When he raised his fist on his way to the end zone, Boston (Mass.) Cathedral High quarterback Matt Owens thought he was celebrating the score that would hand his school a surprising Super Bowl title. Instead, he was doing the one thing that could keep them from it: Earning a penalty on a play where there was nothing but green turf between himself and the end zone.
As reported by the Boston Globe and Boston Herald among other sources, Owens was handed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for raising his fist during his run to the end zone in the fourth quarter, a call which negated the touchdown and moved the ball back to the spot of the foul at the Blue Hills (Mass.) High 24-yard line.
You can see Owens' exact celebratory action in the photo from the Herald above.
The called back touchdown cost Cathedral the lead -- had Owens reached the end zone without incident, Cathedral would have gained an 18-16 lead with roughly six minutes remaining in the game. A play later, the quarterback essentially cost his team the game, throwing an interception to Blue Hills cornerback Keith Gomes that paved the way for Blue Hills to run out the rest of the clock and seal a 16-12 victory.
"In the game being played, we won the game. Give Blue Hills a lot of credit. They are a great football team, but we deserve better. The game got taken away from us," Cathedral coach Duane Sigsbury told the Globe. "If you're going to take a game away from a kid being excited because he just made the play of his life, shame on you."
The Globe pointed out that by definition, the Massachusetts official who threw the flag appeared to make the right call. The state uses NCAA rules and regulations for its football competitions, and The College Football Officiating guidelines state the following in regards to unsportsmanlike conduct on a play that results in a touchdown:
If the ball is alive when the player makes a taunting gesture, then the penalty is enforced at the spot of the foul - and the key outcome: no touchdown.
Still, there were reportedly a number of reasons for the teen's jubilant reaction. In addition to the fact that he was yards away from what would have been a potential state title-earning score, the teen's father told the Boston Herald that Saturday was his 18th birthday, and that his son was thanking the Lord for helping him break through for such a key play.
"He raised his hand because he knew was going to the pinnacle," Kenneth Owens told the Herald on Monday. "There was nothing dishonorable about the play. There was no doubt it was a touchdown. He gets 20 yards in -- and he's not thinking about the rule -- and he just raised his hand.
"He handed the ball to the referee. He didn't spike it. He goes to a Catholic school where they are taught that their God is in the sky. So I know when he raised his hand, he was thanking his Lord for what happened to him today. Football is a team sport. There's lot of kids that are hurting today."
Still, the official's interpretation of that rule was further supported by Joe Cacciatore, the assigner for officials in the Catholic Conference and Greater Boston League, who spoke to the Herald about the incident.
"It's tough, but the official absolutely made the right call according to the letter of the law," Cacciatore told the Herald. "It says it right there in the rules that any attempt to draw attention to yourself, whether it is pointing the finger, raising a fist or anything like that, is a penalty. We've been instructed to call it when it happens, it's zero tolerance now."
The controversial penalty all but ended a complete emotional roller coaster of a week for the Cathedral football program, which advanced to the Division 4A Super Bowl on the back of a near-miraculous touchdown return on the final play of a playoff game just days earlier.
As for Blue Hills, the school's coach made it clear that he agreed with the call, and that the controversial decision took nothing away from the first Super Bowl victory in school history.
"We try and play by the rules, and the rule is no celebrating," Blue Hills football coach Ed Catabia told the Globe. "It was unfortunate [for Cathedral], but it was a great call, the right call."
The Blue Hills player who clinched the victory for the small school was equally unsympathetic about Owens' penalty when asked about it by NECN.
"We all played fair, we all listened to rules at the beginning of the game. We all know what to do and he was out of line. And that's the fact and that's the ruling," Gomes said.
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