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How Doug Flutie and a 'messed up' play landed Needham football atop national top-play list
Wicked Local Metro - 11/24/2021
Nov. 24—The play deserves a nickname.
The last-ditch pitch
The 2-point diversion
The Play of the Jay
The laudable audible
How does a mid-November football game involving 1-8 teams gain national attention? Take improvisation, add in social media, throw in a frantic final minute and the answer begins to take shape.
All because of a play where the hand-off went to the wrong player before the ball ended up in the hands of a senior quarterback in his first year playing the position — a QB who gained inspiration from another signal-caller known for miracles: Doug Flutie.
Needham High also needed a key defensive play and missed last-second field goal to earn one of the more improbable victories in state history.
It took a week, but the country has taken notice.
"Better late than never, right?" said Needham senior Jay Kastantin, who ran in the "freelance in Fall River" — yet another possible nickname — that has lit up the internet.
His 2-point conversion rush was part of Needham's 28-27 victory over Durfee on Nov. 12, a game added to the schedule for teams that do not qualify for the state playoffs. The win for the Rockets was their first in nearly two months and has changed the team's morale heading into Thursday's 134th Thanksgiving Day rivalry game at Wellesley, the nation's oldest public school football rivalry.
"It's the type of thing you see in flag football," said Needham head coach Doug Kopcso, a former NHS captain who has been a part of the staff for 19 years.
Kastantin did not play football until his junior year.
"I was a basketball player first," he said.
The 6-foot-4-inch, 190-pounder lined up at wide receiver in the COVID-delayed Fall II season. His first start at quarterback this fall did not go well. Kastantin threw four interceptions in a season-opening 24-0 loss on Sept. 10.
The opponent was Natick, home to Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Doug Flutie, who attended the game and spoke to the new QB afterward.
"He told me: 'I see the natural athleticism; I can see the potential in you. You just have to keep working on it,'" Kastantin recalled. "To hear that validation from a guy like Doug Flutie, that's been a huge source of motivation for me throughout this season and sticking with it through the highs and through the lows."
Flutie, who played for the Patriots and is a member of the Canadian Football and College Football halls of fame, is most known for his Miracle in Miami pass in 1984 for Boston College on the final play against the Hurricanes.
Kastantin's play earlier this month may not have been as miraculous, but will also likely be talked about decades later. It all started with a mistake.
Needham put together a long drive and pulled within a point of Durfee when Kastantin threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Adrian Rufo with 49 seconds remaining in Fall River.
Kick and go for the tie — a risky move considering the Rockets had two earlier point-after tries blocked — or go for the lead.
"I specifically asked the kids in the huddle: 'I'll take the blame if this goes awry, what do you want to do?'" said Kopcso.
"We're going for this," Kastantin recalled of the response. "We just wanted to win right now, right there."
The play called for a run up the middle, a hand-off to fullback Jake Geller.
"I messed it up and gave it to the wrong guy," Kastantin said.
He instead handed it to Rufo, who started middle but saw little daylight. He cut to his left, and was partially spun around by a Durfee defender.
"We had a long touchdown drive before that, the line was exhausted," Kastantin said. "I saw Adrian get stood up and I thought, 'not again.' It's been a tough season for us."
Needham's 28 points were the most it has scored all year, but another loss appeared likely. If only for a split-second. With Rufo wrapped up and facing his quarterback, he used both arms to toss the ball back to Kastantin, who caught it on the run and beat a diving Durfee defender on his way to the end zone to put the Rockets ahead for the first time.
"He had the quick thinking of: 'I'm not going to get it, so I'm going to throw it back.' I just kind of reacted," Kastantin said. "If I looked back or I wasn't looking and I just accepted the defeat, it wouldn't have happened. The ball just came to me out of a big pile. I've been an athlete my whole life and it's probably the craziest thing I've been a part of."
"This was not something we designed," Kopcso said. "We talked about it earlier in the year. We used to practice our 2-point plays and say, 'you can lateral, you can do this ...' but you don't actually expect them to do it in a game."
The play was put on Instagram by MaxPreps and received 20,000 likes and hundreds of thousands of views as of Monday. Hudl, a video/analytics service used by high school and college coaches and athletes in various sports across the country, chose the Rufo-to-Kastantin toss as the No. 1 play of its weekly Top 6.
Second on the list is a one-handed catch by Jaleel Skinner of IMG Academy, a powerhouse in Bradenton, Florida. IMG is coached by former Patriots coach Pepper Johnson and was the 2020 national high school champions who set a record in the 2021 draft with seven players selected.
"If your kids are beating IMG in anything, that's a pretty big deal," Kopcso said. "That's basically an NFL team down in Florida. To have these kids get recognized along those types of peers is a great compliment to their effort and character."
Durfee didn't concede victory after Needham's 2-point ad-lib.
The Hilltoppers used a lateral of their own — a long one reminiscent of the Music City Miracle in 2000, when the NFL's Titans defeated Flutie's Bills in the playoffs — on the ensuing kickoff return. They set up at Needham's 40-yard line with plenty of time to march for the go-ahead score.
The hosts made it to the 20 before Needham's Josh Melia made a key defensive stop for a four-yard loss. Durfee kept going, however, and Jevon Holley was forced out of bounds at the 5 as the clock read 0:00.
The officiating crew, however, ruled there was one second remaining. The Hilltoppers lined up for a field goal try, but it was partially blocked.
"The kids made it work," Kopcso said, "by hook or by crook."
The focus from the frantic finish has pivoted toward Thursday's rivalry game at Wellesley. The Raiders are 7-3 and earned a spot in the state playoffs, losing to Lincoln-Sudbury before defeating Bishop Feehan in a non-playoff game the same night of Needham's stunning comeback.
Kastantin knows the Rockets need to push aside the attention they continue to receive from the win over Durfee.
"Going into Wellesley, the morale is a lot higher," he said. "Getting some recognition from social media helps but it can also be a distraction. We don't want to get too distracted with all this attention we're getting for this one play and everyone coming up to you in school saying, 'hey, I saw you guys on Instagram.' We have to stay focused. Wellesley's a really talented team."
Wellesley leads the all-time series 63-60-9.
Kopcso said his team was already in a good place leading up to the Durfee game.
"We've seen the whole attitude of the team turn around and everyone's rededicating themselves in making sure that we come out against Wellesley with the best possible effort and put it to them for four quarters," he said. "We always say, whether you're 10-0 going into Wellesley or you're 0-10, if you win that game, it's a successful year. I'm sure they're thinking the same thing. Who comes out on top on Thanksgiving is really what you're going to remember 20 years from now."
Rufo to Kastantin will be remembered for a lot longer.
Follow Tim Dumas on Twitter: @TimDumas.
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