If you ask around, any sane individual would tell you that Football is America’s Favorite Pastime. It hasn’t always been that way, but somewhere between Mark McGuire’s scandal and Jerome Bettis’ farewell Super Bowl victory, we witnessed a rightful changing of the guard across our great country. Now, while most places in the country have been coming to their senses, one small Midwestern town has been religiously celebrating this fact every Friday each Fall for over half a Century. In Gladstone County, one rivalry is anything but just another game.
Two High Schools, separated by less than two football fields are the focal points of a football rivalry that would make the Woody and Bo legacy seem like a mere Saturday morning cartoon. South Caroline High School, a state powerhouse in multiple sports, boasts a long legacy of breeding professional talent and winning State Championships. St. Palladius High, on the other hand, is a Private School with less students, but no lack in heart or spirit. In 1961 due to an issue with the land, South Caroline would be forced to move from its original building, to just a block away from their neighbor to the North. The two schools would not play each other in any sports until 1966 when the two would agree on an exhibition game before the start of their respective seasons. Almost instantly, a neighborhood became divided.
Through the years, through countless violent collisions, blown calls and miraculous plays, one school held the lion’s share of victories. Although the St. Palladius Irishmen were on the losing end of a lot of games, they were always well fought, and usually would come down to a dramatic finish in the ending moments. One year in particular stands out over the rest.
November 15, 2013. Down 19 at the half, the Irishmen would go on to pull off one of the most unlikely victories in the storied history of the Backyard Rivalry, which would just go on to be known as “The Lucky 13”. The roster for the South Caroline Panthers would end up including 8 seniors who would sign National Letters of Intent with major colleges just months later, as well as 17 underclassmen who would go on to do the same in the three years to follow. None of which would matter. In a move inspired by a popular 90’s hockey movie, the Irishmen would take the field in the second half wearing an alternate uniform. Known at the time for their Navy Blue jerseys and gold helmets, St. Palladius High would take the field in a set of Kelly green jerseys that had not been worn in over 20 years. Legend has it that Head Coach James Michaels went on a rampage in the locker room at the half, which included a wide and colorful array of words, but the most important being “You are not fit to wear the blue and gold. You are embarrassing your families. Take it off right now!”
A move that first seemed like a cheap gimmick, would begin to unfold at the end of the third quarter. After an opening drive field goal by the Panther’s and a three and out response, everything changed with a deflection that would lead to 6 points. The interception returned for a touchdown seemed to breathe new life into the Irishmen sideline, although they were still down by 15, the boys in green seemed to be playing with extra urgency. In the final 5 minutes of the game, South Caroline seemed to in command with the ball and a 9-point lead. Marching down the field, the time on the clock seemed to all but evaporate. After a 23-yard run that would put the Panthers across the 50 with a little over two minutes to go, everything seemed to come to a screeching halt. It were as if the next 7 plays would be frozen in time forever.
The next three plays by the Panthers would of course be runs; gaining 3 yards, 1 yard and 2 yards respectively. It was fourth down, and a very long four yards, the punt team enters the game and the Irishmen line up in an obvious punt block look. Everyone was up close to the line of scrimmage, forcing the Panther gunners to come inside to ensure that all of the men could be blocked. The ball is snapped, and the only thing on the agenda for South Caroline High School to ensure victory was “Don’t let this punt get blocked”. The punter, all-state senior Ryan McGhee catches it cleanly and knocks a high pop fly towards the opposing sideline. Game over. You could hear one sideline roar, while the other felt air seep out of their lungs into the cold November air. To many, this was the end, but what the 7,000+ people in attendance hadn’t realized was that Coach Michaels slipped a return man into the game and hid him near the sideline. No one even paid attention to see Tony Johnson catch the punt on the numbers of his sideline and take off across the field, as if he were trying to get out of bounds on the opposite sideline. One big block allowed him to get around the corner, another block helped keep him from scampering out of bounds. Three full steps later, jersey #7 would be fully protected by a wall of green sprinting down the opponent’s sideline, each stride seeming to cover 5 yards at a time. Touchdown. The screams that were once celebrating a sure victory turned into an agonizing cry.
After a successful extra point, and a very brief pause for an injury, both teams lined up for the kickoff. Still down by two, the Irishmen lined up for an onside kick with just 26 seconds left. All of the momentum had shifted, and even though the Panthers were still in command with a cushion to fall back on, things just did not feel right for the team in white and red. The ball is kicked short and on the ground, both teams make a dash to recover and a pile appears. Irishmen ball. This was probably the worst thing that could have happened; the dog pile would lead to a lot of pushing and shoving, then.. a punch and another swing. Attitudes were flaring and it was apparent that the atmosphere had caused a must-win situation for both teams. The aftermath of the scuffle led to three ejections; two from South Caroline, including a starting cornerback and strong safety, as well as a linebacker from St. Palladius. Everybody would soon know the implications of their reactions.
There were still over 20 seconds on the clock when the offense would take the field, and they still needed at least a field goal to win. Even with the short field, this seemed unlikely with the star-studded defense that had been having an impressive night. Remember, two Irishmen touchdowns had come off of a deflection interception and a returned punt. The defense did not lack any confidence as they took the field, even without two of their stand out defensive backs. The seventh play to this miraculous comeback was one out of a Disney movie. The Irishman QB lines up under center, there are two wide receivers to the left and a tight end on the line of scrimmage to the right. The backfield is in I-formation with the fullback offset to the left. The ball is snapped, but instead of hitting the quarterback in the hands, it goes between his legs and directly to the tailback in the backfield. The Quarterback and Fullback both dive on the ground, in a frantic scramble for the football. The entire defense runs up, this game could have been over, but, this was in fact a designed play. The QB had moved his hands up higher than normal and the center intentionally snapped the ball low to the running back, who hid the ball from the defense for a split second. The running back then rolled to the left causing all of the remaining defensive backs to scramble to defend the two receivers to that side. After a long roll out, the running back sets his feet and throws the ball clear back across the field to a wide open target! The tight end, who had pretended to block for a second, snuck out and was down the sideline by himself. The linebacker who would have been covering him was on the ground looking for a football that wasn’t where he needed it to be. The ball hung, and hung, and hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity. But still, the closest man was on the opposite hash when the ball was thrown, the backup strong safety just wasn’t fast enough to get there. The ball just missed his outstretched hand by a couple of feet and landed safely into the arms of the tight end in full stride. History was made with the most remarkable play either fanbase had ever seen. The Panthers would get the ball back with 11 seconds to play, but the momentum clearly faded and fate was no longer on their side as they threw 3 incomplete passes in a row. Game over.
The play would end up being broadcasted across the entire state and over several national news sites as one of the greatest plays of the year. The underdog had won. Now here is the real kicker.. two months later, the victory was forfeited and South Caroline HS was awarded an apology by the OHSAC committee which governs the league. The onside kick had not traveled 10 yards and the recovery should not have counted. Til this day, both teams credit themselves for the victory.