What looked for a moment like an 18th birthday for the ages became one of the glummest in an instant. Matt Owens, a senior quarterback who had never before known a winning season, was leading undefeated Cathedral High downfield in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl when he faked a handoff, rolled right, and scampered 56 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.
An official threw a flag. Holding, Owens thought. But it was directed at him, for unsportsmanlike conduct:While sprinting toward the end zone, he momentarily, and jubilantly, raised his left hand. The play was called back. Owens threw an interception. And the team from Cathedral - urban students who take a bus to home games, attend 90-minute study halls after practice, and dream of college - went home without their first Super Bowl championship.
What happened next has been dizzying. Owens’s run was played and replayed on national television, debated on sports talk shows. Mayor Thomas M. Menino visited the Catholic school in the South End, declaring them winners in his eyes.
And yesterday the mayor and a collection of business leaders feted them with a banquet at Legal Harborside, where sports luminaries offered lessons in overcoming adversity. Red Sox president and chief executive Larry Lucchino, flanked by new manager Bobby Valentine, even invited Owens to throw out the first pitch at Fenway Park.
Menino cheered the students, even if he was not quite sure how to describe the play that precipitated the party. “Yes, there was an infraction that - well, there was a question if it was an infraction,’’ he said. “But they didn’t grouch about it. They weren’t angry after the game. They went out and shook hands like real class acts, and that’s what so special about these guys.’’
Dressed in their forest-green jerseys and khakis, the players sampled clam chowder and munched on fish and chips before sweeping harbor views, trying to make sense of it all. Whatever reception greeted the official winners, from Blue Hills Regional Technical School, it was surely more muted. But the Cathedral Panthers did not let it go to their heads, displaying more of the equanimity they showed in the waning minutes of the Division 4A championship Dec. 3.
“It was very heavy, very, very hurtful . . . but we also understand that life moves on,’’ said Owens, who went home that night to a quiet birthday dinner with family in Mattapan. “Just like Tedy Bruschi said: Calls are made. You win or lose championships. It happens. It’s how you respond afterward.’’
Indeed, Bruschi, the former All-Pro linebacker who returned from a stroke to share the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award, flashed a glittering ring for the students. It was not from one of his three Super Bowl victories but from the second of two Super Bowl losses, when the AFL champions had their undefeated season snapped in 2008 by a last-minute New York Giants TD.
“I wore this today because I wanted to let you all know how proud I am of that team still, even though we didn’t win a championship,’’ Bruschi said.
Sean McDonough, the ESPN sportscaster, recalled broadcasting a game in 2005 when Vanderbilt University, long a Southeastern Conference doormat, nearly upset the University of Florida but lost because of a similar call over a flicker of celebration. The conference’s head official told him afterward it was a mistake, saying, “We’re looking for whales, not minnows.’’
“What Matt did was a minnow, and I hope all of you who love sports the way we do realize the importance of putting in rules that prevent people from calling attention to themselves, because there are celebrations that get way out of hand,’’ McDonough said. “But we shouldn’t remove the human element, either, and the joy of accomplishing something that you and your teammates did collectively that you’re going to remember the rest of your lives.’’
Lucchino said the controversy shined a deserving light on what Menino called “little, old Cathedral High School,’’ which for seven straight years has sent all of its seniors to college. And when he invited Owens to toss the first pitch, the student’s eyes nearly doubled in size.
“Our lineman coach is also head coach for our baseball team, so initially I looked over to him,’’ said Owens, the three-sport athlete. “As soon as we get out of here, we’re going over to Jim Rice Field to work on the mound.’’
Menino received a personalized Cathedral jersey and an autographed team ball. On his way out, past remains of a “REAL Super Bowl champions’’ cake, the Cathedral cheerleaders serenaded him with a thank you chant.
By the door, Menino spotted goody bags prepared for the players by the Savings Bank Life Insurance Co., each containing a Bruschi bobblehead doll, an autographed Bruschi poster, and a copy of his autobiography.
“The kids get that too?’’ Menino asked, smiling as he waited for the elevator.
His press aide nodded. “They made out pretty well, boss,’’ she said.