The Battlehawks’ sideline erupted. Bedlam. Joy. Relief.
A party like it was 1999.
St. Louis was stuffed, stymied, and sacked by an aggressive, attacking adversary. Thwarted all afternoon, they trailed deep into the fourth quarter – until a perfectly-thrown ball threaded traffic and landed in the soft hands of a wide receiver named Proehl.
Austin Proehl snared a 14-yard touchdown strike from A.J. McCarron in the waning moments of the XFL season opener to hand St. Louis (1-0) an improbable 18-15 win over San Antonio (0-1) that stunned the sold-out crowd inside the Alamodome on Sunday.
“(McCarron) put a great ball on me and I’m a receiver, you know, God gave me hands for a reason,” Proehl said afterwards. “You’re going to get hit regardless, might as well catch the rock.”
Then Austin glanced to the corner of the press room.
“The slick-Rick special right there,” he said.
23 years and 27 days after Battlehawks’ receivers coach Ricky Proehl rallied the St. Louis Rams past a ferocious Tampa Bay defensive effort with a fourth-quarter touchdown catch in the NFC Championship Game – a play that ranks among the city’s greatest sports moments – he embraced his son on the field in San Antonio.
“That fourth quarter was incredible to watch,” Battlehawks’ head coach Anthony Becht said.
“They could have easily hung their head – you know how this thing goes, man, you see the scoreboard late in the fourth quarter and maybe some doubt creeps in…really showed something about their desire and their heart. This game could really trigger something in this football team.”
Such a happy ending seemed impossible just minutes earlier. For most of the day, McCarron and company had no pulse.
“I think offensively, it wasn’t really the performance we were looking for in the first three-and-a-half quarters of the game,” Becht said.
Proehl described it bluntly. “They beat our (butt) for three-and-a-half quarters,” he said.
When the Battlehawks’ offense took the field trailing San Antonio 12-3 with 10:36 remaining, St. Louis had sputtered for 2.2 yards per play and just three first downs during nearly 50 minutes of agonizing futility.
Running back Brian Hill rumbled into Brahmas’ territory for a 40-yard gain to open the drive, but what appeared to be a sign of life turned out to be a spasm.
Hill’s big play put the ‘Hawks on San Antonio’s 27-yard-line, but St. Louis gained only two more yards before kicker Donnie Hageman pulled a 43-yard field goal attempt wide left.
Brahmas’ kicker Parker Romo drilled a 48-yard field goal moments later to give San Antonio a seemingly insurmountable 15-3 lead with just three minutes left on the clock.
But the Battlehawks finally took flight – and full advantage of the XFL rulebook.
McCarron completed six straight passes and St. Louis marched 71 yards in eight plays, capped by an 18-yard beauty to Hakeem Butler to pull within six points.
Becht made an easy decision to try a 3-point conversion play from the 10-yard line and McCarron found Proehl to cut the Brahmas’ lead to 15-12.
In lieu of an onside-kick attempt, the XFL allows teams one do-or-die play on offense with possession at stake. The ball was placed at the Battlehawks’ 25-yard-line, and St. Louis needed to gain 15 yards to keep the football.
Again, it was Proehl to the rescue.
McCarron spotted his training camp roommate open along the sideline for a 22-yard gain. Suddenly, the Battlehawks were in business, with the football at midfield down by three.
A 15-yard penalty and three straight completions put the Battlehawks on the doorstep with 20 seconds to go.
On third-and-7 from the Brahmas’ 14-yard-line, Proehl sprinted up the seam and caught the ball at the goaline as three defenders converged. The contact drew a flag that wasn’t needed – Proehl cradled the Battlehawks’ first win of the season in his arms.
McCarron went 11-for-14 for 133 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter and Proehl, his teammate in 2018 with the Buffalo Bills, proved to be Mr. Reliable when McCarron needed it most.
“Unbelievable, just unbelievable grit by the guys,” McCarron said.
“We never got, you know, uneasy. Things weren’t going great for us, but we felt fine. We just had to get some momentum.”
“That last series we got into 10 personnel (one running back, no tight ends) …moving forward that will be something we’ll talk about as far as what gives us the best personnel to move the football,” Becht said.
While the Battlehawks’ offense searched for rhythm, the defense did more than keep St. Louis in the game.
Chris Cooper, Ben DeLuca and Willie Harvey led the Battlehawks front-seven that held a heavy Brahmas’ rushing attack to 3.3 yards per carry and St. Louis forced the only two turnovers of the game.
Edge rusher Travis Feeney’s brilliant strip-sack and fumble return in the second quarter set-up a 32-yard field goal by Hageman, the only points the Battlehawks managed prior to the fourth-quarter flurry.
Andy Carroll is a freelance sports writer living in the Ozarks with his wife and four great kids. He loves St. Louis, toasted ravioli and minor league baseball. You can follow him on Twitter @carroll_sgf and Instagram @andycarroll505