TAMPA — Last weekend, Shirley Starling watched her 7-year-old grandson, Kejuan, place a football signed by all of Wharton's players into the casket of the man he called "grandaddy."
Friday, those same players who attended the funeral of defensive coordinator Earl Goodman spent 48 emotional, exhilarating minutes proving his spirit can't be buried.
On a cold, bittersweet evening, the Wildcats — buoyed by the memory of Coach Earl — rallied from an eight-point deficit in the final eight minutes for a 35-28 Class 5A playoff win against Alonso. Jairus Jones scored the winning touchdown, leaping to catch a rollout pass from Andrew Clifford then dodging and darting his way for a 55-yard score with 48 seconds left.
Afterward, Starling, Goodman's longtime fiancee, knew exactly what Goodman would've said.
Good job, boss.
"That was his favorite saying," said Starling, who joined the 'Cats for the pregame coin toss.
"I went down behind the scoreboard and just bawled my eyes out because it just brought back memories of when Earl was here and how he would play," 'Cats coach David Mitchell said. "It was just a weight off our shoulders to let us know that we can still move on. That's our way of closure."
A pregame moment of silence was observed for Goodman, who died two weeks ago today of an apparent heart attack while at work, and his initials were everywhere: on the Wildcats' helmets, on Starling's black long-sleeve shirt, even on the painted cats paw at midfield.
And in the final 48 seconds, with Alonso driving, they seemed plastered on the heart of every Wharton defender and coach.
The Ravens, buoyed by a pass interference penalty, drove 35 yards to the Wildcats 27 before Terrance Hicks batted away C.J. Bennett's pass near the goal line on the game's last play. Bennett, who rallied his team from a 20-7 halftime deficit with an efficient short-pass attack, threw for 308 yards and four touchdowns.
"I guarantee you I felt his presence here when we played those last couple of downs," Mitchell said. "And our guys rose to the occasion and played a good game of football."
Trailing 28-20, Wharton drove 57 yards in less than three minutes, scoring on Clifford's 10-yard play-action pass to Jones with 7:07 to play. Malik Williams' run up the middle for the two-point conversion tied the score.
Alonso, which mounted a 16-play, 99-yard scoring drive to open the second half, managed only one first down on its next two series, giving the 'Cats time for their winning score.