Getting ready for football: McNeill sparks comeback vs. Crest
Published 3:20 pm Tuesday, August 8, 2023
By Brian Pitts
As we get ready for the 2023 Davie football season, here’s a look back at one of the all-time games, a late rally and 35-28 win over Crest in 2004.
When Crest scored a touchdown with 8:14 to play at War Eagle Stadium, Davie’s hopes for knocking off one of the state’s biggest dynasties was over. It was 28-14 and Davie was done. Crest had just marched 90 yards in 17 plays and the War Eagles and their standing-room-only crowd felt dejected, even though they had served notice of their legitimacy by staying competitive for three-plus quarters.
But somehow, it wasn’t over. Somehow, Davie rallied for one of the greatest and wildest wins in its history. The final 8:14 featured two unbelievable plays – a 95-yard kickoff return by Raeshon McNeil and a 60-yard interception return by Cooter Arnold – and three War Eagle TDs in a span of 5:41 to give them a pulsating 35-28 nonconference win over an opponent that was ranked No. 1 in 3-A by ncpreps.com.
Davie slayed a giant, frenzied fans stormed the field and coach Doug Illing got a Gatorade bath.
“People said we weren’t going to win,” linebacker D.J. Rice said. “We had to show them Davie County is going to be something this year.”
“We’re all going for one thing – a state championship for Davie County,” outside linebacker Dustin Morgan said. “Now a lot of people are going to realize what Davie County’s about.”
This was such a challenge that just staying close to Crest would have been considered a small victory. The Chargers’ hugely-successful resume included being the last team to beat Independence in 2000. From 1994-97, they made the 4-A semifinals twice and won it all twice. In 2003, they handed Eastern Randolph its only loss, 40-0, in the 3AA state final. Coach Roy Kirby entered the Davie game with a 77-17 record. They started 10 sophomores in the 2003 state championship game, returned 16 starters in 2004 and belted West Charlotte 28-0 in the opener. West Charlotte, a 13-game winner in 2003, managed seven yards. Their wealth of talent included running back Martray Littlejohn (1,993 rushing yards in 2003), running back Travis Padgett (verbal commitment to Duke), quarterback Maurice Gullatte (MVP in the 2003 state-title game) and the biggest offensive line that you’ll find. Kirby said “our offense is unbelievable” after beating West Charlotte.
But after Davie pulled the upset, the truth about the War Eagles became clear to everyone: They were star-studded themselves and were unlike anything Davie County had ever seen.
“They thought we were a joke,” defensive lineman Zac O’Brien said. “They were all out there laughing and we showed that Davie ain’t no joke. Don’t come in our house and laugh. We are the real deal.”
The outcome had nothing to do with luck. The War Eagles didn’t just outplay Crest in the first quarter, they manhandled Crest (90 yards to zero).
Davie opened the scoring on a trick play. Arnold took a pitch from quarterback Brad Corriher and faked a sweep. He pulled up and saw receiver Dewayne Collins all alone. Collins caught the pass and jogged in for a 31-yard score and 7-0 lead.
The Chargers, though, answered with 14 straight points. They might have taken a 21-7 halftime lead if Davie’s defense had not gotten a huge stop on fourth-and-1 from the Davie 15.
Early in the third, Arnold intercepted Gullatte at the Davie 45. Arnold picked up a first down on third-and-3 thanks to a highlight-reel block by center Ryan Boehm, and Collins streaked down the left sideline three plays later, a 25-yard completion from Arnold that tied it at 14.
The Chargers regained control by putting together two TD drives. A win for the ages looked like it wouldn’t happen when Padgett’s 2-yard plunge capped the 90-yard drive for a 28-14 margin.
Down by 14 with 8:14 to play, all Davie needed was a miracle comeback. All Davie needed was McNeil. With fans on their way to the exits, the junior took the ensuing kickoff at the 5 and delivered a 95-yard return. He got a block from Collins at the Davie 20 and burst untouched into a one-on-one duel with the kicker. When McNeil turned kicker Doug Lowery into a telephone pole, it was bye-bye. Coupled with David Stein’s extra point, the return made it 28-21, it stamped McNeil in the archives and it loosened Crest’s screws.
“The defense was tired,” Morgan said. “Man, that just lifted everything up.”
“That changed the game completely,” offensive guard Jordan Grimes said. “Then I knew we were going to win.”
McNeil smiled broadly at the lifetime memory. “I saw some people leaving the stands,” he said. “I wanted to do something to bring the team back. They made great blocks. I didn’t have to juke nobody but the kicker. They talked about all their 4.2s and 4.1s. I showed them what speed was.”
Then Davie’s rejuvenated defense staggered Crest. Collins and Rice combined for a sack and Kurt Bivins blanketed a deep receiver on third down. Then Arnold fanned the frenzy by returning a punt 27 yards to the Crest 27, getting road-clearing blocks from McNeil and Rice. Running back Justin Brown powered the ball to the Crest 2. Arnold sneaked 1 yard to convert a make-or-break fourth-and-inches, and he followed Boehm again for a TD.
With the score 28-27 and the house rocking, Stein stepped into the spotlight. He evoked a giant roar by drilling the tying kick down the middle. That was something for a senior who had never touched a football before 2004.
“I was just praying that I would make that extra point,” he said. “It all came down to me. I said: ‘Concentrate, concentrate, keep your head down.’”
With 2:30 left, Gullatte heaved a moon ball from Crest’s 28. Arnold added another heart-stopping play to his list by picking it off and returning it 60 yards to the house. He made an over-the-shoulder catch. The intended receiver grabbed Arnold’s leg, but he wiggled free. He stumbled but regained his footing just as his knee was about to touch the ground. Then all you saw was a Collins block and an Arnold flash. He hurdled a man, rode Ted Randolph’s block at the Crest 10 and soared horizontally into the end zone as Davie fans yelled their hearts out.
It had gone from 28-14 Crest to 35-28 Davie. Arnold knocked the Chargers down, and the defense didn’t let them up. They failed to cross midfield on their final two possessions.
“We knew (Arnold’s) a great athlete,” Kirby said. “We’d watched video and I’d talked to people that said he’s high on the list for the Shrine Bowl. So is their tight end (Randolph).”
When the clock hit 0:00 on Gullatte’s incompletion from midfield, students rushed from the stands and mobbed the War Eagles. It looked like a scene from a state championship game.
“I asked a couple people: ‘Was that worth five dollars?’” offensive coordinator Barry Whitlock said. “And I had people telling me they would have paid 20. Our fans were yelling ‘Dee-fence’ and chanting. I’m talking about from grandmothers to kindergartners, and then everybody stormed the field. People were hugging and didn’t even know who they were hugging.”
The War Eagles, who improved to 3-0, would live up to the hype by running the table in the regular season. The closest margin other than Crest was 13 at North Davidson. Then they steamrolled to the 4A semifinals, winning 49-0 over Purnell Swett, 49-6 over South Caldwell and 41-0 over Hoke County. They were 14-0 before getting upset, 19-11, by Jack Britt in the fourth round.
Meanwhile, the Chargers would win their next 14 games, including a triumph in the 3AA final to repeat as state champs. They finished 15-1.