After the game, fans crowded around the northeast corner of Earl Campbell Field, laughing and cheering as John Tyler coach Ricklan Holmes and three of his players joked on the set of the ETFinalScore Road Show livestream.
The smiles were as wide as the relief was deep from the JT players, coaches and fans.
Robert E. Lee, winless in District 11-6A, battled John Tyler for three quarters, leading on three different occasions.
But the Lions made enough plays in the second half to pull away for a 49-28 victory over their rival Red Raiders on Friday at a jam-packed Christus Trinity Mother Frances Rose Stadium.
The victory gave JT the District 11-6A championship, shared with Longview but with the No. 1 seed in the playoffs going to the Lions for their head-to-head win over the Lobos.
John Tyler (9-1, 6-1 in 11-6A) will host Lufkin in the Class 6A Division II playoffs on Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Rose Stadium after the Lions won the gold ball in their first year back at the state's highest classification following six years in 4A and 5A.
"We knew we were ready for 6A football - I don't think 6A football thought we were ready for them," JT coach Ricklan Holmes said.
The Red Raiders ended their season at 2-8, 0-7 in district in coach Clayton George's first season in charge. Lee was unable to even the all-time series for the first time ever, with JT holding a 31-29-1 advantage after Friday's win.
With former John Tyler and current Houston quarterback Greg Ward watching on the sidelines, future Houston commit quarterback Bryson Smith dazzled with his legs, running for 206 yards on 15 carries, finding pay dirt three times. He also threw for 157 yards and a score.
Smith's final touchdown came on a 43-yard run one play after a 12-yard punt by Lee, sending many of the fans on both sides toward the exits with 5:54 to play.
"It was a lot of energy going through my body," Smith said of the play. "I was just trying to get into the end zone, go to the sideline and celebrate with my teammates."
Cameron Grant added 120 yards and three touchdowns for the Lions as JT finished with 326 yards on the ground.
"We were just making plays," Smith said of their running. "The line, all credit to them, they opened the holes. If the hole wasn't there we just bounced it outside. Everything we did was because of them."
Despite coming in on a seven-game losing streak, Lee came out in the first half and ran the ball better than any team has all year against JT.
Led by Ladarius Wickware, the Red Raiders finished with 333 yards on the ground. The Lions came in allowing 144.3 rushing yards per game, with no team going over 215 in a game.
Wickware, a sophomore, piled up 219 yards and two long touchdown runs on 26 carries. He added a game-high six catches for 58 yards and a score receiving out of the backfield.
Wickware had 167 yards in the first half, including touchdowns of 61 and 50 yards. JT hadn't allowed more than 161 rushing yards total in any of its previous three games.
Receiver Isaiah Davison was a boon for Lee receiving and passing, completing three passes on trick plays for 73 yards and a score. He also had four catches for 49 yards from Chance Amie, who finished with 91 yards through the air and 82 on the ground.
After allowing 310 yards in the first half, JT held Lee to 187 in the second half. The Lions, who have been a second-half team in recent weeks, outscored Lee 28-7 after the break to pull away.
"I told them to fix it and they responded - it's just that simple," Holmes said.
The Lions opened the second half with a seven-play drive that lasted a mere 92 seconds to take a 28-21 lead. The Red Raiders tied it with a methodical, 12-play drive that lasted 5:22. The two series were representative of how the first half went, with Lee taking the air out of the ball with long scoring drives before JT tied it up with quick scores.
However after the game was tied at 28, the Lions defense stiffened.
Trailing 35-28, Lee had a run down to the JT 11 negated by a holding flag at the end of the third quarter. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Javontavius Mosley intercepted a pass by Amie.
John Tyler scored five plays later for the game's first two-score lead, 42-28. On the next series, Kaylon Douglas had a sack on third down to force the shanked punt that set up the Lions' final score.
Lee finished with 497 yards compared to 483 for John Tyler. It was the most yards the Lions had given up all year.
Damion Miller, after sitting out the first half for what Holmes said was a coach's decision, had three catches for 40 yards while Ke'Andre Street added two catches for 72 yards, including a 39-yard touchdown in which he made a slick side-step to evade his defender and scamper in the remaining 20 yards unbothered.
However the Red Raiders held the Lions passing game to 100 yards less than its average coming in, although Smith more than made up for it with his legs.
"He's going to get it done some way, somehow, that's just what kind of guy he is," Holmes said. "That's why we call him the general."
The 61st edition of the Rose City Rivalry was the first as a district game in six years and the first on the final day of the regular season since 2004.
After half a dozen years of playing non-district games in September, the fans responded to the added meaning and came out in force, filling both sides and parts of the grass hills near each end zone.
"It's back to the old Rose City Rivalry," Holmes said. "Being in district, where it really means something, it's not just about winning a football game, it's about making a statement in your district, moving on to the playoffs, making sure that we have home-field advantage. That's huge for us."
John Tyler 49, Robert E. Lee 28
Earl Campbell Field at Christus Trinity Mother Frances Rose Stadium
John Tyler 0 21 14 14 - 49
Lee 7 14 7 0 - 28
REL-Ladarius Wickware 61 run (Leonel Coreas kick), 0:30.
JT-Cameron Grant 6 run (Devan Salazar kick), 11:56.
REL-Wickware 26 pass from Isaiah Davison (Coreas kick), 8:11.
JT-Ke'Andre Street 39 pass from Bryson Smith (Salazar kick), 7:01.
REL-Wickware 50 run (Coreas kick), 2:57.
JT-Smith 2 run (Salazar kick), 0:25.
JT-Grant 4 run (Salazar kick), 10:28.
REL-Jordan Printers 1 run (Coreas kick), 5:00.
JT-Smith 3 run (Salazar kick), 2:17.
JT-Grant 1 run (Salazar kick), 9:49.
JT-Smith 43 run (Salazar kick), 5:54.
First Downs 26 24
Rushes-Yards 40-326 54-333
Passing Yards 157 164
Comp.-Att.-Int. 9-15-0 14-18-1
Punts-Avg. 1-36 2-22.5
Fumbles-Lost 1-1 1-1
Penalties-Yards 6-43 6-51
RUSHING-John Tyler, Bryson Smith 15-206, Cameron Grant 22-120, Devlen Woods 1-4, Team 2-(-4). Lee, Ladarius Wickware 26-219, Chance Amie 20-82, Jordan Printers 6-34, Donerick McCray 2-(-2).
PASSING-John Tyler, Smith 9-15-0-157. Lee, Amie 11-15-1-91, Isaiah Davison 3-3-0-73.
RECEIVING-John Tyler, Damion Miller 3-40, Michael Givens-Washington 3-22, Ke'Andre Street 2-72, Javontavius Mosley 1-23. Lee, Wickware 6-58, Davison 4-49, Makyle Sanders 2-36, Beaux Limmer 2-21.