The Division 2 North title game had just begun. A little more than a minute had elapsed. North Andover senior Gabe DeSouza intercepted a Lincoln-Sudbury pass over the middle of the field and tip-toed down the sideline for a 35-yard touchdown.
DeSouza, who for the past two seasons had factored in all facets of the game, was mobbed by his North Andover teammates in the end zone after he opened the floodgates of a 42-0 victory and the program’s first Super Bowl appearance since 1996.
The only one left standing on the field afterward, an emotional DeSouza became choked up as he made one final request: “Can I please go celebrate with my teammates?”
As the Scarlet Knights gear up for their Division 2 state championship game against King Philip Friday night under the lights at Gillette Stadium, DeSouza knew the moment — every second that passed, seemingly, in slow motion — almost never came to fruition.
. . .
The 2017 Division 2 North title game was just about finished. About one minute and 12 seconds were left. Lincoln-Sudbury had taken a 27-7 advantage over North Andover and were about to kick off to DeSouza. The Scarlet Knights’ star dropped to one knee before collapsing on the ground. DeSouza was gasping for breath and half-conscious when EMTs made their way onto the field and transported him to Boston Children’s Hospital.
The diagnosis was an arrhythmia, also known as an irregular or abnormal heartbeat.
“When it happened, I was contemplating everything [especially] whether I was going to play football again. I didn’t know,” DeSouza said.
“We had our doubts that he was going to be able to come back, because anytime you deal with the heart we are talking about life or death here. I didn’t anticipate him coming back,” North Andover coach John Dubzinski said.
“But he kept telling me, ‘No coach, I am coming back. I am coming back.’ ”
Following multiple trips to the hospital for testing and a cardiac ablation procedure, DeSouza surprised everyone when he was cleared to play basketball for the Scarlet Knights last January — playing a key role in the team’s sectional final title and a trip to the Division 2 state semifinals.
. . .
From the last minute and 12 seconds of last year’s Division 2 North title game to the first minute and six seconds of this year’s D2 North title game, DeSouza’s life has been defined by the painstaking time he has spent in between to get back on the field after his life-altering episode.
But the journey back to donning the Red and Black and strapping on his football helmet always was the top priority for DeSouza.
Right from the start of 7-on-7 drills over the summer, DeSouza looked like a different player — showing signs of being faster and more physical. A season after catching 47 passes for 928 yards and nine touchdowns for the Scarlet Knights, he looked determined to top that, spending countless hours in the offseason working to get back.
“When I found out I was going to be able to play again I came back excited [and] I worked harder than I did before,” DeSouza said. “I made sure that my second chance at this was going to be worth it.”
. . .
Any lingering doubts about DeSouza’s ability to perform after his scary cardiac event were silenced in a big way in Week 1. The 6-foot-1-inch specialist made four catches for 123 yards and three touchdowns to go along with an interception and and kicking five extra points in the Scarlet Knight’s 35-7 victory over Woburn.
The connection between DeSouza and senior quarterback Jake McElroy has become a focal point in one of the state’s most dominant offensive attacks.
“I didn’t know if he could get any better, but he did,” Dubzinski said.
“This year the biggest difference has been on defense. He has been on every tackle, he flies to the ball and he is great in coverage. And on offense, I mean, he attracts a lot of attention and I think that has helped a lot of our kids have the stats that they have.”
DeSouza credits North Andover’s stunning turnaround as a defense to the addition of defensive backs coach Matt Cerullo. This season, opponents have averagedjust 11.3 points per game against the Scarlet Knights.
“[Cerullo] helped us out because that is where we were weak last year,” DeSouza said. “Once we got that down it helped out our defense, which got the offense the ball more, and that is why our offense is so explosive the way it is.”
. . .
Five days before facing King Philip at Gillette Stadium in an attempt to deny the Warriors a third straight state title, DeSouza stood on the artificial turf with a broad smile.
It will be his second time playing in a state championship game after winning the Division 1 title in 2016 with Everett. But this one, with all that he’s endured, will feel much sweeter.
“I told [my teammates] when I transferred, ‘Look, I have been there before and I want to go back so we are going to do everything possible to get there,’ ” DeSouza said.
“For me, this is like a dream. I could have never pictured this,” De Souza said.
On Friday night, a mere forty minutes on the Gillette Stadium gridiron against King Philip will determine the legacy DeSouza and his North Andover teammates leave behind.