and three TDs, buried his face into the shoulder of his mother, Renea.
There were more tears when he embraced his father, Chuck.
Will Hudson was embraced by his older brother, Drew, for almost a full minute. Parents and family members had more photo ops than a swimsuit model.
For at least 30 minutes after the game, players were still on the field, celebrating a big win, sure, but also saying goodbye to high school football and teammates.
Ozmint was pleased with the win and the winning season but he said he wasn’t as surprised as many.
“We had a talented senior bunch that just needed somene to put them in the right position, and that’s exactly what (offensive coordinator) Michael Darden did,” Ozmint said. “I knew he was a good coach. That’s why I brought him here.”
Reynolds finished with 2,122 yards passing and 21 TDs and 1,018 yards rushing and 14 TDs, numbers than should put him into contention for all-star recognition.
Same for junior running back Mathew Turnage, who rushed for 150 hard yards and three TDs on 19 carries. He finished with 1,312 yards and 20 touchdowns on 187 carries.
Will Hudson also had a brilliant finish to his high school football career, catching five passes for 136 yards and two touchdowns.