By Steve Williams
Halls High’s football team won the state championship in 1986, but it’s still hard to believe the Red Devils survived their first round game and advanced.
Saying Coach Larry Kerr’s team got a scare on that Nov. 7 night 32 years ago in Halls is putting it mildly.
The Red Devils were 10-0. The Mountaineers from Heritage had been 1-4 early in the season but were riding a six-game win streak coming into the Class AAA playoff opener.
Already leading by one point with just a little over two minutes remaining in the game, Heritage quarterback Clint Boling’s 9-yard keeper set up a fourth-and-one situation at Halls’ 6-yard line. One more yard and a first down would all but spell doom for the Red Devils, who were out of timeouts.
With a crowd of 6,000 looking on, Halls’ defense stopped the fourth-down play for no gain.
Still, the Red Devils, who had lost five fumbles on a slick and muddy field, had to get in field goal range.
The scoreboard read: 2:02. Heritage 7, Halls 6.
Making the challenge even more difficult was the fact that the Red Devils had been a power running team throughout the season, with Jason Julian following the blocking of Randy Hall, one of the nation’s top offensive linemen, being their bread and butter.
Quarterback Chip Ward, nevertheless, led the drive. Billy Marsh made a brilliant over-the-shoulder catch at the 13 to set up Julian’s game-winning 29-yard field goal with 0:18 on the clock.
“I couldn’t look,” Coach Kerr would say after it was over. “I’ve coached 13 years and I’ve never had a comeback like that before … that’s almost a miracle.”
Julian’s 1-yard run had given Halls a 6-0 lead in the second quarter, but the snap was high on the PAT. A 7-yard run by Boling plus his extra point kick had staked Heritage to its 7-6 lead.
“I was scared to death,” added Kerr. “That was a heart attack game.”
Halls’ second-round game, a 17-0 win over Kingsport Dobyns-Bennett, was played at the Mini-Dome in Johnson City in front of 9,000.
The Red Devils would play their quarterfinal game at Neyland Stadium. Many expected the contest to be the Andy Kelly Show, with the future UT quarterback leading Rhea County, but it ended up being the Jason Julian Show as the Red Devil standout accounted for all of his team’s points in the 19-9 victory. An estimated 20,000 fans were on hand.
The following week’s semifinal game against Jefferson County also would be played at Neyland Stadium, on a Saturday night, Nov. 29, and there was speculation that a state attendance record for a TSSAA playoff game might be set. A game ticket was $4.
There was a weather concern earlier in the week, but the showdown did attract an estimated 28,000 spectators, which bettered the state record attendance of 26,300 set at the 1982 Class AAA title game between Lincoln County and Gallatin at the Clinic Bowl in Nashville.
Halls notched a 10-0 win over Coach Craig Kisabeth’s Patriots, but after the game Julian said he didn’t remember his 5-yard touchdown run or PAT kick in the second quarter as he had been knocked out.
The Red Devils wrapped up their 15-0 championship season with a 17-15 win over Germantown on Dec. 3 in the Clinic Bowl at Vanderbilt’s Dudley Field.
The celebration that followed had to be special, since it was one that came so close to never happening.