Talk about a storybook ending.
Eighty years of football at East Tennessee State came down to mere seconds, and Jonathan Godfrey made them count.
Godfrey’s 22-yard field goal with two seconds left Saturday gave the Bucs an emotional 16-13 victory over The Citadel at Memorial Center in the final game of the ETSU football program.
“It was great to see everyone smile one last time,” said Godfrey, a Johnson City native. “We’ll remember this for the rest of our lives. Just knowing that last kick that went through the uprights was the end of 80 years of football at ETSU. With that kick we split up as brothers, but we’ll always remember each other in our hearts.”
Tailback Gaven Varner rushed for 197 yards on 37 carries, and quarterback Carl Meadows threw for 162 yards as the Bucs overcame five fumbles to close their final season with a two-game winning streak.
Budget cuts and an athletic department deficit caused the school to eliminate football after this season, so the Bucs knew what was coming and when it would happen.
But first they had to take care of a little business, and beating The Citadel was all they had left.
“East Tennessee State is a good football team today and I’m so happy to be able to walk off the field and feel that way and know that we finished playing football at a level that I felt proud of,” ETSU coach Paul Hamilton said. “That certainly has to go down as one of the greatest victories I’ve ever been a part of in my life.”
When it was over, helmets flew into the air. Tears flowed. Players hugged girlfriends, family members, anybody they could get their hands on.
“This is the most excited I have ever been and I’ve won a high school state championship and a junior-college national championship,” Varner said. “None of that compares to winning this game right here.”
Hamilton received a celebratory dousing from the water cooler, just as he did after the previous week’s 68-7 victory over Chattanooga.
“When they threw that water on me today I thought they were going to lose Coach Hamilton,” he said. “Golly, the emotion in itself, I felt like Niagra Falls had hit me.”
The winning drive began with the score 13-13 and the Bucs backed up to their on 12-yard line. With 4:24 left on the clock they had plenty of time left to keep running the ball. After all, Varner was the game’s dominant player.
Finally, after six running plays, Meadows, who finished 11 of 21, struck with the game’s biggest play. Instead of settling for overtime, the Bucs took their shot. Meadows heaved a bomb and Brian Matthews came down with the ball on the 9-yard line.
After two more runs by Varner got the ball down to the 3-yard line. ETSU called timeout with six seconds remaining and put the game on the foot of its kicker. Godfrey had missed an extra point earlier in the game, but this time he was perfect.
“A young man that grew up around the block from this school,” Hamilton said. “With a kid like that, you know this school had to mean something to him. What a fitting way for it to end for a guy like that to run out on that field and leave a legacy that will last forever.”
After Godfrey’s kick, there were still two seconds left. A taunting penalty against the Bucs forced them to kick off from their 20, and the program’s final two seconds provided more excitement.
Scooter Johnson picked up Godfrey’s squibb kick and tried to throw a lateral across the field. But the ball bounced away and was recovered by ETSU’s Andre Brooks, who returned it to the 2-yard line before being brought down with nothing but zeroes on the clock.
“I wanted a touchdown,” Brooks said. “I wanted to pour it on. I wanted to end it with a bang.”
The Bucs finished 5-7 overall, 2-6 in the Southern Conference. The Citadel lost for the third time in for weeks to finish 6-6, 4-4.
The Bulldogs scored first when Jermaine Anderson caught a 5-yard bullet from Willie Simmons with 3:37 left in the first quarter.
ETSU answered in the second quarter when Meadows broke free for an 18-yard touchdown run, his second score in as many weeks. Godfrey’s extra point was wide left, leaving the Bucs a point behind.
Zobel connected field goals of 25 and 30 yards to put The Citadel up 13-6.
ETSU tied it at 13-13 with 3:28 left in the third quarter when fullback Nick Spearman, whose father went to The Citadel, pulled in an 8-yard touchdown pass from Meadows.
Simmons finished 22 of 37 for 180 yards and a touchdown. He was intercepted twice by Montreal Harkley.
“There’s just no words to explain the heart of these guys,” ETSU defensive lineman Brandon Calton said. “There was so much tension in our pregame meal you could hear a pin drop. It was remarkable focus from the guys. We went out with a bang and I just want people to realize what Buc football really is.”
After it was over, Hamilton thanked ETSU for giving him a chance to become a head college coach seven years ago. Then he made a special dedication.
“I want to dedicate this win to my mom, Hamilton said choking up a bit. “I lost her a few years back. But one thing she always wanted me to do, living in Charleston, she liked for me to beat The Citadel. ‘Momma, we got ’em again.’ Four out of the last five, I think, I got The Citadel.”