ATLANTA — What goes through a teenager’s mind when he’s staring up toward the Georgia Dome rafters and sees a 27-7 score that he knows is going to win the first state football championship in his school’s history?
“It’s indescribable,” senior receiver/defensive back Antonio Clark said. “When I first got to Aquinas, the football program was coming up. The fans started believing in us and we started believing in us. Once we got that belief, we just took off.”
“It was a culmination of all these events that we’ve become together,” said senior receiver/linebacker Chris Lambert, trying to wrangle his racing thoughts in the immediate aftermath of Aquinas’ perfect season. “I just had a flashback. Oh my gosh, so many emotions right now.”
For some Aquinas seniors, the flashbacks flowed all the way back to seventh grade at St. Mary on the Hill.
“I’ve been with the team all my life,” said John Morris, who helped with a critical sack on Calvary Day’s last-chance drive and clinched the Irish victory with a 33-yard touchdown run on the ensuing drive. “I started playing JV football in seventh grade. Just seeing that we were making progress was all we needed. Just taking it one step at a time.”
Two-way senior tackle Jeff Fox honestly never thought about state championships back in seventh grade. Truthfully, nobody on the academic track to Aquinas ever did.
“I was a shrimp back in seventh grade,” said Fox, now 6-foot-4, 275 pounds. “Everyone’s grown up. We’re really putting our foot in the ground as a program.”
Lambert goes all the way back to St. Mary as well, though he didn’t get onto the football train until former Irish coach Matt LeZotte brought him on board as a freshman. But it seems like a long way off when the Irish were perennial non-contenders.
“Freshman year we didn’t even make the playoffs and sophomore year we won our first (playoff) game,” he said. “It’s been a process. That’s what coach (James) Leonard has been saying the whole time – it’s a process; it’s a process. We always said it’s to the top and now we’re at the top.”
Leonard has been in the process right along with these kids since he was their age. Only 26, the first-year Irish head coach has been on the Aquinas staff since he was 15 and had to stop playing for the Irish after his sophomore year because of a defective heart. He’s grown up in the program and appreciates the kids who’ve grown beside him.
“Some of the guys have been playing in this program since they were in seventh grade, so they know the system and know the expectations,” Leonard said. “And they had the hunger. Since we’ve had them here, we knew we had a special group of seniors since they were in seventh grade. It all just kind of fell right into place for us.”
The long process came to its ultimate fruition on Friday afternoon in the Georgia Dome when the Irish overcame a shaky start and surged past a Calvary Day team that appeared about 20 pounds bigger than Aquinas at every position. With a 14-0 record and a Class A private school championship, it was a validation of everything they’ve worked so hard to achieve in a place where few people other than themselves believed it could be done.
“In the summer and preseason rankings, we weren’t even in the top 10,” Lambert said. “No one gave us a shot but us, and that’s all we needed. At the beginning of the year I really thought we had a shot. We have a family like no one else. One thing I can thank my coaches for is they told us the whole time if we played our ball we could beat anyone.”
That was proven midseason when the Irish finally beat longtime nemesis Lincoln County, 42-14. That’s when dreams turned to a state title.
“Maybe after the Lincoln County game when we shocked so many people with that score, I think that’s when it really sunk in that we could do this,” Leonard said.
It looked like Calvary Day might steal the punch line in the early going as two teams who have never reached this deep into the postseason squared off in the opening game of the GHSA championships.
Leading 7-0 and driving deep on the Irish, the Cavaliers opted not to try a 33-yard field goal and go for it on fourth-and-11. The Irish made a sack and the whole game changed.
“The stop is really what turned it around for us,” Leonard said.
The offense got untracked and scored on four of its next six possessions while the defense kept making one big play after another.
And when it was all over and the Irish were hoisting the trophy and donning the medals, the Aquinas seniors reflected on what they’d accomplished and how they got to this place. Former pillars of the program – LeZotte and Georgia running back Brendan Douglas – were there to share it with them. It was a celebration of Irish past and present.
“Coach LeZotte put it in our heads that we’re gonna turn it around and gonna win,” Douglas said. “It’s been like that way ever since. It’s great to see them do so good and I’m happy for them.”
“Those two guys built it to where we could do this,” Leonard said. “They were a huge part of this. Glad they could be here.”
Said Morris: “It meant the world. Coach LeZotte did a tremendous job setting the foundation. Brendan Douglas was the hardest worker I’ve ever seen. He led by example. We have to give a lot of credit to them. Just thankful for all the other seniors who have played and fought here, we did that for them.”
Now this senior class moves on and little may change. The bulk of the Irish playmakers – junior tailback Ruben Garnett, sophomore quarterback Liam Welch and junior receiver Daniel Lindsey – all return. They are now part of a winning tradition at Aquinas.
“People are gonna take us serious now,” Garnett said.
Said Lambert: “This is the beginning of something great. We’ve got a bunch of young guys and they’ll be getting after it in the weight room in like a week. Just the next crop of guys.”
Aquinas – state champs – no longer building but reloading. Who would have thought it?