The people around Miami Gardens still remember that magical night in Tallahassee for two reasons: the cold, and The Catch.
The mercury had dipped into the 30s at Doak Campbell Stadium, turning the football into something resembling a curbstone. There were 23 seconds left on the clock and the Norland Vikings trailed Orlando Edgewater, 14-13, with the ball on their own 39. It was fourth down.
As the ball was snapped, quarterback Robert Spence backpedaled — ignoring his No. 1 receiver, a future NFL standout — and threw the ball in the direction of Sean Bailey around the Edgewater 40-yard line. The five-foot-eight, 149-pounder — who said he had never scored a touchdown, not even in Pee Wee level — reeled it in. Then, the kid nicknamed “Old Slow Feet” (though he was actually quite swift) outsprinted two defenders to the 30, to the 20, to the 10, to the 5 ...
Crossing into the end zone, he pointed skyward as he thought of his father, a construction worker who had died five years earlier. Suddenly, bedlam.
It sounds like some Disney screenwriter’s fantasy, but it happened — 10 years ago this fall.
High school football has plenty of problems, from too-powerful head coaches to grade-fudging teachers to the sometimes wink-and-nod disregard of recruiting rules. But there is a beauty and clarity in what goes on between the sidelines, especially in South Florida. Nowhere is the quality of play higher. Perennial powers like Northwestern and St. Thomas Aquinas are conveyor belts to the major college programs. According to one study, only Los Angeles has produced more current NFL players than Miami.
And then there are the Norlands. When Norland won its championship 10 years ago with that lightning strike to Bailey, it was the school’s first state title in football — and its first of any kind in decades — magnifying its importance.
LIFE AFTER HIGH SCHOOL
After high school football, there is the rest of your life. Since that incandescent instant, members of the 2002 Vikings have carved separate paths, becoming preachers, teachers, bus drivers and businessmen. Three play in the National Football League, a remarkable bounty of talent and achievement. They have retained strong ties to each other and to their alma mater.
Not all stories are successes. A couple of teammates have gone to prison and one has died.
“That game did more for us than probably anything,” said B.J. Manley, the star running back who is now a local elementary school teacher and the team’s de facto alumni board president.
“I can go win a Super Bowl ring and make it to Pro Bowls, but I’ll always think back to that game when we won our first state,” said Antwan Barnes. “Those guys I was around, the bond we had.”
THE HIGHEST LEVEL
Barnes could truly win a Super Bowl. A quick and powerful linebacker, he is one of the three members of Norland’s ’02 team currently playing in the NFL. But his road to riches was no limo ride. Scholarship offers from big-time programs dried up during Barnes’ senior year, and so he signed with Florida International University, a doormat in those days, where he flourished. Barnes was all-conference in 2006, and the following spring, the Baltimore Ravens drafted him in the fourth round.
He struggled to find a spot on the Ravens’ stout defense, and was given even less of a chance in Philadelphia after a 2010 trade. The Eagles cut him, but that setback turned out to be a blessing. Barnes signed with the San Diego Chargers, and is now one of the league’s rising defensive stars. He tallied 11 quarterback sacks last year, fifth-most in the AFC.