By Tim Gayle
He did virtually all of his damage in the first half, but Antonio Meeks made it a first half to remember for Tuskegee fans with four huge plays that led to a trio of touchdowns in the Golden Tigers’ 37-31 win over Fort Valley State on Sunday evening at Cramton Bowl.
Meeks finished the game with six receptions for 149 yards and a touchdown, providing big play after big play in the third annual Boeing Red Tails Classic to earn most valuable player honors.
“I feel like that’s my strong suit, big plays,” Meeks said. “My team, when they need me the most, I feel like I’ll come through every time. Big plays is what I made my name off of. I expect to continue to do that.”
Although he didn’t start making an impact for Tuskegee until late in his freshman season last year, former offensive coordinator and now head coach Aaron James expected good things out of his sophomore this season.
“Last year, he was a true freshman and he busted his tail to get back this year,” James said. “Tonight, he was just amazing. I told him earlier in the week that we were going to come to him and he showed up and showed out. Hats off to him. He got the trophy for the MVP and he deserved it.
“He works early, he works late after practice on his craft. Over the summer, he put in the grind and it showed tonight on the field.”
He was a human highlight film for much of the first half. After a pair of three-and-outs, a fumbled punt return gave the Golden Tigers new life at the Fort Valley 49-yard line. After a 3-yard run by Chase Sellers, Bryson Williams lofted a deep pass down the left sideline. Meeks pulled in the ball over Fort Valley corner Landon Austin for a 33-yard gain to the 13-yard line and two plays later Tuskegee tied the game at 7-7.
After Fort Valley’s ensuing possession ended in a punt, the Golden Tigers went back to Meeks again. Another Williams’ pass down the left sideline was grabbed for a 38-yard gain to the Fort Valley 5-yard line and the Golden Tigers scored on the next play for a 14-7 lead.
Late in the first half, leading 17-14, the Golden Tigers struck again as Meeks started inside, veered back out and caught a pass for a 44-yard gain to the 23. Sellers ran for no gain, then for 3 yards before Williams hit Meeks with a slant-in for a touchdown.
On the play, Williams’ pass was a little high and behind Meeks, but the sophomore reached up and back and snared the ball for a 24-14 lead.
“It always makes me happy when a receiver goes and gets the ball when it’s kind of ungettable,” Williams said. “Meeks is a receiver who’s going to lay out for the ball every time, regardless of where it’s at.”
Meeks agreed the touchdown was his favorite play of the night, but the earlier catch that set up the Tigers’ second touchdown was a close second after he wrestled the ball away from Fort Valley cornerback Jamal Janvier.
“It was kind of like a 50-50 ball and once we landed, the ref was telling me to get up,” Meeks said. “And I told the ref, ‘No, I’m not getting up, I want the ball.’ We were fighting for like 30 seconds over who wanted the ball. The ref was trying to pull me up and I was like, ‘No, I’m not getting up, you’ve got to get him up.’”
Unlike last year’s Red Tails Classic, a 21-6 loss in which Tuskegee showed little offense and Meeks managed just one catch for 19 yards, the 2023 version had a little bit of everything, including a special performance by the sophomore receiver from Lilburn, Ga. He said it was exactly what he expected.
“I absolutely did,” Meeks said. “I put a lot of preparation into my craft so what else can you expect? I didn’t expect to go out there and not give it my all, not show up.”