All season long, Charlotte Christian running back Henry Rutledge has made big plays when his team has needed them most.
It wasn’t a surprise when he made another one in the final moments of the season’s final game.
Rutledge ran 27 times for 256 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winner in a 27-21 win over Rabun Gap on Friday that gave Charlotte Christian a fourth straight state championship.
When Rutledge graduates from Charlotte Christian at the end of the school year, he’ll leave never having finished a football season without a ring.
“That’s the goal for the season,” he said. “It never gets old. Winning never gets old. This one is special.”
Rutledge gave his team a two-score lead with a devastating 92-yard run with 59 seconds left in the first half to put Christian ahead 21-7. Knights coach Jason Estep was trying to just avoid a turnover and run out the clock to get to halftime, but Rutledge — perhaps the fastest private school football player in North Carolina — saw a seam.
“It was wide open,” Rutledge said. “My line, like, I didn’t see anyone in the gap, so I just took off.”
But in the fourth quarter, Rabun Gap came storming back.
And Rutledge, who’s been as steady as any private school player this fall, did something he’s rarely done.
The Knights’ star, who moonlights as Christian’s (pretty good) punter and kickoff specialist, shanked a punt while kicking out of the end zone. He immediately slapped his helmet with both hands after his mistake.
Rabun Gap got a short field, taking over at the Charlotte Christian 19, and scored. Later, after a long punt return, it scored again. The game was tied with 4:14 to play.
During the sequence, Charlotte Christian coach Jason Estep never doubted his main man — or his team.
“I didn’t have to say anything to them,” said Estep, who won his eighth state championship in 13 years. “I didn’t have to tell Henry anything. I knew this group would come back.”
On Christian’s final drive of the season — the one the kids will talk about until Christmas — quarterback Matthew Tuomala threw a pretty fade to Hudson Collins. The crowd came to life as the Knights arrived at the Rabun Gap 36 with less than 3 minutes to play.
The next play was a give to Rutledge over the left side of the Knights’ offensive line, the same side that had busted open a big gap earlier that led to the 92-yard score.
This time? Another gap, and a 36-yard score with 2:27 left that turned out to be the championship-winning points, sealed when Chip Kasay got his second interception of the night on the next Rabun Gap series.
In 51/2 games this season, Rutledge — who missed half of the season-opener with Charlotte Country Day (shoulder) — finished with 113 carries for 1,098 yards and 12 scores. He caught 11 passes for 164 yards.
And, just when his team needed it, he delivered the biggest play of the season.
“I felt bad because I let my team down,” Rutledge said of the punt. “I was in my own head because I made a mistake, and I was able to bounce back.
“Our whole team was able to bounce back.”
▪ Credit N.C. Independent Schools executive director Homar Ramirez and his team for navigating through COVID-19 and getting all of the state’s fall sports through the season. State champions were named. Some games were lost, but some parents were able to attend.
The stadium wasn’t full Friday like it normally would be, and it wasn’t nearly as loud, but the Knights’ celebration looked familiar, and I’m sure getting the rings will feel just as good.
▪ Christian coach Jason Estep has to be mentioned among the greatest coaches, in any sport, in Mecklenburg County history. He’s won seven state titles in nine years, and I’d argue that Division I private school, at the top, is as good as N.C. 3A public school. It’s not easy to win the championship.
▪ Former Hopewell High QB A.J. Simpkins left Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools because he wanted to play in the fall and he felt he needed to reclass to help his college recruitment. Friday night, he led the Greenies to their first state championship. Christ School beat Harrell’s Christian 55-21.