The best play of the college football weekend didn’t happen in Waco, Ann Arbor or South Bend. Instead, it happened in a place better known for high school football: Odessa, Texas.
UT-Permian Basin was set to end the most dominant first half in the program’s short history against Texas A&M-Kingsville on Senior Day. Up 35-7, sophomore linebacker John O’Kelley flew off the edge, pulled an interception almost right out of the hands of TAMUK quarterback Koy Detmer Jr. and started running the 85 unimpeded yards towards the end zone.
But then, the most unexpected thing happened. O’Kelley looked to his right, where senior teammate Chris Hoad ran beside him, shouting “Go! Go! Go score!” O’Kelley slowed at the 20-yard line and turned towards a surprised Hoad.
“I said screw it, I’m going to hand it to Chris, I’d rather him score,” O’Kelley said. “He grabbed it like a running back – I guess he knew what he was doing.”
Hoad ran the remaining 20 yards into the end zone and swung his arms around like Saquon Barkley to celebrate. His teammates joined him, sat down next to him and started rowing the boat – a celebration the normally reserved Hoad suggested before the game, just in case he found a way to get into the end zone in his last football game.
The group was penalized, but taking a 42-7 lead in the midst of a 70-14 thrashing on Senior Day is the kind of play even the most hardened coach to accept. It was the biggest win in the program’s young history and the first time UTPB won multiple conference games in a season.
The display of selflessness spread quickly on social media. More than two million people watched the original play on UTPB’s social media, and the play was featured on SportsCenter, Bleacher Report and even on Good Morning America.
On the surface, the play was amazing to watch. The story goes even deeper.
Honoring the First Year Seniors
Chris Hoad isn’t just any player, not to this program. UTPB put together its first signing class five years ago, a year in advance of its first college football season. Hoad’s name wasn’t on that list.
In fact, Hoad started his career as a walk-on linebacker. The Falcons worked with just 12 scholarships out of 36 allowed at the D-II level because of limited funding, and head coach Justin Carrigan just couldn’t promise that the plucky young linebacker would earn a spot.
Things changed quickly. Hoad went on to lead the team with 114 tackles and 11 tackles for loss as a freshman to quickly earn out of the limited spots. That was only the beginning. He joined an elite by reaching 500 career tackles against Eastern New Mexico earlier this year. Hoad led the nation with 157 tackles as a senior, and leaves school as the leading active tackler across all NCAA divisions of college football.
Call it a premonition but O’Kelley actually thought before the game that if he had the opportunity to give one of UTPB’s first seniors a moment, he wanted to do it. There are eight players left from the initial class that entered the program as it started. When he looked over and saw Hoad, it made that moment even sweeter.
“Chris is everything to this program,” O’Kelley said. “Losing him is probably the biggest loss we’ll take next year. He sets the standard of hard work and what we want players coming in here to be. Chris getting it, he was the best player, he deserves it the most out of anybody.”
Hoad and the rest of the seniors have been there since the moment O’Kelley arrived on campus. They’ve played in every game since the program started. When O’Kelley suffered a major knee injury in 2018, when he lost his father to cancer, those seniors were there for him.
“I just love this team and what the seniors have put into this team and this program,” O’Kelley said. “I couldn’t thank them enough.”
Hoad and the other seniors went through some brutal times at UTPB. The first Falcons team in 2016 lost its first year of conference games by 38 points per game. It dealt with funding issues, limited scholarships and a university learning how to support football on the fly. Now, the seniors leave the program ready to take the next step towards Lone Star Conference contention.
“It made us closer, we went through a lot of stuff together,” Hoad said. “The bond we have will never be broken. We’re definitely brothers for life.”
Every college football player dreams of getting their big moment on Senior Day, the last time many will ever put on a set of pads. Thanks to a selfless act from a teammate, Hoad got his storybook ending.
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