It wasn’t looking good.
Thanks to the speedy legs of super back Brody Leonard, the Southside Eagles had built a two-touchdown lead at halftime of the American League Grasshopper Super Bowl last Thursday night at Everett Recreation Center.
Rockford had been able to get very little going in the season-ending Maryville/Alcoa/Blount County Parks & Recreation big show. The Tigers, who were seeking the 4-year-old team’s first winning season along with the Super Bowl crown, were badly in need of a lift.
Just when all seemed lost, it was Hannah Time.
Rockford running back Isaiah Hannah streaked 40 yards to the end zone early in the second half to spark the Tigers to life. Bradley Decker would add the go-ahead score with a minute, 42 seconds remaining, and Rockford stormed back to claim the title with a thrilling, 14-12 victory.
Once the Tigers got rolling, “I was thinking we were going to win,” Hannah said.
Ripping up the sideline for the touchdown to get Rockford in gear “felt so good,” he said.
The Tigers (5-4) posting their first winning season and winning the title was a feat perhaps topped only by their opponent’s in the championship game for 7- and 8-year-olds.
Southside entered the playoffs a week ago with only one win during the regular season. Getting hot at the right time, the Eagles stormed out of the gate Thursday behind two scoring runs from Leonard of 40 and 10 yards. The Southerner star would have a 50-yard touchdown run called back on a penalty.
“In a nutshell, he’s just an athlete,” Southside coach Justin Pratt said. “He came into our group and honed his skills a little bit, but, basically, he’s just an athlete. Coaches can’t teach that stuff.”
A Garrett Blair interception returned 30 yards to the Rockford 10 set up the second Leonard score. With it, the Eagles had the Tigers looking up at some steep odds. That, though, has been much of the story for Rockford this season.
The Tigers carry 21 players on this year’s roster, 14 less than the maximum allowed by league rules. In addition, Rockford is also one of the league’s smallest teams.
“The big thing about our team is there’s a 107-pound weight limit (for the league),” Rockford coach Keith Decker said. “If you weight over 85 pounds, you have to weigh in every game.”
No Rockford player was ever even close to a mandatory weigh in all season.
With less brawn to work with, Decker said he was forced to improvise to make the Tiger offense effective. Rockford’s size disadvantage would show itself on a long drive that fizzled inside the Southside 10-yard line.
“We mainly line up and use deception and speed,” Decker said. “We don’t pound the ball. We look for the breakaways.
“That’s why we had trouble punching it in from close. We just couldn’t pound it.”
Hannah would deliver that game-changing breakaway run in the second half, but Leonard, the game’s other rushing star, was up first.
Displaying an amazing ability to cut back and accelerate for a back so young, Leonard rounded the corner on sweep and hit the gas to stake the Eagles to the early advantage. The Southside jet, who lists Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning as his favorite player, often looked a green blur once he broke the line of scrimmage.
To learn his moves, “I watch a lot of football (on TV),” Leonard said. “I thought it (the Super Bowl) was a lot of fun, and we played a good game.”
His team facing a two-touchdown deficit at the half, Keith Decker said his first task was reminding the Tigers the game was far from over.
“We tell the kids all the time the game is won in the fourth quarter,” he said. “‘You never give up.’”
To help the Tigers get back in it, Decker made a key defensive change.
“In the second half, we brought the blitz every time and got the turnovers and turned the game around,” he said. “When it starting turning in our favor, I really thought we could win the game.”
Once Hannah put Rockford on the board, the Tigers had new life.
“He’s unbelievable,” Decker said. “The kid’s got great moves. On that one (scoring) play, he faked off four or five kids.”
Bradley Decker’s touchdown run looked to have clinched it for the Tigers with less than two minutes to play. Just when it looked as if the Eagles would go quietly, they tore downfield for one last try — in absolutely astonishing fashion.
With no time to waste, Southside went with a no-huddle offense, running the power sweep on every play.
“I don’t know if they’ve ever practiced a drill like that,” Chris Leonard, Brody’s father, said.
A stunning swift drive moved the ball downfield to the Rockford 6-yard line with only a few seconds remaining.
“Every now and then you have some gifted athletes come through that make coaches look good,” Pratt said.
All game long, the Southside offensive line made sure Leonard, Blair and the rest had holes through which to run.
“They’re the reason we finished as strong as we did,” Pratt said.
One last rally was not to be, though, as Rockford would hold on a goal-line stand as time expired.
“When the game was over and we got the trophy, just seeing the look on those kids faces, I was just so proud of them,” Keith Decker said.