As the Burgard team bus pulled out of the parking lot at All High Stadium on Thursday, the homemade sign that was placed over the back window seemed to say it all: "We're No. 1."
The Bulldogs earned the right to that claim by rallying to upset previously undefeated McKinley, 24-6, and win the 94th Harvard Cup football championship.
"In the first half we were terrible, but the kids never got down," said Burgard coach Ron Pugh. "The kids stuck together. I'm just proud of them. This is the best thing to happen to Burgard."
A capacity crowd estimated at 3,500 jammed into the historic stadium, which has hosted the annual Thanksgiving Day game since 1927. In a game that has seen its share of bad weather, game-time temperatures were in the 40s with occasional sunshine.
After falling behind, 6-0 at halftime, Burgard (9-2) scored 24 unanswered points in the second half to win its first Harvard Cup title outright. Burgard shared the crown with Riverside after playing to a 0-0 tie in 1960 and with McKinley after a 6-6 finish in 1942. Burgard's record in championship games now stands at 1-5-2.
McKinley, ranked seventh among large schools in The Buffalo News poll, went into the game with a 10-0 record that included a 26-14 victory over Burgard, an unranked small school. With those credentials, the Macks were favored to win their fourth Cup in the last six years. But this time, the mismatch went the other way.
"That's what made us work harder, coming in as underdogs," said Burgard senior running back B.J. Coleman, who was playing on an injured knee. "We knew we were a second-half team, that's why we didn't (lose) our heads in the first half. We knew we were going to come back."
The rushing battle between two of the Harvard Cup's leading ground gainers, Coleman and McKinley's Clarence Thomas, never materialized.
Coleman was stuffed on many of his carries and finished with just 36 yards on 17 tries. Thomas had minus-3 yards in the first half before finishing with 20 yards on six carries. Coleman finished the year with 1,627 yards while Thomas ended with 1,277.
With the running game abandoned, Burgard relied on its passing prowess for all three scores. McKinley jumped out to a 6-0 lead on a 1-yard run by Trivell Maxwell with 10:29 left in the half. But the second-half air show belonged to Burgard.
A McKinley fumble at its own 35-yard line helped set up Burgard's first score. On the Bulldogs' first play, senior quarterback Mondell Moore found wide receiver Lee Jones wide open for a touchdown. Demario Vass' two-point conversion run provided what would be the winning points.
"Throughout the year, what Burgard has done is when somebody makes a turnover, they capitalize on it," said McKinley coach Jerry Johnson. "I thought that was a big play."
Burgard increased its lead to 16-6 when platooning quarterback Gerald Houge found Rich Maxwell from 3 yards out.
McKinley gave up the ball on downs with 3:07 left in the game, giving Burgard the ball on the Macks' 37-yard line. Four plays later, Jones and Moore connected on their second touchdown of the game from 30 yards out.
"When I was in the locker room (at halftime), I told the coach to get me involved in the game," said Jones. "In the second half, they threw me the ball and I was going to catch it so I could score."
McKinley was enormously successful moving the ball through the air all day, but it didn't translate into any points. Junior quarterback Justin Morrison, working out of the shotgun, completed 16 of 29 passes for 269 yards and one interception. Trivell Maxwell had six receptions for 107 yards and Marcus McClam added 73 yards on four catches.
The loss ended McKinley's bid to finish undefeated for the first time since 1989.