So what happens when you’re 16 years old and you make the game-winning field goal to upset a national power in a high school football game?
“First off,” East Mecklenburg junior Christian Thomas said Monday morning, “it was all over everything all weekend. Even the older people at my church knew what was going on. At school, people were running up to me and giving me high 5s and told me I was the MVP.”
Thomas made a 45-yard field goal Friday night in a rainstorm to lift East Mecklenburg to a 10-7 upset win over Butler, ranked No. 2 in the Observer’s Sweet 16 poll and No. 93 in the High School Football National Top 100. East Mecklenburg hadn’t beaten Butler since 2001, and the series had been awful lopsided lately. Butler had won the past six meetings by an average of 56-4.
“It’s a huge win for our program, for where we’ve been since 2009, which was the last time they made the playoffs,” East Mecklenburg coach Barry Shuford said. “We called it a perfect storm. All the things last week that had to fall into place did, and everything we hoped for to happen happened.”
Shuford needed a big performance from his defense, which he got. Missing multiple starters for the second straight game – something that Butler coach Brian Hales declined to comment on – Butler came into the game averaging 37 points. East held the Bulldogs to 211 total offense and only 48 passing.
Shuford told his team that, with four minutes to go, he wanted to look up at the clock and know the Eagles had a chance to win. That’s also something he got.
The game was tied at 7 when East’s Aaron Walker scored a 7-yard touchdown with six minutes to play.
“We told them at halftime to just be close, and let’s have Christian get a chance to win it,” Shuford said. “He’s kicked the ball well all year.”
A perfect season
Thomas came into the game perfect. He had attempted five kicks and made all five. Earlier this season, East Meck was losing 27-0 to North Meck as the clock wound down. Shuford had an epiphany. He ordered his quarterback to spike the ball with two seconds left. He wanted Thomas to get a chance at a 45-yard field goal.
“We kind of joked with each other that might give us a chance to win a game down the line,” Shuford said. “We wanted him to experience that kind of moment.”
The kick was perfect.
“I just went out there, and I understood we were not doing very well in the game,” Thomas said, “but I was like, ‘Let’s not get shut out. Let’s see what we can do.’ I have confidence in myself, and I hit it, and it went on in.”
At East Mecklenburg, Thomas is in the school’s rigorous IB program and also plays center-midfield on the Eagles’ soccer team. He practices with both teams, and because he has hours of homework most nights, he’ll squeeze some in before and after practices each day. Shuford said he appreciates Thomas’ focus and thinks that is part of the reason why he’s been so effective this season.
“He’s just a great kid, man,” Shuford said. “Playing two sports and going to two practices and juggling all that and being an IB student, facing hours of homework each night, it takes a special kid to do that. Christian’s a special kid.”
Following his routine
So as East Meck was driving down the field Friday night with a chance to make history, Shuford never worried about sending Thomas in to try to grab one of the biggest wins in school history. Well, if there was any worry, it was because Thomas didn’t have his kicking net. The game was moved to Garinger’s artificial turf field due to all the rain and East Meck didn’t bring the net, which Thomas uses to warm up with on the sidelines. So as East Meck was going down the field, Thomas was taking some air swings to get ready.
Finally, the Eagles’ drive stalled. It was fourth down and 14 yards to go, a little over two minutes left. Game still tied at 7.
Shuford sent his kicker onto the field. Thomas, as he always does, walked off his steps – three back and two to the left. The snap came and Thomas approached with a just a few thoughts: don’t over hit it so it hooks; kick it hard enough to get there.
With 2:14 to play, Thomas’ boot cleared by a few yards.
“After I hit it,” Thomas said, “I knew it was good. It goes through, and I’m like, ‘Aw, let’s go!’ I was pretty hyped. The guys were jumping on me, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, man, I’ve got to get my kicking tee.’ ”
East Meck’s defense held and won their third game in four tries. Thomas got a memory to cherish.
“Our entire team played well,” he said. “We held Butler to seven points, and a big shout out to my snapper and holder to make the kick possible. It was a big win. I’m definitely going to remember that for a long time. It was big. I’m just excited I got an opportunity to do it.”