December 25, 1996
Forest City, North Carolina
1996 RCFL Championship
Rutherfordton Yellowjackets at Forest City Hornets
The ninety-five thousand faithful of the Hornet Nation were standing in stunned silence as Richard Ambrose stepped up and kicked the extra point, giving the Jackets a 60-55 lead with just eleven seconds to go in the championship game. The cold Christmas night got colder as the fans went from excited jubiliation to aching heartbreak after Jerome Allen ran ninety yards on a brilliantly executed draw play from the Jacket ten yard line, and managed to get key blocks from receivers Jamal Pettibone and Darnell Atkins downfield to spring him free.
Hornet head coach Michael “Sonny” Dale spoke to his special teams coach Brad Farnsworth, “Whatever you do, let’s give John as much time as we can and as good of a field position as we can.” Brad nodded and told his kickoff return team to dive on the squib kick that was sure in coming as soon as possible and to not burn precious seconds off the clock.
Much to everyone’s surprise, Ambrose kicked the ball high, allowing backup linebacker Brian Koslowski to call a fair catch and snag the kickoff at the Hornet thirty yard line. John T. Hill, the Hornets legendary quarterback, walked onto the field knowing what offensive coordinator John Danielson wanted to do: get a completion to the sidelines to stop the clock to give them one shot at the end zone. Two plays would all they would have time for. Three would be too risky.
Danielson was the former backup quarterback for the Forest City Hornets behind Hill, and the two had worked in tandem for over a dozen years now after Danielson had been traded because of heightened acrimony as a result of the blowout in the 1982 RCFL Championship game, where the Danielson-led Hollis Aeros were crushed by the Hill-led Hornets 91-0. Despite their defense completely collapsing and injuries affecting the offensive line, the media and the fans placed the entire blame for the blowout squarely on Danielson’s shoulders. He played for one more year under such brutal conditions, then the Aeros front office mercifully traded him away for two low-round draft picks.
For Danielson, every championship game was personal, and a chance to show his former team what he could do. They had lost two years previously because Shawn Waters had made a brilliant and unexpected play to intercept a Hill pass that would have went for the game winning touchdown had Waters not went with his instincts and appear neither Hill nor Danielson had expected him.
Danielson, though, wanted to keep Waters away from making a play, so on the first play of the last drive of the game, he set wide receivers Travis Maxwell and Joey Jones to the weak side, where Waters lurked as weak side safety. Patrick Patterson, the strong side safety, was just a rookie, filling in for injured veteran Michael Haley, and, combined with rookie right corner Samuel Rose, the stage was set for the Hornets to attack.
They came out in shotgun formation, with Hill at quarterback and Chad Revels at running back. As Danielson expected, Patterson crept up to keep an eye on Revels, whose speed and pass catching ability on screen passes had given opposing defenses fits the entire season. Earleir in the year, Revels had burned the Jackets in their home dome, the Rutherford Centre, for an eighty yard score on a simple bubble screen.
This time, though, the ball wouldn’t be going to Revels, but you couldn’t tell from the way Revels ran his pattern. Hill took the snap and drifted to his left, the internal clock in his head ticking away. Then, he saw Patterson come up to try and make a play on Revels. It gave him just enough room to his his long-time favorite target, Greg Sumner, with a bullet pass over the middle. The Aussie expat caught it and raced for the sidelines, hoping that Waters would be blocked by Maxwell and Jones so he could spring free.
But Waters made a brilliant move to avoid the block and Sumner dived out of bounds at the Hornet forty-five yard line, setting the stage for one last play. One second was left on the clock, and the entire crowd was on their feet in nervous anticipation as to what was coming next. Danielson didn’t need to signal Hill, because the seventeen year veteran knew what needed to be called.
The Jackets went into a dime formation with six defensive backs, knowing what was coming. It was what called the Quantas play, nicknamed for Greg Sumner and his ability to leap high into the air for passes with reckless abandon. More than just a Hail Mary or an Alley Oop play, this play had proven deadly to Hornet opponents for so many years simply because of Hill’s accurate arm and Sumner’s willingness to risk life and limb to make a leaping catch.
Every member of Hornet Nation remembers what happened next, and where they were when it happened. It was 10:03pm Eastern when the final snap of the game came. Overcast skies and a slight chilly breeze came into the stadium as center Pete Damachek snapped the ball to Hill and dropped with his four brothers on the offensive line into long pass block scheme.
Revels had been split out right, inside of Sumner, and Maxwell and Jones were split out to the left. Mike Snow, the tight end, stood up on the right side as well. Only a three man rush was coming, so Snow’s superb blocking skills would not be needed. He was part of the third option: catching the ball around the twenty, then tossing it to Jones on a hook and ladder in a desperate attempt to get into the end zone. It was a new wrinkle that Danielson and Hill had thought up one night during film study preparing for the game against the Ruth Wildcats, and had worked brilliantly during a critical moment of that game to give the Hornets a much needed win on their way to home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Maxwell was the second option, running a “go route”. He would sprint down the left side of the field as fast as he could, turning at the goal line in case Hill had to throw to him. Revels was also running a go route as well, and he was the fourth option, but he was mainly there as a diversion. Danielson wanted Revels to draw enough attention to him that Sumner would be able to get single coverage against someone who he would be able to outleap. Sumner would run a “go-post” route, which would be a go route that broke off into a post route around the fifteen yard line.
Hill took the snap and drifted back, keeping one eye on Sumner and Revels and another on Snow. He briefly glanced to his left and saw that Maxwell was double teamed, which surprised him. Jones was running his slant route and Hill saw that if Sumner was covered, this option would be what he had left as his last resort.
But Sumner had managed to draw single coverage, as dime back Marvin Wallace had snuck up to cover Snow, leaving Waters as the only man between Sumner and the goal line. Revels had done his job brilliantly, sprinting downfield and forcing the two defensive backs on this side to decide between double teaming him or Sumner. As Sumner had a distinct advantage in leaping ability over Waters, the situation played out perfectly for the Hornets.
Hill stepped up and threw the ball, feeling no pressure from the rushing linemen thanks to the excellent blocking of the offensive line. The pass came out of Hill’s hands in a tight spiral, high but straight. Sumner turned around at the three as he ran for the goal line and jumped high into the air, letting momentum carry him past the goal line. Waters vainly tried to get his hand up to break up the pass, but the six foot four Sumner easily beat out the six foot one safety.
The ball sailed into the hands of a leaping Sumner and he grabbed onto it like a vice, landing down on both feet for the winning score. Waters had bumped him on the way up, but not nearly hard enough to dislodge the ball, as Waters had tried to deflect the ball instead of going for the tackle and perhaps dislodging it before the pass could be officially be completed.
The black and lime green fans erupted into joyous cheers as their team had once again defeated a rival in the championship game on home soil. The Hornets offensive line grabbed Hill and placed him on their shoulders, and Hill was helpless to stop them, being as caught up in the moment as they were. Sumner was in the end zone celebrating with Revels, Jones, Snow and Maxwell, slapping the hands of fans who leaned down to touch their heroes.
On the other sidelines, the Jackets looked on in stunned silence. Several players had fallen to the ground, lying prostrate as tears ran from their eyes. They had thought they had had it, only for the usual suspects to snatch it away from them. Hill and Sumner had been a combination for a dozen years now, and they had made so many big plays that they were almost unstoppable.
Celebrations inside and outside the stadium went deep into the Christmas night. Reporters battled for the attention of the team’s stars in the locker room, dodging champagne spray while trying to get quotes for tomorrow’s editions. But in the shower, hidden away from the celebration, Hill took a shower, relieved that it was over. He quickly dressed in the championship t-shirt that one of the front office folks had pressed into his hands as he entered the locker room and some jeans that his wife had bought him when he returned to the Hornets for the start of the 1994 season.
Sumner came up to him to hug him and he said in his Melbourne accent, “So is this it, then?”
“Yeah, this is it.” Hill said, and Sumner knew what that meant.
The next day, Hill accepted the game’s Most Valuable Player award and stunned the assembled crowd by announcing his retirement. No tears were in his eyes as he said goodbye, just the feeling of the job finally complete. His were the only dry eyes in the room, though, as his teammates, coaches, and Hornet front office personnel as well as league officials and members of the press couldn’t help but get emotional in that moment. Sumner announced later that afternoon that he too was retiring, and the greatest passing combination in the history of the Rutherford County Football League rode off into the sunset, leaving a plethora of memories for fans to remember them by.