FLORENCE, S.C. – Some Hartsville players waved the flag. Others posed with it before holding it high.
But why start a story about one of this season's best Pee Dee football games with that?
The answer is as important as the score in the Red Foxes’ 41-34 victory Friday over Wilson: It’s what is on that flag: “99 strong.”
A tribute not to 99 players, but to one teenager – a baseball-loving teenager at that. Dylan Adams was an area youth baseball star, smashing home runs while wearing No. 99 and playing on two Dixie Youth Baseball World Series championship teams from Hartsville Northern.
While that impressed fans, what captivated them was how he battled cancer.
It didn’t matter if a Hartsville athlete was on the diamond or the football field. Adams’ fight resonated with them – a fight so fierce that he returned to playing baseball this year after first being diagnosed with cancer in 2018.
That was, until he couldn’t. He died on Oct. 18 at age 13.
“Dylan is one of the most amazing young people that you’d ever know. He had true strength and character,” Hartsville coach Jeff Calabrese said after a 5-yard run by Darian McMillan completed a comeback from a 14-point deficit and broke a 34-34 tie with 7:16 left in the game. “We’re trying to keep him with us.”
How could the Red Foxes keep Adams with them? By battling against the odds as hard as he did. During Friday’s football game, those odds were piling up after Wilson scored two touchdowns in less than a minute to take a 27-13 lead late in the first half.
But inside the Red Foxes’ 10-yard line, waiting for the ensuing kickoff was a star football player – also a star in baseball, committed to play on the diamond at the University of South Carolina – named D.P. Pendergrass, who had developed a friendship with Adams.
The bond wasn’t just about their mutual love for baseball. It was simply about inspiring each other.
“He used to text me almost before every game, telling me good luck and that I’m going to be great someday,” Pendergrass recalled. “I just loved what he did. He was a great inspiration in my life.”
With that, it was fitting Pendergrass led the Red Foxes’ charge back into Friday’s game as he took that kickoff and raced 96 yards into the end zone for a Hartsville touchdown with 13.7 seconds left in that first half.
“That was a play where we were saying, ‘We don’t want (Pendergrass) to touch the ball. But he found a way to get it,” Wilson coach Derek Howard said. “And of course, he made us pay for it.”
Now, Hartsville had hope. It was what enabled Adams to push forward. And on Friday, that hope on the Red Foxes’ sideline grew after Pendergrass’ big play.
“It just makes me go harder at what I do, because Dylan couldn’t do it anymore,” Pendergrass said.
And because of that, the landscape of Friday’s game changed.
“When you play in ballgames and things look bleak, something good has got to happen,” Calabrese said. “And, you’ve got to make it happen. And that might have been the spark we needed tonight.”
The spark was so big that it carried over into the second half, as the Red Foxes – who recovered a fumbled punt in the first quarter – capitalized again to start the second half when Thad Anderson recovered a Tiger fumble at the Wilson 34. Two plays later, Pendergrass took a pass from Owen Taylor (who wore Adams’ No. 99 in the previous week’s victory over South Florence) and scored on a 32-yard play to tie the game at 27-27.
“It was the second time in two weeks we did that, fumbling the ball when we had the opportunity to go up 14. They hadn’t stopped us the entire game up to that point,” Howard said.
Then, with 6:06 left in the third quarter, Red Fox sophomore running back J’Shawn Anderson spun off a couple of tacklers and raced 7 yards into the end zone to give Hartsville its first lead at 34-27.
Wilson, however, came back to life on the first play of the fourth quarter when Tiger quarterback Zayshaun Rice found Nyrae Sanders for a 17-yard TD to tie it at 34-34.
Relying on its trademark rushing attack after that, Hartsville melted 4:38 off the clock and took the lead for good on McMillan’s 5-yard score. And although Wilson made one more hard charge toward the end zone, reaching as far as the Red Foxes 10, Rice’s 12-yard TD pass attempt was intercepted by Hartsville’s Zy’Riq Thomas to seal the game.
Wilson, however, had the upper hand throughout most of Friday’s first half. During that time, Rice completed his first eight passes while accounting for 195 total yards and three rushing touchdowns (he had 302 and four at game’s end).
Rice was in control from the start, storming ahead on third-and-3 for a 26-yard gain. A few minutes later, he scored from the 5 to give Wilson a 7-0 lead. After a touchdown run by Pendergrass tied it, Rice was back at work with a 23-yard pass to Donnell Williamson before Chris Austin raced into the end zone from 35 yards for Wilson to reclaim the lead.
While Hartsville kept pace with a 32-yard TD run by J’Shawn Anderson to bring the Red Foxes within 14-13 (the point-after kick failed), Rice responded with a 30-yard rush up the middle for a score and 21-13 Tiger lead. Then, after teammate Samari Stukes intercepted Taylor, all Rice did was complete a 35-yard toss to Nyrae Sanders before scoring on a 30-yard run to make it 27-13 after the Tigers' point-after kick was missed.
That, only to see Pendergrass respond with his kick return. At game’s end, to go along with Pendergrass’ three touchdowns, he had 128 yards total offense.
Hartsville now has more than just a win that improved its overall record to 3-3 and Region 6-4A mark to 2-3. The 2019 lower-state finalist has a renewed hope for an at-large bid for the playoffs after losing its first two games in one of South Carolina’s toughest regions.
“I don’t really recognize this team from the one that played in the first couple of games,” said Calabrese, whose team was led in rushing by J'Shawn Anderson with 100 yards. “But our kids have continued to fight in practice and battle. We had position changes in practice, and it’s just a mentality of getting better every day.”
But as Hartsville pushes ahead, the Red Foxes don’t forget Adams’ memory and lessons they took from his life.
Just look at that flag.
“It’s been an emotional couple of weeks,” Calabrese said of Adams, an S.C. Dixie Youth Hall of Famer. “And now, he’s with us, upstairs hanging out and watching some ball. His parents are such great people. We just want to honor him.”
“It’s very special,” Pendergrass said of Adams, who was offered a baseball scholarship by the College of Charleston. “Since we can’t have him at the games, we can have him on the field after the game, just to remember him.”
Pendergrass said he was too overcome with grief to speak at Adams’ funeral. Instead, Pendergrass has chosen to honor his memory with plays like Friday's tide-shifting kick return.
“I pray for him at night, I pray for his family, and every time I go on the field, I remember him and tell him I will give it my all,” Pendergrass said. “Tonight, we battled, we came through and got the win.
“And, it was all for him.”
H 0 20 14 7 – 41
W 7 20 0 7 – 34
W – Zayshaun Rice 5 run (Vraj Patel kick), 1:15
H – D.P. Pendergrass 22 run (Chase Elsesser kick), 7:33
W – Chris Austin 35 run (Patel kick), 5:05
H – J’Shawn Anderson 32 run (kick failed), 3:08
W – Rice 30 run (Patel kick), 1:09
W – Rice 9 run (kick failed), :26.8
H – Pendergrass 94 kick return (Elsesser kick), :13.7
H – Pendergrass 32 pass from Owen Taylor (Elsessler kick), 11:15
H –J'Shawn Anderson 7 run (Elsesser kick), 6:06
W – Nyrae Sanders 17 pass from Rice (Patel kick), 11:54
H – Darian McMillan 5 run (Elsesser kick), 7:16
RUSHING – H: Anderson 14-100, Pendergrass 17-96, Owen Taylor 9-42, Carmello McDaniel 7-75, McMillan 1-5. W: Austin 12-80, Rice 15-104, Taveon Johnson 6-49, Donnell Williamson 1-0.
PASSING – H: Taylor 1-3-1-32. W: Rice 16-21-0-198
RECEIVING – H: Pendergrass 1-32. W: Williamson 4-44, Harrison Muldrow 3-57, Nyrae Sanders 6-85, Jyron Waiters 1-(-2), Austin 1-9.
RECORDS: H 3-3 overall, 2-3 Region 6-4A; W 3-3, 3-3.
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