As Nik Scalzo watched from the sideline at Camping World Stadium sporting a white No. 2 jersey, a bulky brace that kept his right knee sturdy and crutches to keep him upright, all he could do was smile.
Cardinal Gibbons’ star quarterback, a Kentucky Wildcats commit who led Gibbons through so much of this breakout journey that was the 2018 season, hadn’t seen the field in three weeks after tearing his right ACL in the regional semifinal win against Orlando Jones.
But there was no sense of disappointment as he celebrated with his teammates — crutches and all — after Gibbons’ 48-10 win over North Marion in the Class 5A state championship game to secure the school’s first-ever state football title.
“It’s huge. We really came together as a band of brothers over these past couple weeks, especially after I hurt my leg,” Scalzo said. “Everyone thinks ‘They’re done. They don’t have their starting quarterback. It’s over.’ It’s much more than the starting quarterback. There’s a whole team behind me, a bunch of seniors that love each other. That’s the real thing. That’s why we won today.”
Scalzo played a large part in getting Cardinal Gibbons to Orlando in the first place. After all, he put his name all over Gibbons’ record book. Over 38 games as Gibbons’ starting quarterback throughout the last three years, Scalzo completed 59.6 percent of his passes (522 for 876) for 6,471 yards with 74 touchdowns to 23 interceptions. He had at least 2,000 passing yards and 23 touchdowns every year. He tossed a school-record six touchdown passes in Gibbons’ 53-16 blowout of district rival Coconut Creek. The Chiefs posted a 32-6 record in games Scalzo started.
“He’s thrown a lot of touchdown passes for our team,” head coach Matt DuBuc said.
But then came that third-quarter play in the regional semifinal against Orlando Jones. A double handoff left Scalzo open down the right sideline, an easy target for running back Coleman Bennett. Scalzo caught the pass just in front of the end zone and felt his knee buckle after being hit by Jones defensive back PJ Jules as he tried to score.
The injury would be ruled a torn right ACL a few days later, but in the heat of the moment — and with Gibbons falling behind by a score after backup Brody Palhegyi threw a pick-six on the next drive — Scalzo returned in the fourth quarter to lead a touchdown drive that ultimately proved to be enough in the 30-27 win.
“Losing Nik was crushing to our ego,” DuBuc said, “but I’ve gotta tell ya, everybody in that locker room pulled together after that.”
Three games and three more wins proved that. Palhegyi led the offense with major assists from senior running back Vincent Davis and a stout defense.
“I love that. I love seeing him passed the torch like that,” Scalzo said. “After the game where I blew my ACL, I told him ‘This is your team now.’ I gave him the reins. He took over.”
Scalzo, in turn, took his place on the sideline, serving as a hype man on crutches and keeping morale high. He led the team out of the tunnel as they took the field. He raised his right crutch in the air after walking back to the sideline following the pregame coin toss at midfield.
He jumped and hooped and hollered every time his team made a play. And there were a lot of big plays, especially from fellow seniors Davis, Sidney Porter and Khris Bogle.
It all made Scalzo circle back to a moment during his freshman year. He and a group of other newcomers made a promise: When their senior year came, they would win a state title.
“We did that tonight,” Scalzo said.
All he could do was smile.