Former Hokes Bluff players remember 2001 state title
Sun. October 16, 2011 at 10:25 p.m. | By Nick Johnston Sports Writer
Hokes Bluff coaches, players and cheerleaders that were a part of the 2001 Class 3A state championship football team are honored Friday night before the Eagles’ game with Glencoe. (Photo by Marc Golden | Gadsden Times)
Facing fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line late in the first quarter, Hokes Bluff quarterback Jake Ball faked a handoff and sprinted outside to his left.
With no defenders near him, he could have moonwalked into the end zone. Instead, he raised the ball above his head and high stepped across the goal line to give the Eagles the lead in the Class 3A state championship game against Tarrant at Legion Field in Birmingham.
The crowd in a packed theater cheered as if it was the first time they had ever seen the play. It didn’t matter that the touchdown happened a decade ago and everyone knew Hokes Bluff was going to win 23-0.
It was still as exciting to watch Thursday evening as it was in 2001.
Last week, Hokes Bluff celebrated the 10-year anniversary of its state championship season. Former players and their families met Thursday for a private screening of the 2001 state title contest against Tarrant, and it gave everyone a chance to reminisce about one of the most special seasons in Hokes Bluff football history.
“I remember before the game, we were all talking about that we weren’t satisfied with just being there,” said Eric Estes, a senior tight end and defensive end on that team. “We wanted to go ahead and finish it all off and do something that had never been done at Hokes Bluff as far as football. It’s hard to describe, but it’s something to look back on and something I will treasure forever.
It’s easy to look back now and say it was a true underdog story. After all, Hokes Bluff finished third in its region after an 8-2 regular season and faced what only could be described as a murderers’ row in the postseason.
“It wasn’t like we were coming into the season going, ‘We’re fixing to win the state championship and we’re awesome.’ It wasn’t that at all,” said Ball, who is in his second season as quarterbacks and secondary coach with Hokes Bluff. “We came off a pretty good year the year before, and going into the ’01 season we knew we had some pretty good players coming back. We didn’t know we were going to do what we did, but we knew we had a chance of having a good team.”
Hokes Bluff beat No. 6 Phil Campbell 35-28 on the road to open the postseason before overwhelming Locust Fork 37-14 at home. The Eagles then came from behind to beat No. 3 Sheffield 15-12 at home in the quarterfinals before defeating Colbert County 22-15 in the semifinals on a last-second pass from Ball to Ryan Gray. Then came the championship game against Tarrant, where Hokes Bluff set the tone early with stingy defense before going on to win 23-0.
Some thought Sheffield would be the end of the line for the Eagles.
“You can ask anybody here, Sheffield was hands down the best team in the state for sure,” Ball said.
Estes remembers that game well.
“Walking out on the field and seeing Sheffield, I was like, ‘Well, our season’s over,” he said. “I remember talking to (teammate) Taylor Morgan and I said, ‘I enjoyed playing football with you, because this is it.’ And this was during warm-ups. They drove down the first couple of minutes of the game and scored a touchdown and really kicked us in the gut. But we got those goal-line stands and everything kind of turned around for us. That, to me, was probably one of the more memorable games. We just got in their heads, got them distraught and we made a couple of plays here and there.
“We found a way to win.”
In the state championship game, the Hokes Bluff defense was stellar. Tarrant never really threatened and reached inside the 30-yard line just once.
Head coach Mike Robertson, who is in his 16th season at the helm of the Hokes Bluff program, acknowledged no one really gave his Eagles a chance against the 14-0 Wildcats.
“I still see people today who say, ‘I haven’t seen you in a few years, but I was at that game when you won the state championship. I want to tell you how much I enjoyed that,’ said Robertson, who was named the Alabama Sports Writers Association Class 3A Coach of the Year following the season. “It’s kind of fun to hear that kind of thing.”
Brandon Harcrow was one of the stars of the championship game, as the senior linebacker picked off a pass and returned it for a score in the fourth quarter.
“(Assistant) coach (Greg) Watkins just before the play had told me to shift to the outside a little bit. Evidently he knew what was fixing to happen,” Harcrow said laughing. “(That season) was just unbelievable. Everything came together at the right time.”
Ball, who was named MVP of the championship game after rushing for two touchdowns, said the Eagle defense was the strength of the team.
“I’ve been around Hokes Bluff for a while now,” Ball said. “No disrespect to anybody, but there’s nobody I’ve seen that even comes close to that defense. A lot of times when Hokes Bluff plays, we’re slower than the other team. But that team we had, we could run with anybody and could match people athletic-wise.”
Harcrow and Ball, along with lineman Barry Alford and kicker Jonathan Denson were ASWA Class 3A All-State performers that season.
But the 2001 Hokes Bluff Eagles will not be remembered for individual stars. The entire team was recognized before Friday night’s game against Etowah County rival Glencoe.
“It wasn’t ever a 'me' or 'I' mentality,” Estes said. “We all knew our spots and knew our roles and knew what to do.
“That’s what set us apart from most everything else.”