Photos by Cameron Flasich
THE OPENING KICKOFF sailed high in the air of the Georgia Dome. Buford junior Anthony Grant moved to the five-yard line, snagged the kick and then exploded up the field, blazing past Rome defenders until being caught one yard shy of the end zone.
On the next play, senior fullback TD Roof powered into the end zone, handing the most dominant football team in the State of Georgia over the past 15 years a 7-0 lead, momentum and a lead in winning the school’s 12th state title.
The Buford Wolves’ legacy has shifted from good to almost mythic – maybe border-ing on legendary. In the Deep South, where names like Herschel, Bo, Saban, Bear, Dooley, Spurrier and others bring warm thoughts to fans and abject hatred from foes, the word Buford now rings synonymous with winning.
But this story involves another pack of Wolves, standing on the opposite sideline with 10,000-plus, red-clad fans filling the lower bowl of the Georgia Dome. And if the previous names mean great things to football fans, the names Sharp, Kinnebrew, Tutt, McCluskey, Kent, Hodges, Green, and a long list of others make citizens from a small town nestled between three rivers and seven hills beam with pride.
Those greats helped take East Rome and West Rome highs to seven state titles, including the Chieftains’ state record four-straight and the Gladiators’ back-to-back titles in 1977 and 1978. And don’t forget the 1965 West Rome squad, which entered the state playoffs with a losing record, but outworked and outfought the competition to win it all.
With the merger of the schools in the fall of 1992 came visions of athletic greatness. But a quarter of a century later, those dreams remained just that. The Rome High trophy case displays the football from the school’s first victory. But a vacant spot remained where the ball from the first state title team should reside.
The Wolves made several deep runs into the playoffs but close losses in the state quarterfinals derailed state title dreams in 1997, 2002, 2004 and 2005. And, of course, the controversial ending in the semifinals against Marist in 2008 still brings rage in Rome supporters.
Two years ago on a cold, windy February day, new football coach John Reid met the Rome faithful and talked about winning a state title. He preached hard work and togetherness and, maybe above all else, the need for a great defense.
“Championships come from the defense, so we’re going to be very, very tough on defense,” he said.
And on this cold, windy December day in the Georgia Dome, Reid’s defensive vision played out for all to see.
As the first quarter rolled on, Rome’s de-fense showed why it ranked as the best in Class 5A all season. KJ Hicks, Ja’Quon Griffin, Trai Hodges, Malik Davis, Adam Anderson, and others harassed, hit and stymied Buford’s offense, holding the Wolves to minimal yards and keeping their green-clad foes from adding to the seven-point lead.
As the first quarter shifted to the second, a sense of urgency began to fill the Rome fans and the sidelines. Four possessions provided Rome with five yards of offense, no first downs and a turnover.
While Rome’s defense ranked first, Buford refused to allow the Rome sidelines to forget they ranked second in defense.
With less than 10 minutes remaining before halftime and still hunting its initial first down of the game, Rome took over at its own 14-yard line.
Rome’s offense needed a spark and a pair of sophomores stepped up to the task. Tailback Jamious Griffin ripped off a six-yard run and quarterback Knox Kadum added 12 more on the next play, giving Rome a first down and bringing the Rome faithful to their feet.
Two more Griffin runs, along with a short jaunt from Xavier Roberts, handed the Wolves another first down. Then Kadum rolled right and connected with receiver Jordan Watkins for the third first down of the drive, placing Rome at midfield.
Kadum hit Watkins for a 26-yard gain, and the Wolves added some trickeration to the mix on third and long as four different Wolves lateraled the ball to each other before Kadum snagged it and gained eight yards. While the play left fans breathless, it also left Rome two yards shy of a first down at Buford’s 17-yard line.
Every great team overcomes obstacles and on this day Rome faced several, including four key fourth-down plays. Great teams deliver on most of their chances, but legendary teams find ways to deliver on all of them.
This time Jamious Griffin took the handoff and mashed his way for a first down, but the Wolves’ tailback lay on the field after the play. Griffin’s leg failed him, and the sophomore back half limped to the sidelines. Rome, already play-ing without the services of injured 1,000-yard rusher Jalynn Sykes, now faced almost three quarters without their other 1,000-yard rusher.
Freshman back Nick Burge reeled off a five-yard and one-yard run, but an incomplete pass left Rome short of the end zone. Junior kicker Emanuel Gonzalez delivered a picture-perfect, 24-yard field goal, cutting Buford’s lead to 7-3 with 3:36 remaining before halftime.
The drive covered 79 yards over 15 plays and milked more than six minutes from the clock. It re-energized the sidelines and the crowd and gave notice to Buford that state title No. 12 wouldn’t come easy.
After a promising, late Rome drive ended with an interception in the end zone, the two teams left for the locker rooms.
Rome proved they could kick a field goal, but the Wolves now needed to reach the end zone. Buford’s defense again rose to the occasion as Rome took the ball to start the second half, forcing the Wolves into a third and long situation from the 23-yard line.
Kadum dropped back, looking for a receiver, hesitated a few seconds, and then took off up the middle, streaking past Buford defenders for a 43-yard run.
“That was a do-or-die situation,” Kadum says. “Coach said ‘read the situation.’ They brought a blitz from the weak side and they left it wide open. It was a big run because it gave us a lot of momentum and got the crowd excited, and then we kept driving.”
Two runs from junior back Marquez Kirby brought the Wolves to the 28-yard line but two yards shy of a first down. Facing another big fourth down, the Wolves dialed up a play for Kadum.
The signal caller took the snap, waited a second, then rolled right, cut inside and found a seam to the Buford three-yard line, where a defender grabbed him. But the tall, lanky Kadum refused to go down easy. With a final surge of momentum, he stretched the ball into the end zone.
“Buford’s defense was doing something different, and we realized we could take advantage of it,” Kadum says. “On the next run they did the same thing, and it led to the touchdown.”
A wall of noise descended onto the turf and reverberated from the rafters. Rome players celebrated in the end zone, Rome coaches jumped and cheered on the sidelines, and Rome fans exploded with the force fueled by a quarter-century of anticipation. After Gonzalez drilled the extra point, Rome held its first lead of the game at 10-7.
For the next 23 minutes, both fan bases sat on the edge of their seats.
Rome’s defense proved more than capable of stopping Buford, allowing the Wolves only two threatening drives, which both ended at Rome’s 38-yard line. Buford’s defense returned the favor as Rome also found the going tough and could get no closer than Buford’s 44-yard line.
But time stood on Rome’s side, and a big special teams play put Buford in a hole. Rome punter John Cromer uncorked his best punt of the game, perhaps the best of the season. The punt flew straight down the middle of the field, bounced inside the 10-yard line and three hops later was downed at the one.
With less than five minutes on the clock and facing a defense that had allowed them only three second-half first downs, Buford faced a 99-yard journey to the end zone.
Buford answered with a big first-down pass. On the ensuing first down, Chris Turner blew past the line and gained nine yards before Anderson spun him to the ground. With two big plays back to back, Buford’s fans grew louder and the players fed off the energy.
After an incomplete pass on second down, Grant took the handoff and ran into a brick wall of Davis and Ja’Quon Griffin. The two Rome defenders fought and grabbed, smacking the runner to the turf and bringing the officials out to measure.
After two measurements showed Buford was short of the first down, Rome faced its third pivotal fourth-down play of the game. Buford back Chris Turner took the ball, and Ja’Quon Griffin steamrolled into him with the force of a Mack truck, robbing the junior of any and all momentum and slammed him into the turf. No measurement was needed.
“All I was thinking was one more play – give it all I got,” Griffin says. “He ran across my facemask, and I had to do it. There was no doubt in my mind when I grabbed him. I knew I was going to stop him.”
“Buford’s been in this dome 10 years in a row, and they needed an inch,” Reid says. “We didn’t give it to them. That’s probably as big a play that there has ever been in Rome football history.”
Rome’s sidelines and fans exploded. The red-clad Wolves owned the ball at Buford’s 26-yard line, and a mere 1:44 remained on the clock. Three rushing plays and three Buford timeouts left Rome with yet another fourth down-situation, this time with 1:20 remaining.
After a timeout that seemed to last about three days, the sophomore signal caller ran a new play, faking out the Buford defense and half of the stadium, and sprinted into the end zone untouched.
“That was an adjustment on the timeout. We had never had that play put in, but it sure worked,” Kadum says. “It was a big-time moment, and we were just planning on one yard. It ended up being a touchdown.”
The scoreboard flipped to Rome 16, Buford 7, and the smiles and hugs and screams grew even louder from the Rome faithful. Buford tried to answer, but back-to-back sacks from Ja’Quon Griffin and Anderson put an exclamation point on a night in which the Rome defense held its opponent to 112 total yards and a paltry 61 rushing yards.
“We are the best defensive line in the state. Nobody can stop us on defense,” Griffin says. “We shut them down.”
The next 15 minutes brought a whirlwind of excitement and emotion. Players and coaches streamed onto the field and celebrated as they held aloft the state title trophy. Reid pointed to the stands and praised the fans.
“We have a plan, and our theme this week was to trust the plan. Being down 7-3 was part of the plan,” Reid says. “We didn’t want to be down 7-3, but it was close enough to where we knew they were going to get tired. Our defense just turned up the notch on them. It’s an in-credible feeling.”
As the last few Rome players left the field, Kadum continued to jog the sidelines slapping hands with fans and getting words of encouragement.
“I don’t think winning the state title has really hit me yet. This is the greatest feeling,” he says. “I just knew I needed to come out here and do whatever I had to do for my team. This is overwhelming.”
Kadum slapped hands with a few more fans and jogged into the tunnel and into the waiting arms of teammates and coaches cheering and celebrating. That celebration followed the team home from Atlanta, down Broad Street, and back to the high school, where fans, players, coaches, and more reveled until the wee hours of the night.
Mythology tells us Romulus and Remus helped found the ancient city of Rome. A stat-ue sits on our Rome, Georgia’s Broad Street, celebrating it.
The history of Rome High tells us a group of Chieftains and a group of Gladiators joined to become a giant pack of Wolves. On the 25th year since the merger, a shiny, polished trophy helps celebrate the silver anniversary of the school. It’s the first state title in school history.
It has taken far longer than anticipated for the Wolves to add to the long history of winning they inherited. But all stories have to start somewhere and the legend of Rome High is just getting started.