Presbyterian senior defensive back Rod Haygood’s interception of a Tyler Phelps pass Saturday against Davidson was arguably the biggest of Haygood’s four-year career with the Blue Hose.
Haygood jumped a post route at the PC 3-yard-line to thwart what was beginning to look like a last-minute, game-winning drive by the Wildcats.
After the play, Haygood ran down the field, extending his arms like the wings of an airplane before arriving on the PC sideline awash with the adulation of teammates and his own emotions. That’s when the tears started.
“That’s it. That’s why we stayed,” screamed Colby Campbell, a fellow senior, middle linebacker and the team’s unquestioned leader, his ever-present wild mane of hair flowing past his shoulder pads.
Haygood, Campbell and wide receiver Keith Pearson are the last three scholarship football players on the Blue Hose roster – the only ones who stuck it out through PC’s bruising three-year transition to non-scholarship NCAA Division I football.
“It was kind of like seeing everything you were here for come around, like we finally got over the hump,” Haygood said of his final play at Bailey Memorial Stadium. “Two or three years ago, no. All of us seniors agree that two or three years ago we probably don’t beat Davidson in that game.”
This time, they did, 29-24, hanging on despite a three successive pass interference calls – two on Haygood – that gave run-first Davidson 45 yards on the drive.
Of course, it couldn’t be easy, but it may have been easier than playing a Big South Conference schedule the past three years as the PC program weathered a slew of transfers while learning to recruit a different kind of player for its future in the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League. The Pioneer League includes schools such as Davidson, Butler, Stetson and this week’s opponent, Drake.
“It’s been tough,” Haygood said. “We’ve been punching up a lot of the time, going non-scholarship, and it was real frustrating because we always felt like we were good enough to play these teams and beat these teams.”
PC has gone 8-24 the past three seasons but has a chance to secure its first winning record since 2014 with a win Saturday at Drake in Des Moines, Iowa.
Campbell, who set a new single-game record for PC in Division I with 25 tackles against Davidson, said the decision to stay at PC even as classmates transferred to other programs was made together with Haygood and Pearson, a product of nearby Woodruff High School.
Against Davidson, Pearson had 11 catches for 114 yards – his fourth 100-yard receiving game of the season – and two touchdowns.
Haygood called it “kind of poetic” that the three seniors who stuck together through the past three seasons filled with losses and interrupted by a pandemic would lead the way against the Wildcats. Campbell agreed.
“We all decided when everything was happening, we’d stay, and we’d stick it out together,” Campbell said. “The past few years haven’t exactly went the way we’ve wanted to. . . . (The win over once-beaten Davidson) was one of those things where it felt like all our hard work came to fruition.”
Campbell said the decision to remain as PC struggled in the Big South against the likes of Kennesaw State and Monmouth, came down to a love for the program and for the school.
“I love this place,” he said. “I’ve been blessed to be a part of a fraternity (Pi Kappa Alpha) here. . . . I’m going to get a great degree from a school with small classrooms where I can have one-on-one time with professors. PC will always have a special place in my heart. I’ve had the most fun, memorable years here and have met people I will be friends with for the rest of my life. I’m about to be a first-generation college graduate, and PC was one of the few places that gave me an opportunity to do that.”
Though the seniors will still have eligibility remaining due to COVID-19 exceptions put in place by the NCAA, they will not be able to continue to play with the Blue Hose because they have been on football scholarships.
The trio is set to graduate from PC in May. Campbell said he plans to use his year of eligibility to keep chasing his football dreams. Haygood and Pearson will have that option as well.
There may be bruises and there may have been disappointments, but Campbell said there are no regrets.
“At the end of the day, I could break every record at PC, but that’s not going to do anything for anybody other than Colby Campbell,” he said. “But if I’m able to affect a group of guys or change the culture of an entire program, that’s the stuff people are going to remember. That’s the stuff that matters.”