y Brian Paglia
For 34 minutes it looked like the banner that had been made days in advance, and painted in anticipation of North Clayton Middle School winning a second consecutive football championship, would remain untouched underneath a bench in the bleachers of Twelve Oaks Stadium.
Hands started to grip the banner in restrained jubilation when Ladarrius Mathis returned a punt 55 yards for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter that gave the Tigers their first lead. But they still couldn't lift the banner in celebration until Mathis intercepted Lovejoy quarterback Timothy White in the endzone as time expired, sealing a 32-24 victory and giving North Clayton back-to-back Clayton County Public Schools Middle School football championships.
Mathis' 100-yard interception return capped a remarkable comeback for the Tigers. North Clayton was down by 10 twice and seemed undone when Lovejoy's Travis Custis forced and recovered a fumble by Tigers quarterback Arkeem Brinson in the third quarter. Three plays later, Custis took a toss right for an 8-yard touchdown run and gave the Cougars a 24-14 lead.
The Tigers ran the same play on three consecutive snaps on its next possession, a direct snap to Mathis, and got runs of 3, minus-5 and 0 yards, setting up a crucial fourth-and-12 at its own 45-yard line. With its championship hopes on the line, Mathis - who else - connected with Kentavious Eberhart for a 34-yard pass for a first-down.
Eberhart was called for excessive celebration after the catch, moving North Clayton back to Lovejoy's 34. That's where Mathis took yet another direct snap, the final one of the game, and weaved through defenders before breaking away for a touchdown run that gave the Tigers a 26-24 lead.
"We told them from the beginning that we'll never give up until the game is over," North Clayton coach Fred Hill said. "We just kept on pushing and pushing and just trying to overcome everything [Lovejoy] did to us. They played a great ball game. They really played like they knew everything we were going to do. But, you know, all we had to do was keep pushing and pushing and believe in ourselves."
North Clayton was inefficient on offense, managing just 128 total yards, but it took advantage of short fields and produced big plays on offense and special teams, like Brente Hawkins' 85-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the first quarter.
"I wish this was on television," Hill said. "In a championship game, that's what [special teams] is for. Special teams came through."
Mathis was the catalyst for the Tigers. He had the 34-yard touchdown run, the 55-yard punt return and ran 39 yards for another score on North Clayton's first possession in the second half. Mathis accounted for every yard on offense, rushing for 92 and passing for 36.
"It feels good to be county champs two years in a row," Mathis said.
With North Clayton High football coach Rodney Hackney in attendance, Mathis was one of several players that Hackney lauded after the game, including offensive linemen Justin Allison and Elijah Cantrell.
"The thing I liked about [the Tigers] is they never quit," Hackney said. "They were down...I heard Ladarrius [Mathis] say, 'Keep your heads up. Keep playing.' I like that."