Sometimes there are games and the 59th Annual Tomato Bowl was a classic, but then there are times when the game turns into something more.
Patrick Henry traveled to Lee-Davis for the regular-season finale for both teams. It was the team from Ashland’s third trip in four years to Mechanicsville for the big game.
It was a perfect high-school setting, with temperatures in the low 70s which, in turn, brought out a large crowd on both sides of the ball.
The Confederates broke to a seemingly easy 14-0 lead on the legs of junior running back Josh Rice, but the Patriots would not go away.
The temperatures changed and so did the fortunes of the home team while the visitors came at them much like the rain that had traveled from the western Hanover area.
In the end, Patrick Henry prevailed 15-14 and both teams finished its seasons with 6-4 records while Lee-Davis clung to a 30-29 advantage in the late-season annual matchup.
But it was behind the scenes that made this one special.
You see, character is what a man does when no one is looking.
Amid the Patriots celebration, after Patrick Henry principal Beth Smith accepted the Tomato Bowl trophy and ran it town to her team in the north end zone, senior Hunter Hart found Lee-Davis supporter Donna Ballard.
Ballard is the mother of Dylan Ballard, the 17-year-old who was only weeks from his Lee-Davis graduation, and was killed in a single-vehicle wreck on April 23, 2016.
As Hart walked over to embrace Mrs. Ballard, he pulled up his jersey to reveal he was wearing a “Rise as One” T-shirt, which was a tribute to the former Confederates football player who donned No. 28.
“Dylan Ballard was my Dude,” Hart explained about the gesture. “I thought, what better way is there to pay my respect towards him, his family, and the Lee-Davis community than to wear his jersey under my jersey for my last Tomato Bowl.
“I wanted to let the people from Lee-Davis know we constantly pray for them and constantly are thinking about them and what happened. I took the time to reach out to his mom because I wanted her to know my family and everyone else in Western Hanover has been praying for them since the accident.”
Hart, who is a two-sport athlete committed to play baseball at William & Mary, is well known for his grittiness and tenacity on the field and on the diamond, but the culmination of the Tomato Bowl brought out the best in his heart.
“I wanted to let her know that God gives his toughest battles to his strongest soldiers and everything happens for a reason even if the reason isn’t clear.
“I wanted to make sure she knew I prayed for her and her family every night before I go to bed. I let her know her family was one of the strongest families ever and her boy was a great human.”
On the football field, Hart may be the first player to run you over, and occasionally add some flair, but on this night, he was the first to pick up others, including the opposition.
“What inspired me about Dylan was how great of a person he was,” Hart added. “I have yet to meet a person that was as competitive and friendly as he was. Whether it was on the field or playing corn hole against each other over the weekend, we turned it up a notch. He wanted his bragging rights and I wanted mine.
“Not many people are put in the same situation as Mrs. Ballard and her family, I want to do everything I can to help them out. I can see where Dylan got all his good traits from, she is one heck of a person.
“I also wore that shirt to remind everyone – all the students and kids – they are never to drink and drive or get into a vehicle with someone who has been drinking because it isn’t worth it and I don’t want to see anyone have to go through what the Ballard family has gone through, it’s not easy.”
Those who have experienced what the Ballard’s have experienced learn to take life one day at a time and the Patrick Henry senior just happened to make this one day better.
There is no greater love than that, to give of yourself for others.
From a raucous crowd of nearly 3,000, the simple truth of life played out with a party of two in the afterglow of an epic battle.