It had been a back-and-forth game.
With 2:52 left in the game, Athens running back Trae Williams scored from two yards out to put the Bulldogs ahead 52-49.
Toledo Central Catholic still had time, though.
On the ensuing drive, the Fighting Irish converted three fourth downs. On fourth-and-8, quarterback Marcus Winters completed an 11-yard pass to Jermiah Braswell along the sideline, with Braswell tapping his toes to stay inbounds. Then on a fourth-and-5, Winters completed a slant to Darion Greer, who was able to gain 36 yards and put Central Catholic in the red zone.
With 15 seconds left in the Division III state championship game, Winters made the final of the three conversions: an eight-yard touchdown run to put Central Catholic up 56-52.
The Bulldogs put their title hopes in the hands of “Mr. Football,” quarterback Joe Burrow. Fifteen seconds might be enough for the best football player in the state of Ohio.
Burrow’s final pass was a crossing route followed by laterals in an attempt to find some space for a miraculous score. The third lateral ended in a tackle, the clock already having run out.
The best football team in the history of Athens High School fell short of a state title. The legacy of the 2014 team lives on. A legacy of winning. A legacy that has changed the expectations of the program.
* * *
On a warm late September day, Athens head coach Ryan Adams exhaled loudly. He bent over and swatted at a bee, one of many that had seemed to swarm the corner of the track at R. Basil Rutter Field.
He was thinking.
He doesn’t really want to talk about what happened. It’s three years later; that’s understandable.
Adams, like many football coaches, is full of gamesmanship, keeping his thoughts and his plans close to the chest. Ask him about his players, current or former, and he’ll talk endlessly. Adams will sing the praises of his team, but he’s not afraid to be real about things.
His seniors now were freshmen then. Some were on the sideline in Ohio Stadium that night.
Everyone around the Bulldog program wants to get back there. It was exciting, nerve-wracking —
pretty much any adjective you could think of to describe the biggest moment of a high school athlete’s career.
“It was ridiculous; it was crazy,” said Sam Vanderven, a wide receiver on the 2014 team who is now an undergraduate assistant for Ohio. “It was a crazy experience.”
It could be pretty hard to get back to that moment, though.
Six future Division I college players were on that team: Burrow, now at Ohio State; Williams, now at Northwestern; Andrew Vu and Ryan and Adam Luehrman, all at Ohio; and Zacciah Saltzman, now at Georgetown.
“We’ve got a lot of really good football players on our team,” Adams said. “But at some point, it’s a bit unrealistic to think you’re going to have another team like that. We had Mr. Football in Athens, Ohio. When does that happen?”
When talking about the 2014 Bulldogs, the conversation starts a few years before.
A tornado ripped through Athens County in 2010. It destroyed part of Rutter Field, the home of the Bulldogs. The range hood for the concession stand was found about 300 yards away; the four steel girders that held up the scoreboard had crumbled.
With the need for repairs to his facility, Adams knew football wasn’t going to be his priority.
He had formed Bulldog Blitz in 2008, an additional booster group recognized by the school. Adams tried to use the group to pay for a turf field the year before, but couldn’t persuade enough big-money donors to secure enough funding.
Through Bulldog Blitz, Adams focused on fundraising that next year. He turned much of the football operations to his assistant coaches. In some ways, that made his staff stronger. It also made Adams a stronger coach.
Adams raised the money, rebuilt, renovated and added to the Bulldogs’ football facility. Then he came back with a new level of intensity. He knew something special was on the horizon.
A class of kids were coming up that had been playing together since elementary school. It ended up being the class of seniors that led the Bulldogs all the way to the brink of a state championship.
Except one of those senior leaders hadn’t been there since elementary school. Williams moved to Athens as a sophomore. He fit right in, though.
“It just felt that, after a few days of practice, he was with us our whole lives,” Ryan Luehrman said.
While Adams and his coaching staff knew they had special players coming up, no one could have predicted that the Bulldogs would have reached the level they did.
In the first three years of the class of 2014’s high school career, the furthest the Bulldogs went was the regional finals.
Before the 2014 season, Williams gathered his teammates together and asked what their goal was. They answered by telling him they wanted to win the region.
He had one reply for them.
“Why not state?” he asked
The charismatic Williams, who stepped into a leadership role within the team almost right away, was always the voice of encouragement for the Bulldogs. His teammates had a simple answer for his question.
“Why not? Let’s do it.”
The coaching staff already knew something special was possible. Now, the players had set a goal for themselves and knew they could reach it.
It didn’t become real for everyone until Oct. 3, when Athens played at Steubenville. Steubenville was a good team, a state semifinalist team. Its stadium is nicknamed “Death Valley” because a cemetery is behind it.
The Bulldogs went into “Death Valley” and won by 16. They should have won by more.
“We did everything we could to lose that one,” said John Rogers, who was an assistant coach for the Bulldogs and is now Athens' athletic director.
The Bulldogs had three fumbles near the end zone; they should have probably scored three more times.
Winning that game convinced the Bulldogs that maybe Williams was right in saying they could go to state.
“It kind of showed Ohio that we were legit,” Ryan Luehrman said. “We’re the real deal. We’re not messing around.”
Most games the Bulldogs played weren’t even close. The Steubenville game was the closest, and they still won by two scores; Steubenville would have had to score two touchdowns and convert on two-point conversions both times to tie the game.
They won a game 82-7. There was talent all around the team, with probably the most talented being Joe Burrow.
Burrow scored 69 touchdowns in 2014: 63 passing, five rushing and one receiving. People came from all over Southeastern Ohio to see Burrow play.
“People came from all over just to see this kid sling a football,” said David West, an Athens fan who helps run the kettle corn stand on game days. “He was putting up video game numbers.”
Along with the talent the Bulldogs had, the role players they had opened up the field for the stars. Players like Vanderven, Bryce Graves, Dylan Cochrane and Dakotah Mcfee didn’t get Division I scholarships, but they were just as essential to the team as players such as Burrow and Williams.
“They were as important in the scheme where we’re going to rely on your toughness and mental fortitude to make us successful,” Rogers said. “They stepped up to it.”
After Steubenville, the Bulldogs cruised all the way to the state semifinal game. They were matched up against Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary, the two-time defending state champions.
Coming off three blowout wins up to that point in the state playoffs, the Bulldogs once again bought into the confidence Williams had instilled before the season.
“We had the mercy rule the first three games in the playoffs and then go against a two-time defending state champion,” Vanderven said. “At that point we were like ‘why not?’”
But when they beat the giant that was St. Vincent-St. Mary 34-31, the reaction was what one could expect: complete shock.
“The way that game ended, I couldn’t,” Vanderven said. “I collapsed.”
After that, there was one game left: the state championship, against Toledo Central Catholic, a chance to play for the school's first state championship since the football team won three straight from 1952-1954.
* * *
The 2014 OHSAA State Championship game was the first held in Ohio Stadium, home of the Ohio State Buckeyes, in 25 years. And the Division III game, the one between Athens and Toledo Central Catholic, was a spectacular return to the state’s biggest stadium.
Before the game, players were walking around, taking pictures of the field and the “Block O” at midfield, soaking it all in.
Players from both teams, who walked past each other knowing in a few hours they would compete for a state championship, had respect for one another. Little did they know, they would play an exciting, back-and-forth game that people are still talking about three years later.
“It’s one I’ve relived in my head a few times,” Toledo Central Catholic coach Greg Dempsey said.
Burrow was stellar in the game. He threw for 446 yards and six touchdowns, all with a never-ending pass rush coming at him.
“We blitzed the hell out of him that night,” Dempsey said. “He didn’t care.”
The game featured 12 lead changes, with neither team ever having more than a touchdown lead. Toledo Central Catholic rushed for 501 yards — a yard shy of the all-divisions state championship record. Burrow’s six touchdowns set a record for state title games.
2014 was a record-setting year for Athens; the offense set the state record for scoring in a season. It took until the final two games to play one that was close, but those games tested the Bulldogs. It seasoned the returning players and gave the coaching staff experience.
From the time the class of 2014 were sophomores until they were seniors, the Bulldogs played 41 games. That's eleven extra games — one game more than a full season — of playing and coaching in high-pressure situations. Even in games the Bulldogs played that were blowouts, the coaching staff grew. It could experiment with different schemes and strategies to use in those high-pressure situations.
“We could use that group as guinea pigs to see what works and what doesn’t, knowing that most likely we could score any play we wanted,” Rogers said.
But through all the games and all the blowouts, what did the storybook run that Athens had do for the program now, three years later?
The Bulldogs haven’t returned to the state playoffs. They have improved by a win each season, going 6-4, 7-3 and 8-2.
Expectations are still high, even with the six D1 players having left. Adams and his players expect to win.
When they win a game comfortably but don’t play as well as they probably should have, a little disappointment can be felt around the program. The Bulldogs won a game this season 28-14 and were in control for most of the game. Two second-half touchdowns made the game closer than it really was.
“We would have begged for that game in ‘07. And ‘08. And ‘09. And probably 2010,” Adams said. “We would have begged for that win. So, you know it does skew your thinking to a certain extent."
With no matter what happened, and what will happen, the question remains: Can what happened in 2014 happen again in Athens?
There is a consensus that it could, if the right group of players come together, as they did in 2014.
Those players had been playing together for more than 10 years. Not just the star players, but the role players too. They had chemistry; they knew each other and the way they played like the back of their hand.
“There’s always a chance that you’ll have something crazy, some stars-align moment where everything kind of falls together,” Rogers said.
People believe Adams and his coaching staff will be the group to lead another magical run. In typical Adams fashion, however, there has to be some realistic expectations.
“When has that ever happened prior? When will that happen again?”