When Fred Billy was down emotionally in April after the passing of his mother, his teammates on the Saint Stephen’s Episcopal football team picked him up.
“They put a smile on my face when I didn’t want to smile,” Billy said.
When the Falcons trailed by a couple of touchdowns at halftime of Saturday night’s Florida Bowl, it was Billy who stood in front of his teammates and delivered the speech.
“I told them to stand behind each other. We got this,” Billy said. “We believe in ourselves. We’re dangerous. They couldn’t stop us when we believed in ourselves.”
After not scoring for the first 86 minutes, 32 seconds over a span of two games at Pennington Field, the Falcons tallied three touchdowns in a span of 6:02 of the fourth quarter to turn a 14-point deficit into a 21-14 victory over Vero Beach Saint Edward’s School in the Third Annual Florida Bowl at The Master’s Academy. With the victory, Saint Stephen's claims the Sunshine State Conference Championship.
“I have to give it up to my whole team,” Billy said. “We did it as a whole. The O-line stepped up.”
In a game reminiscent of last year’s Florida Bowl when Saint Stephen’s fell behind early and dropped a 33-0 decision to Lakeland Santa Fe Catholic, the Pirates scored on two of their three possessions in the first half and prevented Saint Stephen’s from making an impression on the scoreboard to take a 14-0 lead.
“Not a lot of things were going right,” Falcons coach Tod Creneti said after watching his team fail in three red zone opportunities, including fumbling at the 1-yard line on the opening drive of the game. “We were turning the ball over, which we don’t typically do.
"Fred took it on his shoulders which he has been doing for the past year and made sure we got it done. That’s just a testament to him. He has been so driven in helping us be successful, that came out tonight.”
With the Falcons still scoreless entering the fourth quarter, Saint Edward’s (7-4) were poised to take a three-score lead as Austin Schepers lined up for a 40-yard field goal attempt.
However, senior Lethario Jones Jr. came around the end and blocked the kick that was picked up by Peyton Vining.
“I felt it. I knew he was going to block it,” Billy said.
Creneti said after the game that the blocked kick was the game's turning point. “We have worked on that," he said. "To see him in the moment make that play, it’s huge. From that point on, you could see our kids were energized and really wanted to keep rolling.”
Six plays later Billy scored on a 7-yard touchdown run. The PAT kick was blocked and Saint Stephen’s trailed 14-6 but had life.
“Don’t panic. Just keep doing what we’re doing and we’re going to have our opportunities,” Creneti told his players.
Forcing a three-and-out on the Pirates’ next possession, Saint Stephen’s (11-1) made a huge gamble pay off. On fourth-and-6 from his own 42-yard line, Billy threw a long pass to a double-teamed Vining, who came down with a 41-yard reception on the Saint Edward’s 17-yard line.
Two plays later Billy scored his second touchdown, this one from three yards out. Demetrius Davis took the second of a double handoff and tied the game at 14 with a two-point conversion with 7:22 remaining in regulation.
The Falcons forced another three-and-out with Jones defending a pass on third down. Saint Stephen’s began its winning touchdown drive at its own 23. Eight running plays, including Billy runs of 13 and 25 yards against wilting Pirates’ defense, led to Chase Brown’s 6-yard touchdown with 2:25 left.
Still, there was drama.
First, a Jet Gillum interception was nullified by a pass interference penalty that gave Saint Edward’s renewed life. Then, Gillum defended a fourth-down pass turning the ball over on downs and enabling the Falcons to run out the clock and end the season with an 11-game winning streak.
“This was probably the physically and mentally toughest team we played all year,” Creneti said. “Our kids started playing harder and hitting harder in the second half. That sped the process up.”
Along with giving his inspirational halftime speech, Billy rushed for 206 yards on 25 carries, including 112 yards on 13 carries in the fourth quarter, and passed for another 74 yards.
“He wasn’t going to let us lose,” Creneti said of Billy, who was named the game's MVP.
From 0-11 in 2011 to state champions in 2016.
“Everything,” Billy said when asked what this title means. “Everything, man. When we were 0-11 nobody believed in us. Nobody gave us a shot.”
“When people talk about Saint Stephen’s there’s a lot to talk about,” Creneti said. “It’s a tremendous place academically. We do a lot of things with the arts. We come to compete on the football field and come to compete as athletes as well. That’s part of the story.”