ADAMS TWP — The outcome of the game had long been decided.
The impact of its final play will last a lifetime — Hampton senior Dustin Payne's lifetime.
Hampton's varsity football team hosted Mars to close the regular season recently. The winner of the annual rivalry game would advance to the WPIAL Class 5A playoffs.
With the Planets holding a 27-0 lead and looking to preserve a shutout in the final seconds, Payne entered the game from the Hampton sideline. A student with significant needs, he had played junior varsity football, but not varsity.
“We played him the last couple of plays in our game the previous week,” Hampton coach Jacque DeMatteo said. “This is it for him. We just wanted to get him on the field.”
With seconds remaining, Payne took off downfield and ran into a Mars defender as a pass was headed in his direction.
“He ran right into our kid and they called pass interference on us,” Mars coach Scott Heinauer said. “Strange call, but no big deal. I mean, it wasn't gonna affect anything.
“(Hampton basketball coach) Joe Lafko was working the chains on our sidelines. After that play, he mentioned to me that he (Payne) was a special needs kid and they were trying to get him a touchdown. We had no idea that was going on.”
So, with two seconds on the clock and the ball near the Mars 10-yard line, Heinauer saw Payne line up wide, near the Mars sideline. Planet cornerback Nick Spotti lined up across from him.
“I was trying to tell Nick to back away, to let him score if he gets the ball,” Heinauer said. “He gave me this weird expression ... probably thought I was nuts.”
But Spotti drifted from his corner position to the middle of the field — and quickly tried to communicate the situation to his teammates.
“When the ball was snapped, I don't know how many of our guys knew what was going on,” Spotti said. “We tried to tell each other. We wanted the kid to get the ball.
“I ran over to (defensive end) Dalton Becker and told him. We tried passing the word. We wanted the Hampton kids to know we'd let him go. I'm not sure if they got the word or not.”
Regardless, Talbot quarterback Matt DeMatteo threw the ball to Payne. He caught it along the left sideline and ran into the end zone for his first and only varsity touchdown as time expired.
“We were going to win the game anyhow,” Becker said. “It was a good thing to do for that kid. He deserved to have that moment.”
After Payne scored, the entire Hampton team flooded the end zone to congratulate him. Members of the Mars defense joined in the celebration.
“We were talking like, should we go over there? Then it just happened that way,” Spotti said.
Hampton athletic director Bill Cardone said in a statement that despite the significant challenges in his life, Payne served as an inspiration to his teammates.
“He gave quite a pep talk to the team once they were down about how you can't let life's challenges keep you from giving it your all and pushing through it. He had them all in tears,” Cardone said.
Coach DeMatteo described Payne as “serving primarily a manager's role” during his high school football years.
“Somehow, those kids got the word out,” DeMatteo said. “The Mars players were very wary of him. They left him open, then celebrated his touchdown.
“You can't help but be moved by that whole scene. I'm proud of every player who was on that field.”
Heinauer referred to the moment as “the proudest I've ever felt as a football coach.
“That kid's name will be in that box score for the rest of his life. No one can take it away from him. It's precious,” the Mars coach said.
Hampton principal Dr. Marguerite Imbarlina wrote a letter to Mars High School lauding the Planets' act of sportsmanship.
“Their kindness was felt by our whole school community,” she wrote. “Thank you for teaching kids that kindness matters and that winning is fun, but there are other ways to prove that you are a winner that are never reflected on a scoreboard.”
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