Every now and then, often when you least expect it, you get a classic.
The Fairview Raiders led the Eagleton Knights by a touchdown with less than 10 seconds remaining in the opening quarter of the Parks & Rec Grasshopper Football Jamboree last Saturday at Alcoa High School.
The Raiders had thrown a Knights’ ball carrier for a loss on the previous play. Eagleton was out of timeouts.
In a display of sportsmanship befitting the season kickoff for Pee Wee, Midget and Grasshopper youth league teams, Fairview coach Casey Ensley allowed officials to stop the clock while they separated the pile, leaving the Knights, 40 yards from the Raider end zone, six seconds to get off one last play.
Guess what happened?
With the horn sounding as he went, Eagleton’s Andrew Pyle raced 40 yards down the far sideline in a stunning burst of speed to score. The Knights bench was all over the place in celebration. Fairview was one of the best teams in the league. This was big!
Allowing the Knights time to run one last play was “the sportsmanlike thing to do,” Casey had remarked to an assistant just prior to the snap.
A classy move like that just had to have a classy finish.
In a finishing, goal-line stand when Eagleton went for the tying extra point, the Raiders gave their coach one.
Fairview’s Ivan Chambers became the game’s hero on the point-after, stuffing a Knights’ running back at the line to preserve a 7-6 Fairview win.
“I’m just trying to shoot the gap,” Chambers said. “That’s all I’m trying to do.
“When that ball snaps, I’m gone.”
Hard to believe Grasshopper is a league for 7- and 8-year-olds.
Then again, maybe not.
From the quality of its coaching to the sophistication of its players, youth football these days is anything but sandlot, Parks & Recreation executive director Joe Huff said, even at the Grasshopper level.
“Football is still very, very popular in the Blount County area,” Huff said. “I think it’s the success of the high schools.”
While four-time defending Class 4A champion Maryville and four-time defending 2A champ Alcoa surely have a lot to do with it, the level of coaching within the youth leagues is the big thing, Huff said. Don Sentell has been at the helm of the Midget powerhouse Maryville Rebs for 43 seasons. Fairview Midgets’ coach Rick Young, Maryville Bears skipper Ricky Maples, Southerners coach Joey Winders and Friendsville’s Terry Gaylor have each been at their posts for at least 20.
“You’ve got a lot of people who coach youth football who don’t have a kid playing,” Huff said. “The commitment from the coaches is what makes it go. They make the rules. We kind of standby and administer it.”
The popularity of youth football in the area is best reflected in Saturday’s numbers. With 27 teams taking part, between 675-700 players swarmed Alcoa’s Goddard Field for the day-long festival. Parks & Rec director of youth football Brooke Hemphill and his seven-person staff arrived at 7 a.m. They wouldn’t leave until well after 5 p.m.
“It’s long, but it’s fun just to see the kids enjoy it,” Hemphill said. “That’s what it’s all about. You watch a kid score in the last seconds of a game, it’s special. That may be the first touchdown in his life.”
It wasn’t for Pyle, but it was special none the less.
“I just saw open field,” he said. “I scored last year, too.”
Ensley and Eagleton’s Rob Dunn understandably limit the number of plays for their players to digest, but little, if anything, is spared when it comes to the game’s basics.
Noah Humphreys looked to have given Fairview the lead on a 12-yard sweep with just over six minutes remaining, only to see the play nullified by penalty. Humphreys is a smart cookie, though. After a 5-yard step off, he told backfield mate Braden Porter to go after the same Eagleton end. The Raiders were going to run the same play.
“I was really disappointed, but I told the two-back to do the same thing the next time,” Humphreys said.
One play later, Anthony Mohr found the Eagleton end zone for what proved the winning conversion.
Again, it was recall of an earlier play, and how the Knights’ defense reacted, that made the difference.
“I was just thinking the guy kept shooting the gap and thinking the same thing would happen,” Mohr said.
Porter took much the same approach in tearing off big gains for Fairview all afternoon.
“I look at their eyes and try to keep contact with them,” he said. “When they’re going full speed, I try to cut back the other way.”
Dunn said he was pleased with his team’s showing.
“We’ve got some things we’ve got to work on,” he said, “but I’m proud of these kids.”
Huff shares the sentiment for the leagues as a whole.
The popularity of youth football shows no signs of slowing, he said.
“Football is still king, so to speak, especially in Blount County,” he said.
At the same time, he cautions against parents forcing their kids into the game.
“You’ve got to know your kid,” Huff said. “Some go out there and eat it up, and it’s the best thing for them. For some, it may not be the best thing.”
For some, there’s also the chance of running 40 yards for a touchdown with no time on the clock to bring your team back.
For others, there’s the chance to remind fans that good defense, even at the youth level, still matters.