Temple vs. Heights football

Temple's Mikal Harrison-Pilot (right) gets the ball over the goal line for a touchdown during Friday night's game against Harker Heights at Wildcat Stadium.

Temple ISD superintendent Bobby Ott spent the early stages of the first quarter last Friday night describing the meaning of the phrase “Temple Tough” to Pro Football Hall of Famer and guest of honor “Mean” Joe Greene.

It’s not as though Greene, a four-time Super Bowl champion with the Pittsburgh Steelers, is any stranger to grit, resolve and moxie, or needed a reminder that those beyond-the-physical ingredients often are necessary to success on the gridiron.

Temple Tough isn’t a new phrase around town, either. It’s almost assumed by now, a way of life instilled through generations of Wildcats and a source of pride.

Still, Ott explained to Greene that despite perhaps being outsized or not always picked as favorites, the Wildcats’ effort, persistence and ever-present chip on their shoulder can often give Temple that extra bit of bite when its back is against the wall.

Their conversation foreshadowed what eventually took place over the next 3 hours, a span of time during which the Wildcats trailed Harker Heights 21-0 in the second quarter of an anticipated District 12-6A encounter, cut the deficit to six by halftime and went back-and-forth with the Knights in a second half that featured five lead changes.

Temple clearly tapped into its popular mantra and went ahead for good when Samari Howard raced 55 yards for a touchdown and converted a 2-point run to make it 37-34. Linebacker Taurean York’s 76-yard scoop and score that thwarted Heights’ potential game-winning drive was icing on the comeback cake and 44-34 victory that moved the Wildcats to 3-2 overall and 2-0 in 12-6A.

Now, it’s never ideal to fall behind by three touchdowns to a high-powered team that entered Wildcat Stadium unbeaten and averaging 54 points per game. And there certainly is something to be said for the importance of tradition, lore and symbolism.

But, seeing is believing — sometimes, anyway — and by the Wildcats demonstrating what Temple Tough actually looks like, live and on full display in front of a home crowd that just last month saw its beloved team drop its first two games by a combined score of 81-27, the after-effects of that could potentially carry this team to a second straight league title.

There’s a long way to go — Temple is at Killeen Ellison (1-1 district) on Thursday night before a rivalry meet-up with Belton (2-0 in 12-6A) on Oct. 15 — but the way the Wildcats wrestled victory from defeat Friday can only be a confidence boost right?

“There’s really not a lot of me, me, me,” said Temple head coach Scott Stewart, whose team had a similar rally in 2020 when the Knights led 20-0 in the first half in Killeen. “It takes all of us and those guys are doing whatever, however, whenever.”

For instance, with Temple staring at its 21-0 climb Friday night, Mikal Harrison-Pilot took over at quarterback and led two second-quarter scoring drives to get the Wildcats within 21-15. The junior then propelled Temple into its first lead with a 5-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter.

Later, with Temple trailing 28-22 and Heights in position to add three points with a field goal, defensive tackle Tomas Torres blocked the attempt, and after safety Naeten Mitchell caused a fumble that was recovered by Jalen Wardale, starting QB Reese Rumfield re-entered and promptly tossed a 25-yard TD to Devan Williams for a 29-28 advantage.

Williams also had an interception, Dion Saunders recovered a fumble, Faylin Lee had a sack, York’s opportunistic defensive TD will be replayed countless times, and Howard missed just one play after needing assistance following an awkward tackle in the third quarter. He, of course, eventually electrified the fans with his long score. To top it off, KeAndre Smith recovered an onside kick after York’s return, allowing the Wildcats to kneel out the remaining minute of a memorable night that started with Greene’s Dunbar High jersey retirement ceremony and ended with a result that will be remembered.

As Stewart repeated a few times postgame, “Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time situations.”

Or in other words — Temple Tough.