The Peach County Trojans walked away from the 2017 football season furious, confused and wanting answers. The controversial ending of the Calhoun-Peach County Class AAA championship game was the product of at least two missed calls on one play, which compounded other missed calls throughout the game.
For those unfamiliar with what took place on Dec. 8, 2017, here is a breakdown: With 3:33 left in the game, Peach County’s drive stalled at the Calhoun 21-yard line on fourth-and-8. The Trojans, trailing 10-6, had to go for it and sent Noah Whittington out wide up the left side. He caught a perfect pass from Antonio Gilbert at the 7-yard line and was brought down by Brannon Spector, with the ball in his out-stretched arms, directly on the goal line. The ball bobbled loose as he landed and rolled into the end zone after it seemingly bounced off the ground and his own helmet. Either way, Whittington clearly had possession until he hit the turf, which should have been first-and-goal or a touchdown.
For Peach, life continues, but the questions of what could have been linger, joining a list of other controversial endings in state title situations.
“It’s over and done with,” Peach County coach Chad Campbell said Sunday. “Life goes on. You pick up the pieces and move one. We can’t sit there and sulk on it. I feel like we got a bad deal, but there’s a lot of other teams going through the same thing when they get a bad call.”
The play was ruled an incomplete pass, and the call gave Calhoun the ball and moment. Following a stellar defensive stand, the Yellow Jackets walked away with their fourth state title and were deserving champions. The Calhoun defense held strong throughout the game and consistently silenced Peach’s high-powered offense.
But it became clear early in the game that the officiating crew was having a rough day.
There were too many questionable calls going both ways. The confusion in the weeks following the game stemmed from the questions posed by both fan bases, and more bluntly, anyone with eyes.
Was Whittington pushed out of bounds by Spector? If he was and came back in, can Whittington touch the ball first? Did Whittington go out of bounds on his own, therefore making him an ineligible receiver? Clearly it wasn’t an incomplete pass, so how did that get called? Seem confused? So did everyone ... then and now.
The fallout from the title game was unlike any that the state, or the GHSA, has seen.
Peach County’s fan base booed loudly when the Jackets got the trophy, which was shameful. Calhoun’s fan base took to social media to counter each Peach County argument, and nastiness ensued. Peach County’s www.peachcountyrings.com made the argument that they were "The best in AAA" and asked for donations for state championship rings. It was a gimmicky reaction, to say the least. Message boards and vent pages -- the choir of babble -- filled up with constant drudge on the subject.
It was a mess. And it didn’t get better after the GHSA seemingly stonewalled Peach County after it asked for a meeting in Thomaston.
Ten days after the game, Campbell and a group of supporters made the trip to Upson County to present their thoughts to a mostly silent GHSA board. There should have been more conversation from the board, and the silence and stock phrases from GHSA officials sprinkled salt on the wound.
Considering how Campbell felt blown off by the referee who made the call, the GHSA owed a non-scripted word or two on the subject.
"He blew me off,” Campbell said in Thomaston, when referring to the official who made the incomplete pass call. “Just like it was another call. It's not just another call. Nah, it ain't another call. It was a call that was viewed nationwide. And every day I go somewhere I hear it. And being in that locker room with 85 kids trying to explain to them what happened, you don't want to know what it's like.”
The 30-plus minute meeting was highlighted by Campbell’s arguments and suggestions for a remedy.
“We'll go out and play on the concrete," Campbell said. "We think we deserve something."
But progress emerged, albeit slow progress.
In the ensuing weeks, a Peach County legislator introduced a long-shot bill to require instant replay in high school football games to help with the questionable-call problem. It was a start.
At the GHSA State Executive Committee meeting last week, the GHSA voted to have seven officials on the field for each postseason game, as opposed to the standard six-person crew. The GHSA also will try to find a way for these officiating teams to work together before state title games. Instant replay will not be a reality ... at least not now.
“I think that they’ve had enough of bad calls,” Campbell said. “They’re looking into the situation a bit more, you know. Of course, ours was on the ... well, everybody in the world saw it. But other people have had bad calls that didn’t go their way. Now I see where Alabama is going to where they will have replay in every game. So the seventh official, in our instance, I don’t know if that would make a difference. One guy made a call and everybody else, even the ones who did see the play happen, they didn’t try to intervene and try to help the situation, so I don’t know if an extra judge would make a difference or not."
The Corky Kell Classic will be the first to experiment with the seven-man crews during its August kickoff event, and the concerns of Campbell and others might be quelled following the event. (For more information visit www.corkykell.com. or see Craig Sager II’s story here.)
"The more eyes out there, the better,’’ GHSA associate director Tommy Whittle told GHSFD/AJC writer Todd Holcomb. "With six, if you put two deep judges on the sidelines, you’re weaker in the middle. With these spread offenses sending three deep, the umpire has to have his head on a swivel in the middle of the field. That’s really tough to do. We’ve got good officials. We’ve just got to tweak it a little to get everybody in the right spot.’’
Part of the GHSA’s response was fueled, I assume, by the reactions the Peach-Calhoun play garnered, which brought into focus the number of calls that actually are missed each week by the six-man crews.
But that isn't the only reason, according to the GHSA’s Ernie Yarbrough.
“To be honest, the matter of bringing instant replay into football here is not something that was just brought up in light of that Peach County game or any other this past season,” Yarbrough told Gabriel Stovall of the Covington News. “I believe there were a couple of states where it’s already being done, and we’ve looked at those in the past.”
While high school fans didn't get everything discussed, it was a start. For as much flak as the GHSA catches on a day-to-day basis, it has taken a step in the right direction with this decision. The GHSA saw that calls were missed by the six referees, and something needed to be addressed. It was addressed -- six-man crews are out and seven-man crews are the rage.
Is it major progress? No. But it’s progress. It’s a positive reaction. It’s a step in the right direction and maybe, just maybe, an instant replay system for title games, and possibly regular-season games, will be on the horizon.
It should be.