Wingate University, where I teach, isn’t a “football factory” by any means. Our school, which plays in NCAA Division II, has two alumni currently playing in the NFL, a few less than say, Alabama or Texas.
And, as I’ve always liked to say, at our place the athletes are more likely to miss a practice to make up a biology lab than vice versa.
But the football team has created a lot of excitement in the last several weeks in Wingate’s 25th anniversary season by winning its first conference championship with an 8-2 regular season and making its first appearance in the Division II playoffs.
I covered the Bulldogs’ first-round playoff game Saturday afternoon against Morehouse College of Atlanta, in front of an enthusiastic crowd of nearly 4,000 fans at Irwin Belk Stadium. (You can click the links to see my stories in the Charlotte Observer and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.) And the game represented everything I like about Divsion II sports, which I write about frequently in this blog.
Wingate’s opponent, nicknamed the Maroon Tigers, were also playing their first-ever post-season football game. And if you’ve heard of Morehouse, it’s probably because of the school’s elite status among historically black colleges and universities. You probably couldn’t name anyone who’s ever played sports there, unless you’re a track aficionado and know that’s where former Olympic sprinter Edwin Moses went to college. But notable alumni include Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., film director Spike Lee and actor Samuel L. Jackson
You can read my accounts for the details of the game, which Wingate won by the basketball-like score of 63-41. It was a spectator’s delight, with the teams combining for nearly 1,100 yards in total offense, and exchanging the lead several times before the Bulldogs went ahead for good early in the second half. Junior quarterback Cody Haffly had a record-setting day, completing 30-of-50 passes for 477 yards and a school-record seven touchdowns.
But he played a different role in the game’s most unusual play.
The Bulldogs trailed 17-14 early in the second quarter when Haffly took the snap from center and handed off to wide receiver Perry Floyd who put the ball in the hands of wide receiver Philip Thomas on an apparent double reverse. Thomas, a graduate student completing his final year of football eligibility, lofted a perfect spiral that Haffly, loping down the sideline, caught in stride and took for a 40-yard gain to the Morehouse 35.
“I’ve always thought that if I weren’t a quarterback, I’d have liked to have been a wide receiver,” Haffly, a soft-spoken Georgia native, said after the game. “But the Lord didn’t bless me with a lot of speed. It was fun to catch one for a change.”
In a game in which more than 100 points were scored, it’s hard to pinpoint even a couple of plays as game-changers, but this one did seem to energize the Bulldogs. With the ball back in his hands in his usual position, Haffly completed four straight passes, finishing the drive with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Floyd. That gave Wingate a 21-17 lead, completing a comeback from a 17-7 deficit which the Bulldogs had created for themselves with three first-quarter turnovers.
I thought Wingate coach Joe Reich’s take on that stumbling start was interesting.
“We talked with them this week about the significance of the first conference championship and the first playoff game, and looking back, that was probably a mistake,” Reich said. “We came out a little tight. But when you get punched in the mouth like we did, it wakes up the competitor in you.”
So Wingate’s longest football season goes on for at least one more week, as the Bulldogs travel to play the region’s top-seeded team, undefeated Albany State next Saturday, the team’s third visit to Georgia of 2010 after having never played a game in the state in the previous 24 seasons.
It’s heady stuff, and more than a little vindication, for players like Wingate’s Floyd, a 5-foot-8, 168-pound dynamo from nearby Gastonia who described in the post-game press conference how many schools felt he was too small to play for them. (Every Division II player is “too something” — the old saying goes — short or slow, usually.)
“We’re 1-0 every day this week until Saturday,” he said, repeating this team’s version of the “one game at a time” mantra. “That’s how we’re looking at it.”