LIVE OAK, Fla. — There, sitting on top of the refrigerator, was the goal, the expectation, the prize.
It was there where Matt Jackson saw it every single day.
The son of Suwannee assistant coach Jimmy Jackson and one of the star players on the 1999 SHS football team, Jackson got a visual reminder daily of the carrot dangling out in front of that group of Bulldogs: a state championship, the ring that went with it and a return to glory for Suwannee High.
“My dad used to have the rings sitting in the box on top of the refrigerator, all four,” Jackson said this summer recalling that season 20 years ago. “And I would see those rings. He didn’t brag or anything like, ‘You got to get you one of these.’ But I was like, ‘Shoot, I want me one of those.’
“So that was a little unsaid motivation amongst us.”
It was a goal that had long belonged to those Bulldogs. Growing up in Live Oak when Mike Pittman coached SHS to four straight state championships from 1987 to 1990, the ’99 Dogs remembered those glory days well.
They also knew the talent they possessed in their group — Jackson as well as fellow defensive backfield standouts Kyler Hall, Jarvis Herring and Kelly Jennings all went on to play Division I football.
That combination meant a load of confidence, even way before that ’99 campaign.
“Oh yeah, we expected it,” Herring said. “Even before we got into high school, we expected it.
“Without a doubt, not one of us did not know that. Our plans were to go win a state championship. There was no way possible that we would not. We knew what each one of us had. We knew what talent we had and how hard each one of us worked.
“So we knew there was no way we weren’t.”
That confidence, even with Suwannee coming off a pair of 5-6 seasons that ended with first-round playoff losses, seemed warranted early that season.
The Bulldogs downed rival Hamilton County, Godby, Wakulla, district foe Santa Fe and Taylor County to rise to No. 2 in the state.
During the early season run, the Bulldogs had outscored their opponents by an average of nearly 18 points per game behind a defense that was “nasty.”
In addition to the four stars in the secondary, the Bulldogs had Tim Riley on the defensive line as well as their defensive leaders in Devin Allen and Charles Jones at linebacker.
“We were nasty,” Riley said. “We were tough, we would hit you. Anybody that we played against, they knew that for four quarters we were going to hit you in your mouth. And it wasn’t going to stop.”
Hall, now Suwannee’s head coach, said that toughness was possibly best exemplified by Pete Hahn. The starting quarterback, Hahn also played nose guard.
“Who thinks of that combination,” Hall said. “There were some dogs on that defense — and offense too.”
But without a doubt, that unit was led by Allen and Jones. The two combined for more than 220 tackles and more hard hits than one could count.
“Those two were the heart and soul of our defense,” Hall said.
Describing them as the defense’s tone setters, Jackson said Allen wasn’t that fast in a foot race. But, he added, going from sideline to sideline, he could run with anybody.
Jones, who Hall said was pushing 170 pounds if he was dripping wet, could “hit like a 240-pound linebacker,” Jackson added.
LIMPING INTO THE POSTSEASON
After that 5-0 start to the season, came a trip to unheralded North Marion, another district game. The Colts edged Suwannee 15-14. Palatka then slipped past Suwannee 7-6 in Live Oak in another district game before Madison County downed the Bulldogs 23-10.
A 45-12 win at Lake Weir lifted Suwannee into a shootout for the second playoff bid from the district, which it won.
“It was nerve-wrecking,” Hall said of the tiebreaker shootouts, which he’s experienced as both a player and a coach. “But it causes you to bring your absolute best out. Whatever is inside is going to come out at that moment.”
Guaranteed a playoff berth, Suwannee closed the regular season with an overtime loss to Columbia, the Bulldogs’ fourth in five games as they finished the regular season 6-4, although coach Jay Walls said they were certainly better than that record indicated.
“It wasn’t like it was just a cakewalk,” Hall added. “But I think that makes it more special, you fight through something like that, adversity.
“I think when you experience something like that with a group it’s ingrained in you, it sticks with you.”
TURNING THINGS AROUND
But with new life, the Bulldogs regrouped.
Playing a Quincy Shanks team that knocked them out of the playoffs the year prior, Suwannee rolled 48-24 in the first round and finally got over the “first round hump” according to Jennings, which he said was a confidence boost to the Bulldogs that they really could do it.
Then came a trip to Pace, which eliminated SHS in the 1997 postseason, and a 14-11 win against an unbeaten foe.
Which set up a third showdown with Santa Fe, which received an at-large bid to the playoffs.
“That was probably one of the better football games I’ve been in to be honest with you,” said Jackson, who went on to play at the University of Florida.
Hall added, “That was probably one of the more cool environments I ever played in. It was a packed house, loud. It was so loud, it was hard to communicate.”
That atmosphere surrounded a seemingly never-ending classic.
Back-and-forth, it took the Bulldogs and Raiders two overtimes to settle things.
That’s when an exhausted Riley made a play. The defensive lineman blocked Santa Fe’s extra point after the Raiders scored to open the second extra period, which gave Suwannee the chance to win, which it did when Herring scored and Jacob Parks knocked his extra point through for a 48-47 win.
“I told Kelly, I said, ‘Man, I don’t know how much longer I can go. I’m wore out,’” Riley recalled. “I’ll never forget, Kelly looked at me and said, ‘Well make something happen then.’
“I exploded off the line and one of the guys tried to block me and I ripped through it and just made a play.
“That was a crazy game.”
Coming off that exhausting win, the Bulldogs got to host the state semifinal. But on the other side was a Titusville Astronaut team that Suwannee knew little about.
And when the Bulldogs got their first look at the War Eagles, things didn’t look good. Walls said it was one of the biggest high school teams he has ever seen.
“It was like, ‘Whoa. These guys look like grown men,’” Herring said. “It was like, ‘Man, they’re going to kill y’all.’”
Jennings added, “I’ll be honest, us getting off the bus and looking down there, it was kind of the feeling that, ‘Is this a college team we’re playing?’”
The undersized Bulldogs blasted past Astronaut for a 24-0 lead in the first half and won 31-14 to advance to the state championship at Florida Field in Gainesville.
According to Herring, that win all started from the very start of the game when Allen made a statement.
“Like the first series of the game, they were going to meet up on the edge and everybody thought he was going to run Devin over,” he said about Astronaut’s star running back, who Hall said was 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds. “Devin just hit him in the mouth. Boom! Bent his facemark.
“That changed the whole tone of the rest of the game. It was like, ‘They’re not that tough. They can’t mess with these ’Dogs.’”
The outlook didn’t change much in the championship game against Belle Glade Glades Central either.
“On paper, we had no business being on the field with Belle Glades Central,” Jackson said. “NO way in the world, as far as on paper, should we have been on the field with those guys.
“But actually on the field, even to this day, we feel like should have won that game.”
Indeed, the Bulldogs’ play once again said they did belong.
After falling behind by 10 points early, Suwannee rallied and following a Hahn touchdown, the Bulldogs were a two-point conversion away from tying the game in the fourth quarter at 24.
The conversion failed and Glades Central went on to win 37-22, smashing Suwannee’s dreams of another championship.
“It’s still a little sour taste,” Jackson said.
Walls added: “At that time, when we got beat, it was absolutely the worst feeling.
“Now, you’re able to look back and go, ‘Man, that was a special season and a great bunch of guys.’ But yeah, it still stings a little. It always will.”
So what made those Bulldogs so special? What made Suwannee tough enough to overcome seemingly insurmountable size and talent deficiencies in the playoffs?
“We were inseparable,” Herring said of the close bond the team had.
The others all agreed without fail.
That chemistry and bond made them determined not to fail.
“We were playing for each other,” Jennings said.
Jackson added, “It goes back to our attitude toward each other was like, ‘I don’t want to be the guy to let us down. I don’t want to let my brother down.’”
And they didn’t let each other down.
While they fell short of that ultimate goal, they still realized their childhood dreams.
“Growing up watching Suwannee football, our goal, our big dream was to put that Bulldog helmet on,” Jackson said. “Like, that’s what we grew up. Whatever happens after that, great, but growing up as a kid in Suwannee County being in Paul Langford Stadium during one of the state championship games, you hear, ‘Country boy can survive,’ you’re in the atmosphere, you know what good small-town football is. That’s what we wanted to be.”
Hall added, “We couldn’t wait until we got up here. Our plans were to be a Suwannee Bulldog and to play for a state championship.”
That they did.
And they returned Suwannee back to state prominence.
Back to where they believed the Bulldogs belonged.
“The bar had been set that high in the community, in the program,” Walls said, adding he was getting goose bumps just thinking about it. “Winning on such a high level, that those kids, they were really pumped about having the success they had seen as little guys.
“In 1996, Suwannee was 0-10. And in three years, we were playing for a state championship. That says a lot about those kids…They turned it back around to what Suwannee was used to.”
Jennings added, “It meant everything for us. In my mind, state championship is what Suwannee football is and was. Having that opportunity, and everything that I remembered as a young boy still flowing through my brain, it was the epitome of Live Oak and who we are.”