Unity Christian's Caleb Thompson

Unity Christian’s Caleb Thompson carries the ball during the Lions’ region game against Lanier Christian on Friday,Oct. 30 at Grizzard Park.

It could only happen in 2020.

The Unity Christian Lions became GAPPS Class AA State Champions Monday, four days prior to their originally scheduled championship game, after the Cherokee Christian Warriors were forced to forfeit the contest due to COVID.

The Lions were on top of Pride Rock.

But there was no emphatic celebration when the horn sounded, no on-field trophy presentation. Grizzard Park will be silent on Friday night.

“COVID has robbed a lot from people,” Lions head coach Nick Jones said in a phone interview. “I’m very proud of our guys with the season that we had. The problem is that COVID has really taken away the opportunity for our kids to win it on the field and have that moment where the buzzer sounds and the score is in your favor and the crowd goes wild, it’s robbed them of that experience.”

“As a coach, you just feel bad for the kids,” Jones continued. “Very happy with the season, a very good season for us, but ultimately, you just hate that moment was stolen from them.”

Jones said he and his coaching staff addressed the team on Monday to alert them of the situation and their now-official status as state champions.

"Pretty much disbelief," Jones said of his players' reactions. "It was a mixed bags of emotions. Obviously, they were excited to be crowned the state champs, but the competitor in all of them wanted to play the game. But, at the same time, they understand that this season we are all in with COVID changes things and it could've gone the other way. I think it brings some level of consolation to them that they were able to beat the two-time defending state champs Peachtree (Academy) twice this season, plus Cherokee, ... we did beat them during the regular season."

Officially, Unity finishes the 2020 season 12-0. UC’s last time on the gridiron was a 42-16 semifinal win over the Peachtree Academy Panthers last Friday at Grizzard Park.

The Lions started the 2020 season rather shorthanded, as the entire football senior class had to quarantine due to possible COVID exposure. Jones, his coaching staff and 11 underclassmen made a lengthy bus ride to McDonough for the season opener and won 36-0 over New Creation.

“You’re playing 11 guys ... on your first road trip, many of them who are underclassmen who have never played meaningful minutes in a game, and you go and shut out a team on the road, that was amazing, however, it was a real wake-up call to us,” Jones said. “It also showed us that, if we’re not serious with this, we can wind up not completing a season or having COVID cost us a championship.”

Jones said the school and the team’s approach to the COVID situation was stringent; however, Jones noted matters can change in an instant.

“We really told (the players), ‘Let’s not let COVID take away the opportunity for us to do something special this season,’” Jones said. “I do think this year, you sort of had a two-fold deal. You were playing an opponent across the line of scrimmage from you, but you were also playing an opponent everyone else was playing against and that was COVID. The strategy for us was always safety first.”

So now what happens?

Jones said a planned awards banquet is on the books for Monday, Nov. 30, in which the football players were due to be honored. Jones added the championship trophy will be at the banquet.

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