By MARK TRIBLE
Glory Days Football Writer
GLOUCESTER — It’s hard to quantify what makes high school football so special, but a glimpse of the sweetness came here at J.A. Lynch Field on Friday night in the Central Jersey Group 1 playoffs.
A small city rallied around an unbeaten team and its star — No. 28 in Navy and gold. Steve “Sharky” Burkhardt took the first carry of the game and ran for six yards. He took the second for six more.
On the third, he broke a tackle, then two, then three and made his way down the right sideline 56 yards for a score. It brought a raucous roar from hometown friends and kids who look up to him — one on the sideline in a beanie with a finned beast on the cuff.
Burkhardt lifted his Gloucester Lions to their first postseason win in seven years. He lifted the heavy workload in the chilly temps. He lifted the team on a late 4th-down call.
Really, he lifted the town.
By a 21-14 result, fourth-seeded Gloucester (8-0) topped No. 5 New Egypt (7-2).
“It feels amazing, man. I got kind of speechless,” Burkhardt, with rubber pellets from the turf strewn across his face, said. “I just keep smiling. I can’t describe it.”
Per NJ.com reporter Kevin Minnick, Burkhardt ran 26 times for 253 yards and two touchdowns.
While the stats this season have been incredible — South Jersey historian Chuck Langerman has Burkhardt at No. 2 for the most touchdowns in a single Lions’ season with 30 — there’s much more that the weapon brings to this program.
“He’s got a big heart, he does the Friends of Rachel, Helping Hands, does a lot of community service, gives back the community,” coach Rob Bryan said. “He’s the first one to step up when we need help.
“Whether it’s the toy drive or the food drive, he’s always there.”
And most importantly on Friday, the last drive.
The Lions were faced with a 4th-and-short with 1 minute, 35 seconds left. A first down figured to clinch the game.
“I told coach give me the ball,” Burkhardt said. “I don’t care what it is, just give me the ball.”
Bryan, the fourth-year head coach, obliged on a toss.
“We said over the headset, put the ball in his hands and let him do his thing,” Bryan said. “He did it and more.
“… There was no doubt in our mind. It was unanimous.”
The 18-yard run clinched it.
Everyone voiced their praise on the home side, yells they’d waited to let out for a while. They built up even more this year, and by the time kickoff rolled around for the sectional game, the atmosphere became electric.
“Gloucester loves its football, man,” Burkhardt said. “It’s been a while since we’ve been here.
“Home playoff game, everyone knew it would be packed and they showed up for us. I love these fans, man. We all do. We love playing for them.”
While Burkhardt’s heroics were headline material, the most crucial point of the game came from the defense.
The unit had to stop the Warriors after a completion set up shop inside the 2-yard line. Three run stops and an incompletion later and the Lions had their moment with 4:59 left in the third frame in New Egypt’s best threat to tie.
“We mentioned that to them after the game and told them, ‘hey, that defensive stand right there goes down in history,’” Bryan said. “That’s Gloucester football right there, to the T.
“That’s what we talk about. Standing tough when you have all the odds stacked against you and the kids pull through. That’s what adds to all the excitement and enjoyment of this win, is those guys standing tall in the red zone. It was huge for us. It will go down in history for sure.”
Bryan stopped once in the postgame interview to collect himself. He’d talked to his former coach Leon Harris before the game on what he knew would be an emotional night.
Harris offered a simple message.
“He texted me and said to take a few minutes before kickoff, soak in atmosphere, everything you’ve built, the crowd, the noise, the cheers, it’s all part of the climate that we’ve built here and all the work we’ve done all year long,” Bryan said. “I did. I listened to him. It was special.”
So is No. 28. So is a night where the host program rides off a victor after a hard-fought clash that ends a postseason drought. So are high school playoffs.
Mark Trible covers high school football for Glory Days Magazine. Check out his weekly Facebook Live show every Wednesday at 7 p.m. The South Jersey Football Frenzy Show can be seen at facebook.com/acglorydays. You can also take in Mark’s “Hat’s Off” podcast every Sunday at 9 a.m. at our Facebook page.