Kai Henry took the ball and leaped into the air.
And for that split second as Henry crossed the goal line and landed in the end zone, he shifted the balance of power in one of Miami-Dade County’s longest football rivalries.
Henry’s two-point conversion in double overtime lifted Northwestern to a dramatic 45-44 victory over Central and the Bulls’ first in the series (known locally as the Commissioner’s Cup) since 2009.
“We just made history,” said Henry, who scored three touchdowns and finished with 112 yards on 16 carries. “I feel like crying right now, but I’m too happy. I can’t even talk that’s how happy I am right now.”
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Northwestern (6-1, 1-0 in District 16-6A) has not won a state championship since 2007 nor been to the state final since 2008, when Teddy Bridgewater was its starting quarterback.
Bridgewater was one of the nearly 8,000 spectators Friday night at Traz Powell Stadium that watched the Bulls put Central’s season on the brink of elimination, which would end its four-year reign at the top of Class 6A.
The Rockets (6-2, 1-2 in district), who played their final regular-season game Friday, can no longer win the district having already lost to Carol City (4-2, 2-0). The only hope for Central is if Northwestern loses its two remaining games against the Chiefs and Norland (3-3, 0-2), therefore creating a three-way tiebreaker between the teams for the district’s runner-up berth.
But if Northwestern beats Norland next Friday, Central would be eliminated and would fail to reach the state finals for the first time since 2009.
“I told the kids I don’t know how long we have to play out there, but keep fighting and they did,” said Northwestern coach Max Edwards, who once coached at Central. “They’ve started to believe they could win. It’s a wonderful feeling right now.”
Henry, who was named the game’s Offensive MVP, gave the Bulls a 37-30 lead to start the first overtime.
Central answered when quarterback Tijuane Morten fired a desperation pass to Carmoni Green on fourth down to help tie the score.
James Cook ran for a 10-yard touchdown to give the Rockets a 44-37 lead on their second overtime possession. Cook finished with 122 yards on 21 carries and three touchdowns.
Northwestern answered when junior quarterback Chatarius “Tutu” Atwell fired a perfect 10-yard strike in the corner of the end zone to Al-Malik Moore.
Following an encroachment penalty on Central, Northwestern took a timeout and chose to go for the win.
But his heroics would not have been possible without a comeback drive at the end of regulation led by Atwell.
Trailing 30-23 shortly after Central capped a run of 16 unanswered points to take the lead, three consecutive Atwell runs drove Northwestern to the Central 11-yard line with 30 seconds left.
Atwell then swept around the left side and stretched the ball across the pylon for the tying touchdown with 23 seconds left.
“It feels great to knock the No. 1 team out of the playoffs,” Atwell said. “This lets everyone know we’re back on the map.”
Atwell, a junior who has started for Northwestern since his freshman season, threw for 201 yards and the overtime touchdown, and ran for 93 yards and two touchdowns on eight carries.
Trailing 14-7 shortly before halftime, Atwell and Henry each scored to help Northwestern rack up 16 unanswered points of its own and seemingly take control of the game with a 23-14 lead.
Demetrius Taylor, Kevin Washington and Samuel Brooks each had a sack in the game and forced Central into a third-and-21 at the Bulls’ 41-yard line.
But Morten found Green for a touchdown on the next play to give the Rockets life. Following a safety, Central drove the length of the field again and took a 30-23 lead on Cook’s 29-yard touchdown run with 1:18 left that was followed by a two-point pass from Morten to Anthony White Jr.
However, Northwestern — as it did the entire game — answered, sent the game into overtime and prevailed.
“This was our state [championship] game,” Taylor said. “We came out with that mentality. The Bulls are definitely back.”