Forgive first-year Brainerd High School football coach Brian Gwyn if he appeared just as winded as his team Friday night in the final moments against District 6-AA rival Howard.
Gwyn found himself holding his breath during the final two minutes as the Panthers outlasted a furious comeback by the visiting Hustlin' Tigers to post a 19-16 victory.
"I was thinking this is going to be pretty good," Gwyn said of the first varsity football victory of his coaching career. "Then, all the sudden, it became a nail-biter. Everything started going through my head, and I was saying, 'Here we go again.' I've got a few more gray hairs after that one."
After the Panthers controlled the first 45 minutes, Howard scored 16 points in a 52-second span, beginning with a safety with 2:38 left in the game. The Tigers struck again 12 seconds later when Terrance Brooks caught a 42-yard pass from Lorenzo McCauley.
Cudjoe Young cut the lead to nine points with a two-point conversion, and Howard kicker Ryheem Brummitt recovered his onside kick. Young then caught an 11-yard pass from McCauley to bring the Tigers (1-5, 0-2) within three points.
Brainerd (1-6, 1-2) recovered the second onside kick of the night, and the Panthers were able to run out the clock.
"I told the kids that I blamed myself for the onside kick because we didn't put an emphasis on the special teams, but our kids stepped up and really played defense tonight," said Gwyn, whose Panthers held the Tigers to 49 yards on the ground and controlled the air until the final two minutes.
"I am very proud of the way the team played tonight. This is a big rivalry game. This game means a lot to everyone at the school. We knew it was going to be a battle to the end, and it was special to get our first win in this game."
"We played well in the last two minutes, but we have to be a four-quarter team," said Howard coach Michael Calloway. "Brainerd played well for four quarters. We played two minutes, and that's not going to win us many ballgames."
Brainerd freshman Ladarius Word was 5-for-12 and 195 passing yards. He threw to Sam Caffey from 10 yards out for the only score of the first half.
The Panthers limited Howard to 12 plays in the first half and kept the ball away from the Tigers for much of the third quarter. Following Kaylen Stewart's 13-yard touchdown run, the Panthers executed a deep onside kick of their own.
Word gave Brainerd what looked to be a comfortable 19-0 margin with a 24-yard pass to Caffey.
Young and Tadarius Covington were defensive standouts for Howard, while Cordaro Cummings was a defensive leader for Brainerd.
"I'm speechless," Word said. "That was a huge win for us."