It was brilliant, simple, and it worked like a charm.
The Tennessee Future Stars seventh-graders went to the locker room at halftime down two touchdowns last Saturday at Carson-Newman, but things were far from as bad as they seemed.
Tennessee’s middle school all-stars had gifted one score to their Kentucky counterparts on a fumble returned for a touchdown. The second score had come on a long pass play after busted coverage in the secondary. There were mistakes and broken plays all around.
Maryville Middle and Tennessee coach Jay Malone addressed each of those things during intermission, but first he put a question to his team that brought it all back into focus.
“I asked them, ‘How many of you have ever won a game where you had to come from behind?’” Malone said.
The number of hands raised in the affirmative was all but unanimous. The end result was a stirring Tennessee rally to force overtime, the home side prevailing, 26-25, on a blocked Kentucky point-after-touchdown in the extra session.
Maryville Middle’s Bailey Clifford, whose fumble returned for a score put Tennessee ahead for the first time, 19-13, late in the fourth quarter, was named the game’s defensive most valuable player.
Malone kept his cool as things went against Tennessee early. So did his quarterback, Maryville Middle rising eighth-grader Zach Cardwell.
The Bulldog signal caller got plenty of snaps last season rotating with the Maryville Middle starter. Cardwell went the entire season last fall without throwing an interception, and, midway through the closing half, he finally found his man, connecting on 38-yard toss to tight end Gage Angel set up a Tennessee score.
“He (Cardwell) doesn’t get rattled,” Malone said. “He played in nine games last year and took as many snaps as (starter Tyler) Vaught. He had a good three days of practice with these kids, and he had confidence in the guys up front.”
Tennessee’s representatives were impressive on both sides of the ball for much of the afternoon, Maryville Middle’s Jackson Hensley and Lakin McCall doing their part to help man the trenches. In the defensive backfield, Bulldogs Ryan Tillery and Clifford both delivered big stops and key plays. More than anything, Tennessee’s Future Stars simply refused to yield, Malone said.
“The biggest thing I told the guys at the half is, you don’t want to wake up in the morning and realize you beat yourselves,” he said. “We probably had six first downs to their one (in the first half). I said, ‘We’re not changing anything. Let’s just go out and seize the momentum.’
“I was proud of the kids because none of them quit, none of them gave up.”
Saturday’s games were an unqualified success, John Morris, founder of Football Tech instructional camps, the event sponsor, said. Close to 3,000 spectators filed into Carson-Newman’s Burke-Tarr Stadium to catch a sneak peak at players who will dominate the high school game in a few year’s time.
“I had the dream of wanting to do something for the middle schoolers in youth football,” Morris said. “I wanted to do something big.”
The event could grow exponentially the next few years, he said. An instructional organization on a national scale, with several current and former professional players serving as coaches, Football Tech is looking to expand the Future Stars games to eight states and “bring everybody into a town like Atlanta and put these games on,” Morris said.
“We’re learning as we go how to make it better,” he said. “My focus is not to get the elite of the elite there. We want all kids to come who want to get better.”
Hard to do much better than a thriller decided in overtime on a blocked extra point.