Gary Jennings reached 22.20 mph on a 64-yard sprint to paydirt that ignited the Battlehawks’ rally over the Vegas Vipers last Saturday.
On the sidelines, head coach Anthony Becht hopped toward the endzone at a much slower but no less joyful pace – shouting and waving Jennings forward as 35,000 Battlehawks’ fans went insane inside The Dome at America’s Center.
Jennings tumbled over the pylon, rose to his feet, popped off his helmet then slammed it to the turf in celebration.
“I mean, it was honestly just a state of euphoria,” Jennings said. “Emotion, just everything that I’ve endured over the course of the year, over the course of the season.”
Jennings’ fake punt touchdown rescued St. Louis (6-2) from a devastating loss that would have complicated the Battlehawks pursuit of a playoff spot. Now the math is simple – beat the Seattle Sea Dragons (5-3) on Sunday and St. Louis advances to the XFL North division championship against D.C.
After running back Brian Hill plunged over the goaline to complete St. Louis’ comeback over Vegas, lineman Steven Gonzalez leapt into the waiting arms of Battlehawks fans – an illustration of how players that live and practice in the league’s Arlington, Texas hub have bonded with the Gateway City.
Nobody – especially the guys inside the Battlehawks’ locker room – want the 2023 XFL season to end early.
For Jennings, it’s the most fun he’s had playing football since high school.
“As a team, a collective group, this is the closest I’ve ever been with a team,” Jennings said. “This is a really tight-knit group. We hang out, we talk, we communicate – I think that shows on the field.”
St. Louis’ first-year head coach built his program with that goal in mind.
“I was in their shoes, too,” Becht said. “We got to make this experience worthwhile. It’s got to be something memorable outside of just ‘I’m playing because I want to get to the NFL’. Yeah, I get it, that’s a piece of it, but man, there’s a bigger picture here.”
The Battlehawks beat Seattle in dramatic fashion when Donny Hageman kicked a game-winning field goal as time expired in Week 2.
Quarterback A.J. McCarron is set to return from a one-game absence. Becht will gladly accept another nailbiter so long as STL comes out on top.
“It’s hard to win games in any league, any profession. Regardless of how you do it, we have to win this game by one – we know we’re playing a very good team.”
From roster construction to clock management, Becht has proven to be a deliberate decision-maker. With a playoff spot on the line, he’s already formulating the biggest pregame speech of the season.
“You don’t want to overdo it, you don’t want to be too cliché, you don’t want it to be a similar speech that you’ve heard in the past,” he said.
“There is a strategic play on how that all goes down. It’s all natural, it’s everything you want to say, but quite frankly I never really put the final touches on it until after warm-ups. I’m really thinking about it as I watch the team warmup – like ok, how do I shrink this or make it exactly what I want it to be.”
“I’ll say it several times, poignantly, as I walk back (to the locker room). And then, hey, you hope something sticks.”
Tickets remain for the 2 p.m. kickoff at the Dome on Sunday.