By Jason Maholy
With Chicago Christian down by seven points, less than a minute to go and its season on the line, head coach Nick Cook knew there was only possible choice to make if his offense scored.
The Knights were going for the win.
But they needed a touchdown first, and were down to their final play, facing a 4th-and-1 from the 7-yard line.
Jonathan Griffin wasn’t going to be denied. The dynamic senior playmaker scored with 10 seconds left, then followed that by running in the 2-point conversion to complete what appeared to be an improbable comeback and beat Fenton in the regular season finale.
The victory gave Christian six wins, clinching a berth in the IHSA Class 2A playoffs and touching off a celebration the likes of which probably hadn’t been seen on the Knights football field in at least a decade. The trip to the postseason is the program’s first since 2008.
Christian will face Collins at 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 27 at Lane Stadium in Chicago.
“It’s cool stuff,” Cook said after the game as players, coaches, students and players’ families celebrated.
Christian overcame a 15-point deficit by scoring two touchdowns and converting two 2-point tries in the final 3 minutes. The Knights faithful stormed the field after the final horn, with several players and their parents crying tears of joy in the wake of the school of 382 students returning the postseason.
Senior running back Desmond Rodgers, his helmet in his right hand and arms extended like wings, ran an arc-shaped route across the field when the clock reached zeros. The diminutive Rogers, generously listed at 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, was huge for the Knights, rushing for 129 yards and a touchdown that helped bring them to within seven.
“It’s all about us just sticking together,” Rodgers said of Christian winning and making the playoffs. “This is a really emotional moment for me, because no one really thought we were going to do this, but we’re here. We just stayed together – our brotherhood kept us together.”
The good vibes were in stark contrast to the sense of foreboding that had settled over the stadium after Fenton scored on three consecutive possessions to take a 33-18 lead midway through the fourth quarter.
A 5-yard touchdown pass from Jonathan Griffin to Zach Edgar had given the Knights an 18-14 lead with 5:30 to go in the third, but Fenton responded with touchdowns on its next three possessions. Christian was beset by defensive lapses, a stalled offense and frustration that manifested itself in the form of personal fouls.
Cook had to at one point pull Griffin from the game because the youth was distracted by some Bison trash talking, rendering him ineffective on defense. Fenton scored on the next play to go up 33-18, and the Knights were penalized 15 yards for a personal foul on the ensuing kickoff and started a do-or-die drive from its own 20-yard line with 6:30 on the clock.
Christian built some momentum as they made their way 80 yards in 11 plays. Rodgers capped the drive with a 3-yard run with 3:09 to go, and senior quarterback Jeffrey Smith’s run to the right and slide into the pylon for the 2-point conversion made it a seven-point game.
“I was scared, my heart was coming out of my chest,” Rodgers said of the intensity during the season-saving pair of drives. “But my teammates had faith in me and I had faith in them, and we were like, let’s just get this done.”
The drama increased when Griffin then recovered an onside kick to regain possession for the Knights.
The dark clouds that had crept in during the first 75 percent of the second half cleared significantly at that point as a ray of greater hope shone through on the Knights. Griffin said he felt the energy in the stadium begin to change on Christian’s previous scoring drive.
“We were getting frustrated, we didn’t have our composure, it was just negative energy,” Griffin said. “But we stepped up, we changed our attitude, and we just won a game.”
Griffin – who played running back, wide receiver and quarterback in the contest – brought the Knights to within six with a 7-yard run on 4th-and-the-season. He then ran up the middle into the end zone on the 2-point conversion to give Christian a one-point lead.
Cook and Griffin spoke on the sideline prior to the drive that brought the Knights to within 6. The coach reminded the player that his teammates were going to follow him wherever he went and whatever he did.
“Jon is our leader,” Cook said. “He and I just had a quick, corrective conversation, and it’s like, ‘Hey, man, these guys follow you – you keep your poise these guys will keep their poise, and we can do something.’ And he responded to that, and that’s how Jon is.
“He’s a competitor, that’s all that was. He’s a competitor, he was frustrated – and he reined that back in.”
Cook said the Knights lost sight of their identity when things started going sideways. Part of that identity, he reminded them, was that they were built for big moments. They executed perfectly in the biggest moment of their young football lives.
“It was cool to see them do it in a football moment that counts,” Cook said.