By Gabriel Stovall
JONESBORO, Ga. — An almost ancient championship trophy football sits in the Jonesboro High School foyer that leads to the gym.
In that bowl shaped trophy is an old football, and an inscription that lets you know the last time Jonesboro football won a region championship.
The year was 1949. The coach was ‘Doc’ W.J. Kirksey, and the Cardinals finished the season with a 10-2 record and a state semifinalist after losing 14-7 to Gordon Lee.
They also won a region crown in something called the GHSA 3-C Region. Counting in traditional high school student ages, the eldest member of that football team would probably be around 84 years old right now.
For 66 years that piece of hardware stood as the crowning jewel of Jonesboro football lore. Until Friday night.
The sixth-ranked Cardinals, behind the arm of senior quarterback Zerrick Cooper and riding the backs of one of its stingiest defenses ever, overcame sluggishness, self-inflicted error and a 14-0 deficit in a driving rain storm to defeat Locust Grove 19-14 Friday night at Tara Stadium — the clincher was quarterback Zerrick Cooper’s 8-yard touchdown pass to a wide open Calder Marria with just 17 seconds left in the game.
The win gave Jonesboro a 9-1 finish and delivered that elusive region crown which now will have its own showpiece to share space with the 1949 monument.
“We’re just gonna scoot (the old championship football) over a little bit and put this one there,” said Jonesboro coach Tim Floyd. “The guys really deserve to see their year up there. I’m really happy and excited for everybody. The players and the coaches and the school. It’s a real exciting time, and I’m very proud of everyone for the effort they put in.
“I just think it’s a major accomplishment for the program.”
He wasn’t alone.
There was Kenneth Qualles who, on his birthday, gave an emotional tribute to his teammates in the post game huddle, calling it “the best birthday present I could’ve asked for.”
There was assistant coach Aubrey Patterson who provided his own color commentary on Jonesboro’s final offensive play of the game — an eight yard dart from Cooper that found a wide open Calder Marria in the end zone with 17 seconds left in regulation. It was Marria’s second touchdown grab of the evening.
And then, of course, the ever gregarious senior Jonesboro defensive tackle Kali James who, along with defensive end Joshua James seemingly stayed in Locust Grove’s backfield for most of the night.
“It just feels unbelievable,” James said. “I’m just speechless. We preached that LOB and we stuck by it and that’s what paid of.”
In case you missed it, LOB is short for “Love Our Brothers.” It’s the mantra that the Jonesboro team has carried with each other, for each other all season long — and even before.
It’s also the thing that assistant coach Cap Burnett challenged the team with when it was down 14-0 at half time.
“Coach Cap went in and talked to them and told them there was really no need to come in hollering and yelling and screaming,” Floyd said. “We talked about L.O.B. We can’t get down on each other. We keep fighting with each other and getting up with each other.”
James said painted the tone of the speech a little rougher.
“Coach told us, ‘Don’t even come out that locker room if you’re not LOB,'” James said. “That really pumped me up because it just brought my remembrance back to what we were doing, grinding in the summer time. We believed we would win tonight. We just had to keep fighting.”
For a while it looked as if the Cardinals’ fight wouldn’t be enough.
Locust Grove (9-1,5-1), though not dominant offensively through much of the game, raced out to a 14-0 lead before the half, thanks to a 54 yard touchdown on a fumble recovery by Locust Grove’s Aundre Rountree for the game’s first score at the 6:25 mark in the second quarter.
Then, in the Wildcats best offensive output of the game, senior quarterback Cameron Maddox pushed into the end zone from two yards out to cap a 13-play, 71-yard drive with just 52 seconds left in the half.
Jonesboro didn’t get on the board until the 11:23 mark in the fourth quarter when Cooper tossed the first of his three touchdown passes to tight end Marria Calder to cut the lead to 14-6.
Two series later, Cooper — the Clemson commit — found Montralius Mosley on a wheel route for a 30-yard score. Mosley caught the ball around the 15 yard line, stumbled, regained his footing and scampered into the end zone to make it 14-12 with 5:36 left in the game.
From there, the Cardinals defense put them in position to claim its region crown when Jason Sears broke up a 3rd down pass on Locust Grove’s final offensive possession to force a three-and-out.
Jonesboro’s ensuing drive stalled, and with a forthcoming punt it looked like the Wildcats could salt the game away.
But Locust Grove fumbled the punt, giving Jonesboro life. And starting at the Wildcats 42, Cooper went to work, completing a 13-yarder to Jordan Griffin, followed up by several timely, first-down grabbing scrambles before hitting Marria for the game winner.
Afterward, Floyd told his team to give themselves a pat on the back — literally — and then reminded them of its Saturday morning film session to get ready for its first round playoff game at Tara Stadium Friday.
“There’s really no time to rest,” Floyd said. “Pat yourself on the back now, get you something to eat and (Saturday) morning we’re right back on it.”
Said James: “We can’t stop now. I’m so happy for my team. This was a big thing for the program and the community, but we’ve got to get back in the film room tomorrow. It’s first round time now.”