Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

DAWSON -- Weakened so much by the flu he could hardly move, all Don Beard could offer was a prayer.

"I just talked to the Lord to please let me be there with my boys," he said.

The patriarch of Terrell Academy's football program, Beard had been a head coach for a combined 33 years, winning three state titles during the 1990s.

Now at age 70, and still serving as the team's defensive coordinator, he wanted to experience the GISA Class A Championship Terrell Academy was hopefully about to win for a second consecutive time.

His prayer was answered as he joined the celebration after the Eagles' 28-12 victory against Thomas Jefferson. Last year, Terrell Academy also beat Thomas Jefferson for the state title, 61-26. Saying he would not have missed Friday night for the world, Beard was amid the postgame huddle leaning on his cane.

"It was a huge relief to me and the rest of the team to see him there," said Bill Murdock, the head coach and headmaster, who has been at the school since 2005. "We knew he would fight with all he had just to be there."

The only suspense to the game, which Terrell Academy led, 21-0, at halftime, was whether Beard could grace the sideline. Players not only were worried about his health, they realized how valuable his presence is mentally. For instance, Terrell Academy lost the last time Beard was not there in the 2007 semifinals against none other than Thomas Jefferson.

As Beard rode onto the field in a golf cart, the team's emotions spilled over into a dominating first half.

"We were ready to go when we saw coach Beard," said quarterback Cole Phillips, who finished with 148 passing yards.

Containing Thomas Jefferson's rushing game, the Eagles took a 7-0 lead with Cole Byrd's first score of the game from 28 yards in the first quarter. Known primarily as a team dependant on Byrd's rushing, the Eagles caught the Jaguars off-balance with Phillips' passing. Phillips completed a 39-yarder to Caleb White on third-and-long, and that set the stage for several other big plays.

"It just opened things up for the running game," Phillips said.

Phillips himself played a role in Terrell Academy's rushing attack, scoring on a 13-yard run, and then a trick play led to a 21-0 lead. After Phillips pitched the ball to Byrd, it was then pitched to Chris Rogers, who completed a 25-yard touchdown pass to White with 15.2 seconds left in the first half.

Time and time again, Terrell faced third down and made a big play.

"They had five third-and-long plays and completed three of them for touchdowns," Thomas Jefferson coach Chuck Wimberly said. "We knew going into the game it would be speed against speed, but they made the big plays when they had to."

The final big play on third down was one that practically sealed the state championship for Terrell Academy. Facing third-and-30, Phillips found Riley Davis for a 31-yard gain, which set up a 7-yard score by Byrd, who finished with two scores and 148 yards on 28 carriers.

"That alone put doubt in their minds," Byrd said. "That was the one drive we definitely wanted to score on after halftime."

It was not that Thomas Jefferson did not try to make a run. The Jaguars, in fact, scored the game's final points with touchdown runs by Austin Dressel and Taylor Barrentine. For the game, Thomas Jefferson rushed for 201 yards.

In the end, however, Terrell Academy not only had the speed but also more depth.

"They play something like eight different people on offense and defense, and we have a lot of players who go both ways," Wimberly said. "We did get to the championship game, though. Only two teams can say that at the end of each year."

Murdock, who now has won five state championships as head coach -- he won three at Southwest Georgia Academy -- told his team after the win how special this state championship was, especially after losing star players from last year such as quarterback Keaton Icard.

"Just (Friday) was the first time we had been at No. 1, and we were tied with Thomas Jefferson," Murdock said.

Now, the Eagles stand alone at the top.

Near midnight, Murdock was on the field taking pictures of the scoreboard with his cell phone. The same was done last year, and a picture is on an office wall to show for it -- with Beard transposed on top of that scoreboard.

In the players' minds, Friday would not have been the same without him.

"I'm so excited," Beard said Friday night. "It won't sink in until (this morning)."