Heritage High’s football team galvanized Newport News 21 years ago, bringing the city its only football state championship during an unbeaten season in which it vanquished mighty Hampton twice in front of crowds of almost 10,000 at Todd Stadium.
This year’s Heritage players poignantly achieved a memorable feat of their own on Friday — even in losing 18-0 to city rival Warwick. The Hurricanes gave an inspirational display of heart and resilience in their first game since a shooting in the school hallways Sept. 20 resulted in two injuries.
Heritage has yet to return to in-person learning since the shooting, so Hurricanes’ players and coaches understood as they approached Friday’s game at Todd Stadium that they represent the school community in a larger sense than usual.
“It’s a big responsibility, but it’s a good feeling to put the school on our backs after all that’s happened,” said senior Vincent Moody, the Hurricanes’ star wide receiver. “We want to go out and show who we are.”
Head coach Scott Woodlief said, “We don’t want to just come back, we want to come back and make a statement that we can compete.”
That figured to be a tall order against a Warwick team that had played seven games. COVID-19 protocols had already limited the Hurricanes to a handful of September practices and two games (both losses), before the shooting closed the school and put football on hiatus for almost three weeks.
Suddenly, the players were adjusting to virtual learning and no afternoon football.
“I prefer in-school learning a lot more,” senior running back Joseph Griffin said. “I’m not doing so well virtual, because I need that in-person assistance.”
As they adjusted to that, Heritage’s players had to deal with memories of the shooting. Surveillance footage shows that a 15-year-old boy shot two fellow students, a boy and a girl, both 17, during an apparent altercation in the hallway outside the cafeteria.
The suspect was charged with malicious wounding, using a firearm in a felony and underage possession of a firearm — charges pending in the Newport News juvenile court.
“It was traumatizing, a life experience, but I’ve gotten over it,” Griffin said. “I was coming from lunch, walking down the hallway and didn’t know what that first sound was.
“My heart was pounding (upon hearing a second shot), blood rushed to my head and the adrenaline made me realize I need to get out of the situation.”
Said Moody: “I thought it was a big balloon (popping) and then I turned and saw the gun. My first reaction was, don’t panic and make sure I get out of the building safely.”
In the days after, Moody and Griffin said they leaned on their mothers for comfort and advice. Moody said he also talked to his teammates and friends to see what they were doing to stay calm.
“They told me to relax, that the situation was over and there was nothing I could do about it — so thank God I was alive and look forward to the future,” Moody said. “It taught me not to be lax in the world, to be aware and keep a good group around me.”
Jannette Guilford, Moody’s mom, said, “He was frightened, but was glad that he was able to get out of the school and that his sister (Cierra) was OK. He’s more relaxed now, ready to get back in school and excited his sport is back up and running again.
“I told him to continue to pray, that I’m always here for him and just gave him the support he needed. I learned that he’s a strong young man and he handled this like a champ.”
Heritage principal Dr. Earling Hunter, expressed the feelings of many in the school community when he capped Senior Night activities during pregame Friday by saying, “I know we’ve been through some tough times, but it’s always a great day to be a ‘Cane!”
That optimism, Moody’s and Griffin’s resilience, and the growing bond and maturity Woodlief has sensed in his players since practice resumed six days earlier were evident from the kickoff. The Hurricanes surprised the favored Raiders with an onside kick and recovered it.
Quarterback Derrick Gurley’s 15-yard run moved the Hurricanes deeper into Raiders’ territory before the drive stalled. But Gurley recovered a muffed punt by the Raiders and the Hurricanes had good field position again.
That went for naught as did yet another drive inside the Warwick 40 sparked by Griffin’s 22-yard run. The Hurricanes failed to score later in the half inside the Warwick 10 and fell behind 6-0 on a short Raiders’ touchdown set up by a bad punt snap.
Mistakes — and a plethora of five-yard penalties for things like motion or delay of game — doomed Heritage on a night when it dominated possession and yards-gained. A pair of dropped passes by Moody were further evidence of the lack of practice and games.
“You had a bad half,” Woodlief counseled Moody at halftime. “Forget it and have a great second half.”
Moody did. His 20-yard reception ignited another Heritage drive to start the second half. His interception return of more than 50 yards put them inside the Warwick 5 again, but it was nullified by a block-in-the back on the return.
Heritage made it to the Warwick 1 in the second half, only to lose the scoring opportunity on a fumble.
But the Hurricanes were not discouraged, realizing, mistakes aside, they had played better-than-expected football under difficult circumstances. Woodlief’s voice choked as he addressed his team in a postgame huddle following the program’s most emotional moment since the 2000 state title.
“I was asked (by media) what was the difference between our guys (after) what’s happened to them,” he said. “I told them, `They’re growing up as men, quickly.’
“Guys, you have been through adversity, amazingly, and you’re overcoming it. You gave everything you’ve got and left it on the field tonight.
“I’m damned proud to be the coach of the Heritage Hurricanes tonight! I’m damned proud! We turned it!”
Their young lives changed, as Griffin acknowledged, he and Moody echoed their coach’s feelings.
“Even though we took a loss, I believe we played our best football,” Moody said. “We’re closer of a team since the incident and in the future we’ll be a great team.
“Everything we’ve been through will push us in the right direction.”
Griffin said, “We fought hard from the beginning to the end, and that’s the best I’ve seen out of this group. Ever since (the shooting) happened, we’ve become more mature, started focusing more and proved we have the dog fight.
“I love the way we fought tonight and I’m real proud,” Griffin added. “Real proud.”
Marty O’Brien, 757-247-4963, firstname.lastname@example.org