Gorman: Breaston was best in WPIAL finals
Even now, a dozen years later, the mere mention of a Central Catholic-Woodland Hills WPIAL Class AAAA championship evokes the memory of one moment.
It still gives me goosebumps, remembering the roar of the Heinz Field crowd as Steve Breaston raced 87 yards down the right sideline on the third play of the 2001 title game.
“I don't look back much on it, but it was enjoyable, the years I was at Woodland Hills,” said Breaston, now 30. “I still have a passion for high school football. It's memories that never go away.”
Since 2001, Central and Woodland Hills have made a combined 11 appearances in the WPIAL final, winning three titles each. They will play for the Quad-A title at 2 p.m. Saturday, their first finals meeting since Breaston's breathtaking performance.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Central defensive coordinator Dave Fleming, then the Vikings' linebackers coach. “There's not too many times you get to see a special kid like that play. They were a better football team than us, top to bottom, but the performance he put on was one for the ages.”
That the buildup was better than the game had to do with the previous two meetings between the schools.
In 2000, Breaston made his debut at quarterback against Central in the fourth game of his junior year at Duquesne's Rooney Field. With Woodland Hills trailing 23-7, he rushed for 214 yards and two touchdowns to rally the Wolverines to a 37-29 victory.
It was an incredible introduction to a player who would become one of the best in Western Pennsylvania history.
Breaston led Woodland Hills to the WPIAL final at Three Rivers Stadium that year, where the Wolverines lost to Mt. Lebanon, 14-13, after botching an extra point.
Woodland Hills beat Central again the following September, this time in a 31-28 triple-overtime thriller before a crowd of 10,000 at the Wolvarena.
Neither lost the rest of the season, so everyone anticipated another classic in the first WPIAL finals at Heinz Field.
“They were there four years in a row: We were just breaking onto the scene,” Fleming said of Central's first final since '88. “We came into that game sky high. When he ran around end 87 yards, it was like, welcome to your lesson.”
The third-and-1 play was a quarterback sweep that saw Breaston beat defensive back Chris Rossi to the corner, then puff out his chest, lift his chin and sprint to the end zone.
“Big-time players in the WPIAL championship, they show up,” said Breaston, who rushed for 219 yards on 15 carries in the 41-6 victory.
“Big plays change the momentum of a game. There's a difference between getting a 10-yard score or just sucking the wind out of a team. That's what that run did. It really set the tone for the rest of the game.”
Breaston said the games against Central rank among his favorite football moments.
That's high praise, considering he played on the Michigan team that beat Ohio State in the 100th game of their rivalry, broke O.J. Simpson's Rose Bowl record for all-purpose yards in 2005, was a fifth-round draft pick of the Arizona Cardinals and played against the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII, which ranks No. 1.
After six NFL seasons, Breaston isn't playing football this year for the first time since he was 10 years old. He had surgery Nov. 11 to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee but holds out hope somebody will sign him.
“To get another shot in the NFL would be a blessing,” said Breaston, now a wide receiver. “I don't think I've played my last down in the NFL.”
Meanwhile, Breaston will return to the site of his greatest game at Woodland Hills — and one of the best performances in WPIAL finals history — to watch the Wolverines play Central at Heinz Field.
“We've played Justin King, Sean Lee — some great football players — but he, by far, was the most dangerous football player we played down there,” Fleming said. “He was unbelievable — his size, speed, athleticism and feel for the game. We had no answer.
“He was the best high school player I've seen.”
One who produced the best high school play I've seen.