WELLBORN — Games that live long lives in lore usually involve upsets, but almost always have that play. You know the one. It sends one side’s fans diving into rule books and the other side’s fans launching into jubilant disbelief.
When a player who embodies the hopes of the winning side more than any other makes the play, it just writes the storyline.
The 2013 Iron Bowl had Chris Davis and the “Kick Six.” No. 9 Wellborn’s 40-35 stunner over top-ranked Piedmont on Friday had “Jett Theft.”
Jett Smith’s alert grab of a still-live punt from Piedmont’s Parker Thornton and touchdown return wasn’t Wellborn’s only game breaker. TaeVariea Traylor’s recovery of Jack Hayes’ fourth-quarter fumble set up the score that gave the Panthers and 40-29 lead.
But wind this game back to the second quarter, when a whole lot of recent history between these teams, and a whole lot of game clock, suggested the Panthers needed something more than a 14-8 lead to believe.
It takes a good and lucky team to beat Piedmont. To this point, the luck element hadn’t filled in.
Luck came when Piedmont’s Bryce Mohon shanked a punt. It landed to Piedmont’s right, rolled back and settled just south of Piedmont’s 46-yard line.
That happened to be the line of scrimmage, and the ball rolled behind it.
Thornton stopped the ball’s roll as soon as he could. He picked it up and went looking for an official to take it.
Nobody taking in front of the Wellborn sideline, so he turned back to see another official.
As Thornton approach the line judge, Wellborn ball boy Jackson Pope dutifully ran between them, there to perform his function.
Thornton hesitated but seemed to show no urgency. It seemed everybody thought the play was dead, everybody besides Jett Smith.
“I heard no whistle,” Smith said. “I saw the ref just looking at him, but I didn’t want to go up and just hit him, because I wouldn’t be able to return it.”
Of course, Jett Smith knew the ball was live. He’s only head coach Jeff Smith’s son. Current assistant coach and former Wellborn quarterback Judd Smith is his big brother.
Those who have followed Wellborn all season know of a similar moment, when Jett Smith stole the ball from a B.B. Comer center. Officials blew the play dead, wiping out that touchdown.
Wellborn’s quarterback, all-state linebacker who played some safety on this night, punter and member of the punt-return team also counts among a group of Wellborn players who came of age this season.
They lost one game in three years on the lower levels, took beatings while starting as freshmen and sophomores then returned en masse this season, all 22 starters.
He’s one of them, so who better to seize the moment.
“He’s such a heady player, and he pays such attention to details, it don’t surprise me he did that,” Jeff Smith said.
Jett Smith waited for his moment, stole the ball from Thornton, picked it up when it bounced off the ground and raced 40 yards for … what? Was it a touchdown?
Officials signaled touchdown, talked it over after visiting with Piedmont coach Steve Smith then confirmed … touchdown.
“The explanation to be was, because the punt finished behind the line of scrimmage, it was a live ball the entire time,” Steve Smith said. “Can’t say that I’ve ever seen anything like that.
“Our player got the ball and tried to hand the ball to the official. We had managers for both teams coming on and off the field. There were probably 15, 16 players from both sides, coming on and off, thinking there’s a transition.”
Steve Smith said he’s not certain enough to comment on officials’ handling of the situation.
The bottom line was that Wellborn led 21-8. Maybe more importantly for the Panthers, a program that sought to end its seven-game losing streak against Piedmont saw lightning strike.
Wellborn had the ability to play on even terms with Piedmont, in a game that saw six lead changes. They also had the luck of a bad punt and the heads-up play of a special player, which combined to keep them believing it was their night.
“I waited until he wasn’t looking,” Jett Smith said, “I slow-played it and knocked it out of his hand and took it back.”