Needing a touchdown with the ball at Bell’s 21-yard line and just two seconds on the clock, Roosevelt quarterback Leon Gray took the snap and rolled to his right as the Griffins’ defense closed in. As the junior took a hit, he heaved the ball toward the end zone with a mix of Rough Riders and Griffins positioning themselves to jump for the ball.
“On that last play, I was about to get tackled,” said Gray. “I saw my big receiver and I just threw it there.”
As the ball came down in the end zone, both teams’ tallest players were in a scrum, fighting to jump as high as they could to grab the ball or knock it down. But while jockeying for position, none of the players was able to reach it. Instead, Roosevelt’s Kamau Stith — who stands 5 feet and 8 inches tall — snagged the ball and lifted the Rough Riders to a 13-12 victory.
“I trailed everybody,” Stith said. “I was in the back of the end zone. I saw Darrius [Buchanan] jump up and everyone missed it, so I went there and caught it.”
The catch sent the Rough Riders spilling onto the field to celebrate with no time on the clock, while the Griffins fell to their knees and buried their heads as they dropped their fourth straight D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association Stripes title game.
For Roosevelt, there was extra reason to celebrate: It marked their second division crown in two years.
“These guys won it last year, and a lot of them were ninth- and 10th-graders,” Roosevelt coach Chris Harden said of his team. “And now the majority of the team is coming back next year when we move up to the Stars division.”
After winning back-to-back Stripes titles, the Rough Riders are excited for their switch to the higher division.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Stith. “Everyone wanted to go up into the Stars. We know we could play up with the Stars. We can’t wait to show what Roosevelt can do.”
While Roosevelt emerged victorious, Bell basically controlled the game for all but the final two seconds.
Both scores from the Griffins (8-4) were rushing touchdowns from senior running back Teonyte McKenzie, who brought his season total to 20. Bell twice failed to score on two-point attempts, resulting in a 12-0 lead late in the second quarter.
Roosevelt, meanwhile, finished both halves with touchdowns. The Rough Riders closed the first half with a strong drive, which was set up by a big kick return from sophomore Ruquan Brown to start near midfield. Roosevelt closed the second quarter with Gray diving in for a touchdown to trim Bell’s advantage to 12-7.
During the break, Harden challenged his team’s defensive line — senior Kareem Williams, sophomore Lydell Jones, senior Charles Caudle and junior Darrius Buchanan — to step up and slow down McKenzie.
“When I got into halftime, I told my guys that this was a dogfight,” Harden said. “We had to get on our big horses’ back. We told them they dominated all year. We needed them to step up in the championship.”
The Roosevelt defense shut out the Griffins in the second half to help spark the Rough Riders’ improbable rally.