Tears welled in Fred Billy’s eyes through the entire postgame ceremony at Pennington Field, as Saint Stephen’s gathered with Vero Beach Saint Edward’s at midfield for a postgame prayer, as the Falcons watched Saint Edward’s receive its runner-up trophy and all the way through Saint Stephen’s turn at hoisting the Sunshine State Athletic Conference championship trophy.
Saint Stephen’s tried to disperse before officials brought one last trophy — the Florida Bowl MVP award.
Billy pulled his teammates around him as he held the individual honor and then turned to face them as he was urged to give a speech. He invoked the recent memory of the halftime speech that triggered 21 unanswered points in the Falcons’ 21-14 win and then pointed to the sky. He choked over his own words briefly before he could sputter out his final message.
“My mom was watching us,” said Billy, whose mother died in April. “She’s proud of us, man.”
The tears poured.
Head coach Tod Creneti pulled his quarterback tight. Billy’s teammates erupted. The junior’s 114 second-half rushing yards almost single-handedly lifted Saint Stephen’s offense to the come-from-behind victory in Oviedo.
For more than three quarters, the Falcons (11-1) appeared destined for a second consecutive loss in the SSAC championship game. Saint Stephen’s trailed 14-0 with 11 minutes left and the Pirates (7-4) were setting up for a field goal. The Falcons fumbled the ball twice and turned it over on downs twice more. Running back Chase Brown, who led Manatee County in rushing yards during the regular season, was bottled up.
One furious rush by Lethario Jones Jr. gave Saint Stephen’s hope. The defense back burst around the edge to block Saint Edward’s 40-yard field goal attempt.
“I felt it,” Billy said. “I knew he was going to block it. We believed he was going to block it.”
Saint Stephen’s had three possessions in the more than 10 minutes that followed. They scored touchdowns on all three. Billy ran 11 times for 108 yards and two touchdowns during two possessions, and he hit wide receiver Peyton Vining for a 41-yard bomb to convert an improbable fourth down while trailing 14-7 with less than eight minutes remaining.
Billy completed 6 of 13 passes for 55 yards to go along with his 212 yards on 25 carries. It was the defining performance of a remarkable career in Bradenton. He holds virtually every rushing record at Saint Stephen’s — career rushing yards and touchdowns, single season touchdowns — and less than a year after his mother, Erma Fordham, passed away, he delivered the Falcons to their first state championship.
“He’s been so driven to help us be successful,” Creneti said. “I think that came out tonight.”
It reminded the coach about a conversation he had at Moore Athletic Complex at Turner Fields about three weeks ago.
“We’ve got to get this thing all the way to the end,” Creneti said to running backs coach Cord Graham, and Graham relayed him a message from another earlier conversation with wide receivers coach A.J. Brown.
“He doesn’t think Fred will let us lose,” Graham told Creneti.
The Falcons’ success this year hasn’t been as reliant on Billy as it was in past years. Brown’s emergence gave Saint Stephen’s added depth in the backfield. Vining cracked the top 10 for the county in receiving yards despite the Falcons’ run-heavy offense.
But Saturday was a throwback to Billy’s first two years. Brown was held to 78 yards and one touchdown on 14 carries. The Falcons dropped four passes. The Pirates chewed up the clock and exacerbated Saint Stephen’s mistakes.
The Falcons couldn’t deny they were rattled entering halftime — a two-touchdown deficit felt eerily similar to last year’s loss at The Master’s Academy. Billy, though, told his teammates they’d be fine. They had lifted him up when he was reeling from his mother’s death. Now he would do the same.
“I was down. I didn’t want to get back up. My teammates lifted me up when I was down, put a smile on my face when I didn’t want to smile,” Billy said. “When we believe in ourselves we’re dangerous. That second half we believed in ourselves and they couldn’t stop us.”
Saint Stephen’s 21, Saint Edwards 14
SE— Daniel Walsh 4 run (Owen Kenney kick), 2:42
SE— Walsh 13 run (Kenney kick), 0:58
SS— Fred Billy 7 run (kick blocked), 9:28
SS— Billy 3 run (Demetrius Davis run), 7:22
SS— Chase Brown 6 run (Alex Virgilio kick), 2:25
Rushing: Saint Edward's 41-270: Desmond Haigler 15-91, Walsh 7-66, Brian Minella 11-87, Nicholas Pennell 6-39, CJ Hadnot 2-(-13). Saint Stephen's 43-305: Brown 14-78, Billy 25-212, Jordan Murrell 2-9, Virgilio 1-1, Davis 1-4.
Passing: Saint Edward's 2-11-0, 24: Hadnot 2-11-0, 24. Saint Stephen's 6-13-0, 55: Billy 6-13-0, 55.
Receiving: Saint Edward's 2-24: Minella 1-19, Walsh 1-5. Saint Stephen's 6-55: Davis 2-7, Murrell 1-2, Peyton Vining 3-46.