DONALSONVILLE -- For nearly four months, Thomas Aiken stood by.
He stood on the sidelines. He stood in the stands. And he stood in the shadows.
On Friday night, there would be no more standing for Seminole County's biggest football star, who missed the entire regular season due to disciplinary reasons.
It was finally time to run.
"I missed it. I missed it so much," a humble-sounding Aiken said after rushing for 129 yards and one touchdown in the Indians' 21-14 victory Friday during the first round of the GHSA Class A public school state playoffs against Wilkinson County. "(During the time I was out), I worked hard, tried to motivate my team and prepare to come back. I sat down, thought about everything and made my mind up that I wanted to do right.
"I knew this day was coming. It just feels great to be back."
The whispers of Aiken's return started among fans in the stands shortly after the smoke began billowing from the Seminole Stadium grill. Then there was a brief moment of confusion when Aiken's usual No. 3 jersey was listed as another player in the program.
But when the team burst onto the field shortly before the 7:30 p.m. kickoff., there was no mistaking Aiken's 5-foot-11, 230-pound frame.
It was sorely missed.
"It was so good to see him out there again," Seminole quarterback Alex Fudge said of his fellow sophomore -- a duo that will terrorize Class A for two more years together. "We knew we were getting him back, and we couldn't wait. He just adds more, more, more ... "
Fudge trailed off, searching for the words ...
"Just power," Fudge finally spit out, before adding: "We can do anything with him."
Of course, for nearly four months, the Indians did everything without him.
They went 10-0. They won region. They dominated Class A.
But when Aiken showed back up at practice the day after the Indians (11-0) clinched the 1-A title two weeks ago -- marking the second perfect regular season in school history -- by beating Mitchell County, he was welcomed with open arms.
"We did. We really did," said Fudge, who ran the offense seamlessly again Friday, rushing for 35 yards and throwing for 38 more, while making perfect pitches over and over to his stable of running backs that includes Danny Rambo (65 yards), Javonte Smith (126 yards), Brendan Kimble (25 yards, 1 TD pass), Robert Speight (32 yards) -- and now Aiken. "I mean, he's part of the team. He's worked hard. And we're a team. We're family."
The Indians' family -- on paper, at least -- looked liked it would wipe the floor with the family from Wilkinson on Friday. But when the Warriors came out and scored first on Benedict Davis' 7-yard TD run -- a drive that was kept alive by a roughing-the-punter penalty on Seminole -- it was a wake up call for coach Alan Ingram's team.
"No, I didn't think was going to be easy. I knew from looking at them on tape that they were big and talented and their quarterback had a lot of speed," Ingram said of the Warriors, who came in at 4-6 on the season and barely snuck in the playoffs as the last overall seed in the 16-team field, while Seminole was No. 1. "I'm glad that's over with."
Seminole answered right back on its first drive to tie it up at 7-7 on a trick play when Fudge pitched to Kimble on a reverse and Kimble threw it to tight end Aaron Baskerville, who was wide open.
"We practice that play all the time," Baskerville said. "I'm just not usually that wide open."
The Indians had a chance to go to halftime ahead, but a controversial play prevented that.
On third-and-long with 11 seconds to go, Smith busted through the middle for 40 yards and appeared headed to the end zone. But the Wilkinson defense caught up just before the goal line and spun him out of bounds at the 3-yard line with two seconds left. The clock, however, never stopped, and as the Indians lined up to take one shot into the end zone or possibly attempt a Matt Williams field goal, the officials conferred and eventually waved their hands -- officially signaling halftime.
"We didn't get a lot of calls (Friday)," Ingram said. "And that was one of them."
Aiken, who was busy knocking the rust off in the first half and saw just seven touches for 38 yards, became the workhorse on Seminole's first drive of the second. He carried the ball eight times for 60 yards and capped off the march with a 2-yard bull rush into the end zone, carrying four Warriors with him.
It was a common theme Friday.
"He can be a beast," said Ingram, who added that his own players could barely bring down a determined Aiken at any time during practice this week. "There ain't no doubt about that."
Wilkinson, however, didn't go away.
Warriors QB Devin Dilson, who was harassed all night by the Seminoles' Jeffrey Akins, Kendrick Williams and Steve Boyd, got the better of the Indians with one monster play late in the third quarter, answering the touchdown with one of his own on third-and-a-mile. Wilkinson spread out the Seminole defense, but Dilson tucked the ball and darted up the middle to the house, almost untouched from 54 yards out.
And just like that, No. 16 and No. 1 were tied, 14-14.
But almost symbolically, Aiken took a backseat, sitting out for the entirety of the Seminoles' go-ahead drive, which was highlighted by five carries by Smith and three hard Rambo runs totaling 35 yards. It was capped by a 7-yard TD score on a sweep around the right end.
Williams nailed his third PAT, and Seminole had some breathing room again with seven minutes to go, 21-14.
Seminole's defense then forced a 3-and-out and punt deep in Warriors' territory with under five minutes left. Most in the crowd had the feeling that if the Indians could pick up one or two first downs, the game would be over.
So they turned to Aiken.
And he fumbled on his own 40.
"Don't blame him. Blame me," Ingram said of not checking to the outside run on that play, rather than the middle -- which he knew Wilkinson would be crashing. "I choked that there."
But the Warriors completed just one pass -- Dilson to Equavion Curtis for 20 yards -- and following two incompletions on first and second down from the Indians' 25, the game ended on back-to-back sacks by Akins and Williams.
"The defense was great. Those guys up front got after it," said Ingram, who added that Rambo did a "good job" shutting down Wilkinson County's star WR Antonio Whipple (6-5, 215). "(Wilkinson) was bigger than a lot of our guys, but we held our own."
So did Aiken, who looked like he never left Friday night.
Of course, this was the new and improved Thomas Aiken -- the Seminole County star running back who had to go away for a little while and find himself to truly understand what he'd lost.
"I was just trying to help my team in any way I could. Put points on the board, encourage them, whatever," Aiken said. "We're a dangerous team. And we're trying to take this thing all the way to the Dome."