Longhorns Freddy Kalolo (77) and Westin Gibson (18), along with the crowd, react as the winning point is put on the scoreboard in the 3A state championship football game played Nov. 29 at the Walkup Skydome in Flagstaff. See additional photos on pages 2A, 1B and 2B.
The Payson Longhorns’ storybook season ended Saturday with a cliffhanger game, an impromptu parade and enough lessons in character and persistence to carry a community hungry for good news through the bleakest of times.
The Longhorns capped an undefeated season with a comeback tale all about enthusiasm, resiliency, adaptation and self-confrontation — administered before perhaps 4,000 fans that slumped toward despair in the first half and yelled themselves hoarse in the second half and through two thrilling overtime periods.
The PHS football players administered their delirious lesson in character-building at the climax of the team’s pulsating 34-33 state championship win over the heralded Blue Ridge Yellow Jackets.
“Heart. It was heart that drove us,” said quarterback Ridge Halenar, of the victory only the Longhorns believed possible at the end of the first half.
After that second overtime period, the deliriously happy Longhorns piled onto the team bus, since Coach Josh Anderson had the foresight to insist they all ride back to Payson together after the game.
“We all talked about how the game went and all the things that happened,” said Halenar.
Lineman Matt Wilson reveled in the moment. “It was the funest bus ride I’ve ever been on,” he said.
A long caravan of fans honking their car horns returned to Payson, each reliving the improbable succession of turning points in one of the best games in the Longhorns’ storied history.
Near Home Depot, a police escort, fire engine and a throng of well-wishers greeted the bus.
“It was the most amazing thing in my life to see all those people there waiting for us,” said Halenar. “It was something I will never forget.”
Wilson agreed with his teammate, “It was incredible, unbelievable.”
The escorts and fans joined in a long parade south on Beeline to Wilson Dome where a wild celebration drew hundreds of fans, supporters and boosters.
“To know that many people supported us all year long is so great,” Halenar said. “It was the perfect way to end our championship season.”
The unlikely comeback to complete a perfect season all began at halftime with self-confrontation, after the Longhorns dug themselves a three-touchdown hole that seemed to have doomed a great season to a sad end. Some discouraged fans, left at halftime — not wanting to see their beloved team pummeled for another two quarters.
“We were embarrassing ourselves, we were very disappointed,” Halenar said. “We knew we didn’t want to lose without leaving our heart on the field.”
Facing a 20-0 halftime deficit against a Blue Ridge foe brandishing a reputation as a gridiron juggernaut, lesser men might have thrown in the towel.
But not the determined Longhorns.
To a player, they returned from the halftime locker room with a newfound commitment to overcome a most daunting obstacle — starting with the jeers of the Blue Ridge fans.
“You’re toast, you’re done, no team comes back to beat Blue Ridge,” yelled a fan standing at the edge of Walkup Skydome railing as the curiously unfazed Payson team trotted past.
Obviously, someone forgot to warn the Longhorns the Jackets were invincible.
Playing with newfound fire and determination, Payson took over control of the game in the third quarter.
Each tackle of a Blue Ridge ball carrier was a rock ’em, sock ’em, bone-jarring hit that drew gasps from the crowd.
Payson defensive linemen Bryan Burke and Wilson, who had been struggling against double teams the entire first half, now fought through the blocking schemes with a vengeance.
Wilson got it all started by dragging down Blue Ridge running back Griffin Sturm for a two-yard loss on the first play of the second half. Sturm had 87 first-half rushing yards, but only 13 in the second half.
“We were done getting embarrassed,” Wilson said. “We changed our attitudes, we wanted the second half to be ours.”
On offense, Halenar ran keepers and roll outs with tenacity and resolve.
“It’s like he’s possessed,” said a backup official standing on the PHS sideline.
With the offensive line now plowing clear paths, tailback Brandon Alexander and fullback David Carlen burst through Jacket defenders for several gutsy runs that kept last-gasp drives alive.
Both simply refused to be denied.
On one run, Alexander found himself heading up against one of the Jackets’ most ferocious hitters. But Alexander didn’t juke or falter, he took on the tackler helmet to shoulder pad and picked up a few extra yards.
“He’s running tough, he’s a man,” said former PHS player Mark Velasco, a member of the 1986 PHS team that advanced to the state championship.
That was evident when sophomore running back Payson Herring fought with doctors, trainers and coaches to return to the game after being sidelined with a serious ankle injury. Watching trainer Ryan Howard work feverishly on him, it was obvious Herring would play one-legged if doctors would allow it.
The greatest lesson to all those watching the miraculous comeback, was that the Longhorns didn’t give up hope and gained strength from adversity.
With a game-winning kick, Payson had accomplished what most onlookers thought impossible – coming from behind against the mighty Jackets.