COVINGTON, Ga. — Johnny Salter may have earned the right to walk the halls of Cousins Middle School with his chest out and head up.
In fact, he may have temporarily thrusted himself into legendary status as well.
If so, it won’t be surprising. After all, it was his walk-off touchdown in a 12-6 win against the Liberty Middle Knights that kept the Cardinals’ unbeaten streak alive, as they have not lost a game since the 2016 season.
And he described the ultimate clutch moment as a fearful one at first.
“Really, I was kind of scared,” he said. “That was my first time in the wingback spot as I’m normally the only tight end on the team. When I first got there, I was kind of confused.”
And then on that last play, the ball seemingly floated into his hands on a wheel route as he raced with everything he had left across the goal line.
“I felt like a god,” he said, laughing, as he recalled the aftermath of the game’s final play as coaches and players raced over to him.
“Even though I was tired, and almost caught a cramp in my leg, I gave it all I had. As soon as I was out of gas, I just jumped at the end zone.”
Although it was a small comeback, it was arguably one of the greatest and most entertaining finishes in recent NewRock League history.
After being down a score for much of the game, the Cardinals tied the game on a Dontorrie Henderson 20-yard scamper with just under four minutes remaining. Cousins would then get the ball back at the 50-yard line with 1:13 left.
The first pass attempt of what would be the game-winning drive slipped through the hands of a Liberty defender and bounced off the hands of Salter, who was in borderline tears of frustration after the play.
“In that moment, I really thought I was going to start crying and give up,” he said. “But then I realized I was going to have to lead my team, so I pushed through and kept going.”
Pushing through was the overall story for the Cardinals Wednesday night. Head Coach Kenneth Whetstone knew it, too, and when his team huddled up outside of the field during halftime, he knew what he had to do to get them refocused.
“I told them like I tell them every day, whenever you face adversity, never give up,” he said. “Football is a game of momentum, and they had the momentum in the beginning. But slowly throughout the process of the game, we got the momentum back and at the end. Fortunately, instead of overtime, we were able to come out with a win.”
Momentum was, in fact, on the side of the Knights early on.
After stopping the Cardinals on fourth down deep in their own territory, a short drive was capped off by a two-yard touchdown run from Brandon Smith.
The Knights would remain in control for much the game, but by a very slim margin. Despite threatening to score on several drives, Cousins was able to come away with some momentum shifting turnovers, primarily after Liberty fumbled the ball into the endzone right as they were about to score before the half, keeping it a one score game.
Cardinals standout Jatavious Weaver also created two turnovers of his own in the game in the form of an interception in the endzone and a fumble recovery late in the game.
“A lot of the defense also plays on offense,” Whetstone said. “They double up and did a great job. Like I said, it’s the grit of the players to keep fighting so we can be there at the end.”
The fumble recovery from Weaver came at an opportune time, allowing Cousins to tie it up, giving the team new life.
Once it came down to the final drive, that grit that Whetstone mentioned began to show, despite the game inching closer to overtime.
“We had the incompletion and the unsportsmanlike conduct that moved us backwards,” he said. “I called Johnny over and we switched him to the slot since he’s a faster kid, and we caught them off guard.”
The decision paid off in the most dramatic way possible, and the feeling from Whetstone showed that.
“It was a great feeling, seeing all the players rush over and support him,” he said. “It was a true testament to not giving up and fighting to the end.”
The Cardinals move to 1-0 on the season and are still unbeaten, as 2016 was their last loss, coming in that year’s NewRock championship game.
Whetstone knows, however, that there is a lot to work on to keep that streak going.
“We got to evaluate a lot of boys,” he said. “We’re going to go back and look at the film to see what we need to do to get on track. Everybody’s going to be gunning for us, so I’m glad we pulled that one out, because there are going to be some tougher games.”