ST. PETERSBURG — As the final seconds ticked away, Dixie Hollins quarterback Fernando Monroe Jr. fell to the field, his hands on his helmet while teammates celebrated all around him.
In that moment was merely everything important, every truth about caring and loss and letting go.
It was then that Monroe understood, maybe for the first time: It’s over. The junior did not just lift the Rebels with his leadership and athleticism or elevate the measure of his greatness by leading the program to its first district title since 1995.
Friday’s thrilling 27-26 victory over Boca Ciega completed the emotionally exhausting task of winning the Class 6A, District 8 championship to honor his close friend, former Northeast High standout Jacquez Welch, who collapsed during a game last month due to a pre-existing condition that caused bleeding on the brain and was removed from life support days later.
“I just felt free at that moment,” Monroe said. “We did it. I got up off the ground, and just looked at the sky above just thinking about Jacquez. I told him ever since he died that I was going to win this for him.”
In the fourth quarter of every game since Welch died, Monroe would kneel and say a prayer. Sometimes tears would come pouring out. It made him go harder.
On Friday, Monroe was not able to kneel in the fourth quarter. Instead, he bowed his head, remembering his friend while seeking some sort of inspiration.
Dixie Hollins (7-2, 4-0) needed it. A 9-0 first-half lead had evaporated. The Rebels had just 12 minutes left to rally from a 20-9 deficit.
Monroe engineered the comeback. He scored on a 2-yard run to cut it to 20-15 after a two-point conversion failed. Minutes later, the Rebels had the lead back. This time, Monroe hit Garion Young on a 32-yard touchdown pass for a 21-20 lead after another two-point conversion failed.
The Pirates (6-3, 3-1) answered with quarterback Taffrey Peterman finding Dontre Hibbert on a 19-yard touchdown pass to go ahead 26-21 after a failed conversion.
There was less than four minutes remaining when Dixie Hollins got the ball again. This was likely the Rebels’ final drive.
On third down, Dezuan Davis dropped a pass. No matter. The next play, River Wood kept driving his legs, carrying a few defenders along the way on a first-down run. Wood also navigated his way through the middle and kept his balance on a long run that put Dixie Hollins in scoring range.
Once again, the Rebels faced another critical moment. They had fourth and 2 with 45 seconds left. This time, Davis got redemption. He hauled in a 12-yard touchdown pass from Monroe to go ahead 27-26.
After Boca Ciega recovered a squib kick, it had one last chance to pull ahead. Davis delivered again. He stepped in front of a Peterman pass at the 2-yard line to record an interception that sealed the win.
“There was no panic,” Davis said. “I knew I had to keep making plays to redeem myself. It happened. This game, this win, this district title, it’s all a miracle.”
Afterward, Dixie Hollins met at midfield for a postgame huddle. They hugged while choking back tears for a title they could finally embrace.
Monroe sprinted across the field when they broke the huddle. He leaped. He smiled.
His burden had finally become lighter.