MIAMI — Big John Brown, soaked in sweat and wondering where the next burst of energy was going to come from, sucked in all the air he could and got down in his stance, knowing he needed to burrow low and beat a double team if he was going to somehow make a play that the Lakeland Dreadnaughts so desperately needed. The ball was on the one and a place in history was on the line.
Riding on this one play were Lakeland’s streaks of 44 straight wins, two straight state championships and a shot at a repeat mythical national high school championship. Brown knew exactly what was at stake but he also knew that St. Thomas Aquinas had put up 35 points in the fourth quarter to turn a typical, routine Lakeland blowout into the fight of the Dreadnaughts’ young lives.
It was 35-14 with 4:21 remaining thanks to a 55-yard touchdown run by Chris Rainey, the game’s most valuable player but for reasons Brown nor any other Lakeland defenders knew after the game, the defense and special teams collapsed, allowing Aquinas to pull off the miracle finish and send the game into overtime. Tied at 42-42 after the first overtime, Lakeland kicked a field goal for the 45-42 lead on its possession in the second extra period. Aquinas nearly scored on its third down but Steve Wilks made a game-saving tackle at the one.
“We had to have a play from someone,” said the 6-1, 300-pound Brown as he accepted congratulations from Lakeland fans and friends after the game. “I don’t know what happened to our defense. Stuff like that never happened before. It was like we weren’t there but Wilks made a great play to save the game on third down and we had to have someone step up on fourth down. I knew I needed to do something if they came my way.”
To Brown’s surprise, Aquinas tried the right side of its offensive line, which meant going straight at Brown. Brown used a power move to split the expected double team and made the initial hit on Jeremia Harden in the backfield. Harden tried to spin away but Lakeland’s Brian Valdez threw his arms around the Aquinas tailback and pulled him to the ground six inches away from a touchdown that would have given Aquinas one of the great upsets in the history of Florida’s state championship games.
“I was a little bit shocked that they came my way,” said Brown, who is rated five stars and the number four defensive tackle in the nation by Scout.com. “I just got under everybody and met their running back. Brian Valdez finished him off and you’d have to say that’s the greatest play of the game because it saved everything we’ve worked for this year.”
After it was over, after the Dreadnaughts had secured their place in history with their 45th straight win and third straight state championship, Brown felt like he had been on the Slim Fast Plan for a couple of years. It wasn’t from the exhaustion of a double overtime win that made him feel so light, it was from the weight of extraordinary expectations finally lifted.
None of the Dreadnaughts’ seniors have talked about the pressure all season but it has been mounting every game. It all started with that first state championship when they were sophomores. Ever since then they have been stalked by every team in Florida. To knock off the Dreadnaughts meant halting history in its tracks. During this 15-0 season, Brown felt the bulls-eye on Lakeland’s back was growing larger every single week.
“I feel like a lot of weight is lifted off my shoulders,” said Brown with a smile. “To finish undefeated three straight years … well, it’s a relief now. I feel a lot lighter right now than I did when the game started. The pressure’s gone. I can go back to being a kid again.”
Over the next couple of weeks, he won’t have the distractions and pressures of football to worry about. Instead he’ll be thinking about exams and once he’s got them behind him, he’ll start thinking about making a decision about where he’s going to play college football.
Exams come first. He’s been working hard this year, trying to make up for lost time in the class room. Getting into a Division I school is going to be a close call but he is confident that he will make the necessary grades to qualify.
“I’m confident I can do it,” he said. “A lot of people are helping me study and get ready for tests. I’ll keep working hard.”
And then there is the final choice about where to go. He’s been stuck on Florida and Alabama for most of the season but three weeks ago he said that Florida State is also going to figure in the mix.
Things have changed since then.
“Florida is the SEC champion and playing for the national championship,” he said. “I could be going from a national championship team to a national championship team and that’s pretty good. I can’t say for sure it’s going to be Florida but they’ve got a lot going and they’ve got my friends (Rainey, Wilks, Ahmad Black, Paul Wilson, Michael Pouncey and Maurkice Pouncey) going there. It’s pretty hard to go someplace else when all your friends are at another place.”
He said he’s concerned about what’s going on at both Alabama and Florida State.
“No head coach at Alabama and no offensive coordinator at FSU,” he said. “So things have changed those places.”
There is no timetable for Brown to announce his choice but he said he might do it sometime fairly soon.
“If I get that out of the way I can concentrate on my studies,” he said.