Amid the hysteria and the excitement, the tears and the cheers, Jason Fitzgerald released his emotions.
The first-year Hixson High School football coach giddily ran to meet his players, his smile as pure as his Wildcats' effort, his glow as true as his team's dazzling 36-35 come-from-behind win over rival Red Bank on Friday.
The moment that was an entire offseason for Fitzgerald -- and almost a decade for the program that had not topped the Lions since 2004 -- was one many thought would never arrive.
Fitzgerald never doubted it -- "We had to get over the hurdle, and little brother had taken all we were going to take from big brother," he said -- and he'll never forget it.
"This is as special as any win I've ever been a part of," the former Rhea County coach said after his team rallied from a 35-15 fourth-quarter hole. "It's because of these kids and what they have put into this."
Life is about moments, and high school football is no different. And Friday night at Tom Weathers Field -- at Red Bank's homecoming no less -- the Hixson heroes were everywhere.
There was junior Isaiah Robinson, the swift-footed running back who scored a touchdown to pull Hixson within a point with 2:02 left and re-energized the Wildcats with a 71-yard punt return to start their 21 unanswered points to end the game.
"The punt return was the biggest play of the game," Fitzgerald said. "That really jumpstarted the whole thing."
There was Allante Novene, the Wildcats' senior receiver. Working in the slot and collecting swing pass after swing pass from quarterback Gil Brown, Novene caught eight passes for 80 yards and turned two laterals into 101 yards rushing, including a jaw-dropping touchdown that cut the Red Bank lead to 35-28.
"This makes all the work and running and everything this summer worth it," Novene said.
There was Brown, who ran for a score and threw for 118 yards. There was Kedrick Bradley, who had a 14-yard TD run and three tackles for loss on defense. There was Allen Diaz, who picked off a Red Bank pass deep in Hixson territory in the fourth quarter and hauled in the game-winning two-point conversion pass from Brown on a play that is officially known as "Rhino Kick Pass" but will be remembered as the difference Friday.
And there was Fitzgerald, who arrived at Red Bank with every intention of playing the full 48 minutes and determined to leave no option of success unexplored. The Cats tried an onside kick to open the game and another later. They went for it on fourth down four times and won the game on the two-point try.
"They deserved to win. They were mentally tougher and played with more effort," Red Bank coach E.K. Slaughter said. "They didn't let the previous play affect the next play."
Red Bank scored first -- quarterback Hagen Wilkey's 12-yard run was the first of two scores for the senior -- and built a 21-8 halftime edge with two TDs from Darrius Akridge.
When Wilkey connected with highlight-making receiver Chris Tucker for a 12-yard score on fourth-and-goal from the 12, the Lions' failed point-after try extended the lead to 35-15.
And set the stage for Hixson's magic. And a lifetime of memories -- good and bad.
"These kids deserve this moment," Fitzgerald said of his team.
At the other end of the field and at the other end of the emotional world, Slaughter tried to console the Lions.
"The sun will come up tomorrow," he told the collection of stunned and sweat-soaked faces.
He's right of course: The sun will come up it. It'll be just a little brighter north up Hixson Pike.
Jay was named the Sports Editor of the Times Free Press in 2003 and started with the newspaper in May 2002 as the Deputy Sports Editor. He was born and raised in Smyrna, Ga., and graduated from Auburn University before starting his newspaper career in 1997 with the Newnan (Ga.) Times Herald. Stops in Clayton and Henry counties in Georgia and two years as the Sports Editor of the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal preceded Jay’s ...