Devin Bush Jr. dropped to the ground after the final whistle Friday night and let the tears flow.
While his teammates patted him on the shoulder pads and ran around the field yelling and celebrating, Bush was too emotional to immediately jump into the fray.
“To get here is so tough and you go through so much adversity,” Bush said. “It just hit me that we’re finally going to state, and I can’t even describe the feeling.”
The memories of a three-year journey for Flanagan rushed in all at once for the All-American linebacker moments after the Falcons secured their first trip to state with a 30-17 victory over Miami Columbus in a Class 8A state semifinal at Tropical Park.
Flanagan (11-2) will take on Kissimmee Osceola in the state final next Saturday night at 7 p.m. at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando.
Just a few feet away from Bush Jr. was his father, Devin Sr., who also had tears flowing as he shook hands with Columbus players and coaches.
“This is a dream come true,” Bush Sr. said. “It feels so good. These kids worked so hard since the spring and never complained. It’s the start of a dream, and I couldn’t be more proud of my amazing coaching staff.”
Bush Sr., a star at FSU in college and standout with the Atlanta Falcons, has led Flanagan to its only three playoff appearances and back-to-back district titles.
A trip to state was denied by Columbus in the semifinal round last year.
That was a feeling his team — which he dubbed the “Dirty Birds” soon after being hired at the school — used as motivation all season.
“We learned a lot as a team and we learned that we couldn’t let a loss like that knock us down,” Bush Jr. said. “We didn’t take things for granted. We might go through tough times, but we needed to show some character.”
Flanagan’s defense began calling itself the “doughnut boys” during the playoffs since it had not allowed a point in three playoff games entering Friday night’s game.
That streak ended early when Columbus drove into the red zone following an interception by Austin Chacon.
But thanks to a defensive stand inside the 5-yard line, the damage was only a 22-yard field goal by Corey Pastor and a 3-0 lead for Columbus (12-2), which made its fourth trip to the state semifinals in the past five seasons.
The Falcons’ physicality on the defensive and offensive lines turned the game in their favor in the second quarter.
“We played physical football and that’s a prerequisite to being a part of this program,” Bush Sr. said. “If you can’t play physical, you can’t be a Dirty Bird.”
Flanagan forced three turnovers, including two interceptions of Columbus quarterback Alex Ros, who had thrown only three picks the entire season.
“Those first two drives, we had it going,” Ros said. “We got down to the red zone. We had miscommunication on the first drive. Didn’t have the receiver where I thought he was going to be. Threw it right to the safety — turnover. And then the second drive we couldn’t put the ball in the end zone. Those were things we had to capitalize on.”
Flanagan quarterback Kato Nelson, who threw the interception on the previous series, helped the Falcons turn things around quickly following a solid kickoff return to midfield.
Nelson’s 14-yard touchdown connection to Isaiah Collins was the first of three touchdown passes. Nelson passed for 113 yards, but made numerous plays with his ability to scramble out of the pocket and find open receivers on the run.
“I wasn’t there last year, but I was at the game,” Nelson said. “I think I knew I was going to be a Dirty Bird after that game. I feel like it was in my hands to come back this year and beat Columbus.”
The second came early in the third quarter on a 16-yard catch-and-run to Dredrick Snelson and gave Flanagan a commanding 20-3 lead.
Special teams hurt Columbus as two punts of 12 yards or fewer set up easy Flanagan touchdowns.
Jahcour Pearson put the finishing touches on the Explorers’ misery when he returned a punt 59 yards for a touchdown. Flanagan gave up its first two touchdowns of the playoffs — a 9-yard run by C.J. Henderson and a 5-yard touchdown pass from Ros to Daniel Courtney, but with the game out of reach.
COL-FG Pastor 22
FLA-Collins 14 pass from Nelson (Trujillo kick)
FLA-Joseph 13 pass from Nelson (kick failed)
FLA-Snelson 16 pass from Nelson (Trujillo kick)
FLA-Pearson 59 punt return (Trujillo kick)
FLA-FG Trujillo 37
COL-Henderson 9 run (run failed)
COL-Courtney 5 pass from Ros (Ros run)
Rushing (att-yds) -- FLA: Metellus 1-(-1), Bourdeau 3-0, Snelson 1-0, Johnson 1-0, Hart 1-1, Goetz 1-3, Nelson 12-29, Hicks 4-31. COL: Gomez 4-0, Davis, Jr. 4-5, Henderson 9-29, Ros 12-29, Jobe 1-55.
Passing (comp-att-int, yds)-- FLA: Nelson 12-20-1, 113. COL: Ros 12-30-2, 151.
Receiving (rec-yds-TD) -- FLA: Joseph 1-10, Collins 1-14, Snelson 5-20, Pearson 5-69. COL: Henderson 1-4, Davis, Jr. 1-8, Rollins 2-19, Williams 2-21, Courtney 3-31, Hidalgo Jr. 3-68.