Sports can be cruel.
There are sure to be heroes.
And unfortunately, like in every game ever played, some in uniform will undoubtedly cast as anything but.
North Carolina Central wide receiver Quentin Atkinson was both simultaneously on Saturday.
After hauling in a 39-yard rainbow from quarterback Malcolm Bell in the back of the end zone for the Eagles’ first touchdown of the game with 2:14 remaining in the fourth quarter, a jubilant Atkinson ripped off his helmet and pranced on the sidelines in celebration.
The senior had made the biggest play of the season to pull the Eagles within a point.
Moments later, a game official threw a flag and called Atkinson for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that pushed the game-tying extra-point to a 35-yard attempt.
The dreaded double thud followed when Joseph McWilliams blocked Brandon McLaren’s attempt to preserve the lead and secure a Grambling 10-9 win over NCCU to win the Air Force Reserve Celebration and the school’s 14th HBCU championship.
“I kind of felt fault for that,” said Atkinson, who dropped a sure TD in the first quarter. “I do want to apologize to my team for that because that was a selfish act. I’m not selfish, but it was the heat of the moment and I was excited to bring the team back with an outstanding play.”
The Celebration Bowl, at least prior to the game, was not supposed to be a one-point affair.
What was believed to be a mismatch on paper according to the Las Vegas oddmakers, turned into a game decided by the slimmest of margins.
After a first-half that ended with NCCU leading 3-0, Grambling — winners of 10 consecutive games heading into the matchup with the Eagles — took the attack on the ground at the start of the third quarter.
Running the ball seven of eight plays, first with Jestin Kelly before Martez Carter scampered 32 yards for the game’s first TD and the lead.
“Jestin Kelly, he’s a ground-and-pound type guy,” Carter said. “He wore those guys down. I’m just a home-run hitter, man. He wore them down and then they put me in. What else are you going to do? You take those blows from him and then try to take me.”
Carter finished the game with 109 yards on 12 carries for the afternoon.
The Grambling State defense, which held the Eagles to just 33 yards in the second half before the Atkinson touchdown, positioned the Tigers to score later in the third quarter when Arkez Cooper forced a Bell fumble to set the offense up at the Eagles 25-yard line.
Jonathan Wallace then knocked through a 26-yard field goal to extend the advantage to 10-3.
The fourth quarter — like the entire game — was one of missed opportunities.
After a Carter punt return placed Grambling inside the 20 with 11:26 remaining in the game, the offense stalled at 2 when the NCCU defense stopped the Tigers on fourth down.
Pinned inside their own 10, NCCU was able to get its offense going when Bell hit LaVontis Smith for a 46-yard gain on the Eagles’ longest play from scrimmage.
Disaster struck three plays later when Bell was intercepted by Jameel Jackson to end the promising drive. For the game, Bell went 18-for-32 for 240 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
The championship run for Grambling was seemingly improbable just three years ago when the programs won just one game in 2013.
“We were dealing with a fractured situation,” said Fobbs of Grambling’s plight when he took over. “Our kids were broken. They were not trusting of anyone. I figured it couldn’t get no worse. We had to learn how to get off the ground. We had to learn to compete and win.”
When asked how Eddie Robinson — the patriarch of the Grambling program would react to the team being back on top — Fobbs kept it simple.
“I think he would be happy with us,” he said.