For nine months, Independence High quarterbacks Luke McPhail and Davyne “Flash” Simpson battled for the Patriots’ starting quarterback position.
McPhail, despite missing parts of five games with injury, led the varsity team with 938 yards and eight touchdowns last season. Simpson, the hotshot rising junior, led the Patriots’ junior varsity to an 8-1 record in 2017, and he had many Independence fans thinking he could be the guy to help turn around what was once the most successful and most feared high school football program in North Carolina.
The quarterbacks started as rivals and became good friends, one never clearly earning the starting job. Then two weeks before the season started, Simpson was found unconscious in his bedroom and taken to Carolinas Medical Center. Doctors placed him into a medically induced coma, telling his family there was nothing more they could do. Simpson died days before Independence opened its season against Olympic.
“We had a great bond,” McPhail said, “and we practiced with each other for the past three years every day. He wanted me to succeed. I wanted him to succeed. His passing was a shock to me and a shock to our whole team. It only made us play harder.”
Dedicating their season to their fallen teammate, Independence beat Hopewell 54-19 to start the season Aug. 24. McPhail completed 20-of-32 passes for 350 yards and six touchdowns, becoming the third Patriots quarterback to throw for at least six touchdowns in a game.
Last week, Independence beat Olympic 38-34 and McPhail led the Patriots on the type of game-winning drive that can define a season.
Olympic scored with 55 seconds left to take a 34-32 lead. Independence was 3-9 last season and this was the type of loss second-year coach Mike Natoli was used to: close, but not good enough.
“I was kind of deflated,” Natoli said. “I mean, 55 seconds is not a lot of time. But as soon as (Olympic scored), our running backs coach, Tyrell Knox, started screaming.”
Knox ran up and down the sidelines. “We got this!” he said. “We got this! That clock don’t say zero yet!”
Natoli felt the life rush back into him - and his team.
“It was like the air came out when they scored,” Natoli said, “and he said that, and the air came back right away. The whole program, the stands, everybody felt it. It was like everybody felt uplifted.”
McPhail - under heavy pressure from an Olympic team that was sending six of its 11 defenders into his face - directed the Patriots down the field.
The game-winning pass was a soft fade route to Brian Morgan with 19 seconds left. McPhail didn’t see it.
“He got hit in the mouth,” Natoli said, “but he threw a perfect pass.”
So in two weeks, McPhail has thrown for 496 yards and six touchdowns. He and the Patriots play their first road game of the season at West Meck (2-1) Friday. A win would equal the total from the entire 2017 season.
“He’s a special kid,” Natoli said of McPhail. “There was a moment about a month ago when he and (Simpson) embraced each other and really created a bond. They started eating lunch together. They both knew they were walking into a special situation. Two 6-4 possibly Division I quarterbacks on the roster.
“Then Flash passed away tragically. That’s a lot for a high school kid, but he’s handled it tremendously. I told him after practice that, ‘God has put a big burden on your shoulders. Are you ready?’ He hesitated but then he said, ‘Yes, sir.’ And he’s done great.”
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