The two North Florida Christian players lined up deep in the offensive backfield could barely stand as time wound down under two minutes.
The Eagles, behind by a point to visiting University Christian, were staring a regional final playoff loss in the face with backup quarterback Joey Giaritelli’s right knee struggling to hold him up and running back Jonathan Vickers cramping for over a quarter.
But the grit displayed in a pivotal turn of events Friday night brought cheers to one sideline and decimated another.
Vickers rushed for 23 of his 181 yards to set up Giaritelli’s 38-yard touchdown heave to Christian Philpott with 59 seconds left, and NFC slipped past University Christian 28-14, sealed in the final seconds by Vickers’ 55-yard interception return for a score.
“I literally couldn’t take a step,” said Giaritelli, who entered late in the first quarter after starter Justin Moore suffered a gruesome left leg injury and had to be carted off the field. “After Justin went down, I had to step up. This team is built on winning championships and I had to step up and make a play.”
Vickers got NFC (9-2) off to a quick start, gutting the University Christian defense for a 41-yard touchdown run.
The Christians (9-2) fumbled on their opening possession and Moore led a drive that Vickers nearly ended with a score, but a fumbled ball turned into a game of hot potato. NFC offensive lineman Drew McCardle won the spontaneous game night with a timely grab for a one-yard recovery touchdown.
After Moore departed from injury, University tailback Hussein Howe Jr. put points on the board with a 32-yard scamper to close the lead to 13-7.
And then the punts and turnovers came, with 11 combined drives ending via kick or fumble. The NFC defense, undersized next to a giant University offensive line, was holding off every would-be takeover attempt.
“So proud of our kids fighting to the very end,” Eagles coach Robert Craft said. “As a coach, there’s no greater joy than really seeing your guys really leave everything on the field. That’s who we believe we are as Eagles, and our guys played a true four-quarter game.”
Finally, the Christians managed to break through, taking a 14-13 lead late in the third quarter on Tamarius Bowes’ 37-yard run up the middle.
Giaritelli left the game in the fourth quarter after being taken down on a run, and he struggled on subsequent drives to put any pressure on his plant leg.
But in one instant, Vickers, usually the hero, and Giaritelli, the unlikeliest of ones, gutted out a victory for the rest of their dirty, worn down teammates.
“I had to do it for my quarterback, for my offensive line,” Vickers said. “They worked their butts off. We worked too hard over the summer to just give up. It’s a four-quarter ballgame and we just had that mindset, doing the things coaches said and play within ourselves.”
The play call, a left sideline fade, was a pass attempt Philpott caught earlier in the second half. Now the high-lofted ball needed to hit its mark one more time.
The junior receiver hauled it in over his defender at the 5-yard line and stepped enthusiastically to the goal line. Instantly, elation.
“I just threw it up and hoped for the best,” Giaritelli said. “Christian’s one of the best in Florida. I trusted him to get it.”