City defensive end Malik Hamm has earned a reputation as one of the area's top defensive weapons by consistently tormenting opposing quarterbacks over the past two seasons.
In Saturday's 129th meeting with archrival Poly, however, the senior perhaps upped his status to school legend, putting up a monster performance on his team's largest stage.
After earlier notching one interception, forcing another and recovering a fumble, Hamm turned what looked like a likely defeat into victory by literally snatching the ball away from running back Daryl Brown near midfield and rumbling 48 yards with 2:39 left. When teammate Michael Bond moments later scored on a 1-yard keeper, the Black Knights took the lead for good in a 22-18 win before 6,014 at M&T Bank Stadium.
“Today, he played with all the accolades that everyone has laid on him," said Michael Hamilton, City's acting head coach. "He dominated.”
“The running back had it and I just grabbed it out of his hands and started running," Hamm said. "We just needed a big play there.”
The performance of Hamm and the rest of the City defense negated an otherwise brilliant offensive day by Poly wide receiver Tyrese Chambers, who had 157 receiving yards and a 74-yard punt return for a touchdown – in which he started right, cut left across the field, broke a tackle and again reversed field down the right side. Chambers added touchdown receptions of 52 and 29 yards.
The latter touchdown, in which he outjumped three defenders to haul in Jermaine Harvey's high-arching pass, put Poly ahead, 18-14, with just 3:13 to play.
"Up 18-14, a little over two minutes left, with the ball — shoot, that game was ours," Chambers said.
Instead, City (5-4), which is fighting for a playoff spot in Class 3A South, won for the sixth straight times in the series, matching the rivalry’s longest winning streak since the Knights won six in a row from 1964 to 1969. Poly still holds a 62-61-6 all-time lead in the oldest high school football rivalry in Baltimore and what's believed to be the second-longest continuous public-school rivalry in the country.
City took control of this game early, thanks in large part to the influence of Hamm.
On Poly's first offensive play from scrimmage, Hamm tipped Harvey's pass at the line, then snagged the interception at the 10, returning it to the 4.
Three plays later, Bond scored on a 1-yard sneak to make it 6-0.
Then, with the Engineers driving on their next possession, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Hamm broke through Poly's line to pressure Harvey, who threw a hurried sideline pass into the waiting arms of linebacker Jemar Burden. The speedy senior returned the interception 70 yards untouched for the score.
Though the Knights weren’t overly effective on offense in the first half, their defense continued to make big plays, extending the lead to 14-0 with 10:13 left in the half, when after a punt that pinned Poly at its own 2, linebacker Jeremiah Harris sacked Harvey in the end zone for a safety.
Of Poly's seven first-half possessions, three ended with interceptions, one with a fumble and one with a safety.
The second half, however, was a different story.
On the first offensive play, Harvey found Chambers on a crossing route over the middle, and the receiver outran City's defense for a 52-yard score.
“We came out flat, and with this game that has a tendency to always happen," Hamilton said. "Somebody always opens up with a big play. That was their big play. That meant we had to dig down, suck it up and prevail.”
Chambers' punt return for a touchdown then cut the lead to 14-12 with 6:37 to play, and the Engineers (3-6) immediately got the ball back when linebacker Mervyn Thomas-Crawford stripped the ball from running back Jamaine Jeter and recovered at the Knights' 41.
Six plays later, after Poly avoided a catastrophic turnover when a fumble recovery by City was ruled out of bounds, Harvey found Chambers down the right sideline, and the senior reached the ball over the goal line to give the Engineers an 18-14 lead.
If that didn't seal City's fate, it seemed the ensuing kickoff would, when a low kick bounced off the Knights' front line of blockers, and senior Lewis Banks recovered, But that just set the stage for Hamm's heroics.
“Six in a row," Hamm said. "It was real important for us to keep the streak alive.”
It was just as important for Hamilton, a former assistant who took over less than two weeks ago when head coach Daryl Wade was suspended after being charged in an alleged bribery plot in his job as a supervisor in the Baltimore Department of Transportation.
“I knew I had big shoes to fill … but the one thing we decided was that we weren't going to make a lot of changes," Hamilton said. "We made some adjustments offensively, but defensively we knew we were going to play the same game. I just had to maintain my composure and believe that I could continue to move this team along.”
For a man who never expected to be in the position, the end result was a bit overwhelming.
“I can't describe it," Hamilton said, holding the large winners' trophy in his left arm. "This has really been an up-and-down season for us. It's been a struggle, and I don't even think I could put it into words. It just means the world to me. But as much as it meant to me, it meant more to those guys. It was really about them.”
(at M&T Bank Stadium)
City 12 2 0 8 -- 22
Poly 0 0 6 12 -- 18
C-Bond 1 run (pass failed)
C-Burden 70 interception return (pass failed)
C-Safety (Harris sacks Harvey in end zone)
P-Chambers 52 pass from Harvey (run failed)
P-Chambers 74 punt return (run failed)
P-Chambers 2 pass from Harvey (run failed)
C-Bond 1 run (Jeter run)