Westover WR Jackie Childs, center, catches the game-winning touchdown pass with 19 seconds left to play Friday between a pair of Americus-Sumter defenders. (Chris Usrey/Special to The Herald)
AMERICUS --- Jackie Childs leapt in the air with the weight of a program on his shoulders.
He came back down with a catch for the ages.
And it almost brought Westover football coach Octavia Jones to tears.
Flanked by a pair of Americus-Sumter defenders, Childs, a senior wideout, caught a 34-yard TD pass from QB T.J. Cromer on a 4th-and-long with 19 seconds left in the game Friday, completing the Patriots’ 16-14, come-from-behind victory against the Panthers.
“That was divine intervention,” Jones said. “I’m overcome with emotions right now.”
Childs’ catch of a lifetime concluded an 84-yard drive in the final two minutes that kept the Patriots’ hopes of a Region 1-AAAA title alive and virtually ended any shot for Americus (4-3, 2-2) to capture the crown.
It was a catch that not only changed the game, it might have just changed a program.
“That’s the biggest catch of his life,” said Jones, who adopted a policy this season of not letting the media talk to his players. “It means a lot to me as a head coach to have the opportunity to lead these young kids to reach a goal that we set when we first got here. They put themselves closer to that goal (Friday night).”
Westover (4-3, 3-1) players danced on to the field after a pair of Americus Hail Mary passes hit the ground in the final seconds, and then they danced with cheerleaders, parents and fans about 20 yards away from Childs’ game-winning catch.
Jones, meanwhile, was not dancing.
“I was just trying to stop from crying,” he said.
There were plenty of tears on Americus’ sideline.
“They are upset,” Americus interim coach Chris Wade said of his players. “A lot of them are over there crying. This one hurt.”
It was especially stunning after the Panthers controlled the first two quarters and seemed on the verge of bouncing back from a 27-13 loss to Monroe last week.
But then Childs made the catch that changed everything.
Wade said he was disappointed that his team, which had the ball and a first down at midfield with 3:00 left, squandered away opportunities. A Panthers runner stepped out of bounds to stop the clock on one play, and then the offense backed itself up with penalties on others, giving the ball back to Westover with enough time to pull off the comeback.
“We never should have been in that position,” Wade said. “Our defense never should have been in that position. We put ourselves there with mistakes, penalties and not being able to get first downs on offense. I take full responsibility for that. We were very undisciplined (Friday night).”
Americus jumped out to a 14-3 lead after the first quarter and controlled the game almost the entire way, but a TD catch from Childs as time expired at the end of the third lifted Westover’s spirit and began the comeback.
And Childs’ first TD catch was even more spectacular than his second.
As the buzzer sounded at the end of the period, he got open in the corner of the end zone and made a one-handed, falling-backwards, once-in-a-lifetime catch to pull Westover to within 14-9. Childs ended the game with five catches — all of them in the second half — for 91 yards.
“We had been really hard on him and challenging him to step up and make plays for us, and he did that (Friday night),” Jones said about Childs.
After a rough first half when he completed just four passes for 36 yards, Cromer finished the game 14-of-29 for 174 yards.
Americus was led by running back Wesley Fields, who rushed for 146 yards and had a 53-yard TD run as time expired at the end of the first quarter. Americus’ first TD was a 1-yard rush by quarterback Bryce Benton, who was 5-for-14 passing for 33 yards, with 2:43 remaining in the first quarter.
Benton’s rushing TD gave the Panthers a 7-3 lead after Westover grabbed the first lead thanks to a 13-yard field goal from Tanner Stumpe five minutes into the game.
Jones said all of his players found a way to step up in the final moments of the game.
“We challenged them. We got on their tails at halftime and challenged them to make plays. They didn’t make plays in the first half,” Jones said. “We are right in the hunt (for the region title). All we have to do is win out, take care of our end of the deal and get a little help from Monroe and Americus (who will need to beat undefeated Cairo in the next two weeks).”
Jones made sure his players knew all about the history of what was on the line Friday night.
He printed out his program’s history and handed them all a copy during school.
“Each of them had a copy, and I showed it to them our history,” Jones said after the game. “They had a chance to mellow over that all day, and a lot of them got upset. I challenged my seniors and told them to be the class to break that cycle.
“They have been playing football at Westover since 1968, and we have only been to the playoffs three times. We have only had a winning season three times. Tonight, we put ourselves in position to become the first team in history to win region and host a playoff game.”