PHARR — Every kid wants a nickname, right? But most are so called because of some genetic trait or flaw they can do nothing about. “Hey Lefty,” “Hey, Bones,” or “Hey, Jumbo!”

But for Matt Munoz, who guaranteed a comeback and delivered not once but twice, who overcame a painful injury to come off the bench to lead a miraculous victory, his new moniker comes from the gear he was wearing in the post-game delirium at P-SJ-A Stadium Thursday.

Without shoulder pads, dripping with sweat and super-charged with adrenaline after Edinburg North’s 31-28 come-from-behind thriller over the Bears, Munoz could be seen with a grey, skintight padded vest, courtesy of UnderArmour or some such trendy brand. It resembled very much a vest of chain mail and since Munoz, Latino but decidedly guero, even European one might say, sort of looks like he could have been at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, here it is….“BRAVEHEART!!!”

Because it was a truly heroic night for the senior slinger, as he came out of nowhere to complete 17 of 27 balls in two periods for 167 yards, bringing the Cougars back from two deficits in a wild fourth-quarter in which the two teams banged back and forth for 29 points. He tossed in two key runs of 33 yards total up the gut of the Bear defense on the final drive, past caution and a severely bruised oblique to rally his troops downfield. When Munoz found sudden star Jordan Quiroz for a 14-yard TD pass on third down, it was good enough for the last-second win, at the 0:15 mark.

Earlier, after having replaced second-teamer Michael Pacheco, who made a good account of himself by leading the Coogs (1-1 in District 31-5A and 3-2 overall) to within three at the break, Munoz had casually predicted on the side that he and the boys were going to make the comeback. Little did he know he would have to do it twice, as the Bears (1-1, 1-4) took leads of 21-17 and 28-24 before the fireworks at the end of an astounding and entertaining war between playoff hopefuls. Like the English, who took on a superiorly stacked French army and came out on top in the signature fight of the Hundred Years’ War, the Cougars lived to tell the tale.

While the historical purist might quibble that William Wallace and the well-known Scottish independence saga actually had nothing to do with this particular agitation at Agincourt, The Observer will take the hit on that detail and move forward.

“Braveheart” it is, then, because after being KO’d out of last week’s crunching 61-17 loss to Harlingen after a big hit in the fourth period, Munoz appeared out of the mix for the following crucial early-season challenge.

“He tried to go Monday but couldn’t,” reported North Coach Roy Garza. “Then, he laid out the next two days and quite frankly we weren’t counting on him to be able to go tonight. But he went in there after halftime, and he was able to make some big-time plays for us…we’re awful proud of Matthew and the team itself.”

The comeback magic was even more amazing when one considers that the English, I mean, Coogs, went to war without perhaps their two best ballplayers, defensive end Hector Trejo (knee) and slot receiver Juan Ramirez (ankle). Linebacker Blaze Walker is out for the year with a torn-up knee, and you get the picture. North, seeking to rebound from a disheartening blowout loss to the mighty Cards (“We didn’t respond in the second half,” Garza said) and down a handful of studs, was in need of some off-the-charts contributions.

“There was no way we could start 0-2 in district, so I decided I just had to play through the pain,” said Munoz afterward. He has assumed the starting chores behind center now that former alternating QB Raul Monsevais is no longer with the team. With a keen sense of when and where to throw, a rocket right arm when he does so, and some live legs that carry him into the teeth of the secondary more often than not, Munoz has become one of the Valley’s best all-around quarters. He routinely completes around 60 percent of his balls, and after four weeks was leading the city in passing and rushing…other than that, not a very important player.

He paced North on back-to-back 80-yard scoring drives in the last 12 minutes, turning a potentially bitter loss into a joyous triumph that will be recalled as one of the greatest in program history. And he did it by forgetting about the injury and just playing ball.

“I saw some chances to run on that last drive, I had to do it, and I didn’t care what happened,” he said. “The team was in trouble and sometimes you just have to quit thinking about the pain and get the job done.”

A NIGHT OF THRILLS

Everyone knows that for some reason, P-SJ-A is the center of the universe when it comes to 31-5A football. Not only is Coach Mel Rios’ team a virtual lock to compete for the league crown every year, as it’d gone to the playoffs five times in his seven seasons heading into 2009. The truth is, the Edinburg schools understand that as the late, great Edinburg Bobcat Coach Robert Vela used to say, to make the dance, you have to split with the Harlingens and get two out of three from the Pharrs. With the Cardinals in one of their periodic spurts of utter domination and the Raiders of Pharr North a strong second these days, beating the Bears has become the canary in the coalmine for the rest of the bunch.

So with this in mind, and the Coogs still smarting after an embarrassing 40-point barrage put on them by Harlingen in the second half at home last week, the stage was set. It didn’t help that P-SJ-A, just 1-3 coming in but as usual coming on as the season darkens, had improved each week in terms of points allowed and yardage given up. Rios’ crew, though dogged by the flu bug for several weeks, had negotiated a most difficult Valley schedule, facing off with Los Fresnos, McAllen High and McAllen Memorial before gaining a win last week over Harlingen South.

With 12 of the top 16 tacklers on defense being underclassmen, the Bears would be sure to hang their hats on the dynamic running skills of Gilbert Espino, a senior greyhound who had rushed for over 100 yards in all four contests, including a star-studded performance last week. The smooth back churned for a career-best 241 against the Hawks, with three long-range scores.

To start the most vital game of the campaign to date, Espino was in fine form, indeed.

Turning the Coog ends with laughable ease, the 6-foot-1, 205-pounder, Numero Uno in the entire Valley with 664 yards coming in, ran around and through the North D like its members were running in molasses sprinkled on a sandy beach. He jetted for 24 yards to begin an 8-play, 84-yard cakewalk, and ended it with another 24-yarder for a 7-0 P-SJ-A lead at 8:11. The Coogs, as stated, have had their troubles on defense, health-wise, and this was an inauspicious start to say the least.

However, Pacheco, thrown into the limelight after the injury to Munoz and the untimely departure of Monsevais, was determined to make the best of the opportunity. He’s not the fleetest of foot, and he throws like a running back sometimes, but Pacheco is a weight-room warrior with mucho corazon; you young bucks need to Google “Joe Kapp” to see a mirror-image of young Pacheco, 40 years back.

In a 10-play, 73-yard answer to the first Bear stab, the junior leader made an enormous early throw, regarding confidence, finding soccer standout Quiroz (eight grabs for 106 yards) for 33 yards up the middle on a third-down call. Then he rambled 24 more yards into the maw of the Bear D, which was led by senior safety Albert Reyes (a killer first-half performance) and promising soph linebacker Jesse Castillo (game-high 12 stops).

The North charge petered out inside the 10, but trusty Alan Guajardo came on to boot his fourth field goal of the year, a 24-yarder with 3:41 left in the first to make it 7-3, Osos.

Mighty-mite senior tackle Heltrin Reyes, who has been making plays in the middle of Coach Rene Saenz’ defense for what seems like 10 years, stopped the powerful and dangerous Espino twice to force a punt, and on came the unlikely starter, Pacheco, again.

North actually fumbled the punt but had retained possession after a lengthy “oh no!” moment, and the offense started anew from the enemy 44. Big Mike (5 of 9 for 86 yards in his half of duty) connected with trackman Danny Cardenas for a key gainer and later capped the field-position drive with an 8-yard TD run at 0:22 of the quarter.

After having been run over by Espino, who would steam his way to 153 yards in the first half, North still led 10-7. Not for long.

Taking the ball on their 22, the run-happy Bears, who had passed for fewer than 200 yards all season, did the smart thing, and let the rangy superstar wearing No. 32 do his thing. Though Rios had started the game with a successful curveball, having senior Johnny Lopez toss one for a 15-yard gain on the opening snap of the day, everyone but the clinically dead imagined that the home side was going to make its living the old-fashioned way, on the ground. Thus it was.

That meant Espino, and on a 48-yard jaunt through the step-slow North D, he showed why he is one of the Valley’s finest for 2009. Employing the seldom-seen and marvelous technique of the stiff-arm, Espino pulverized the first tackler and was off to the races around left end, cruising past a screaming mass of supporters on the Bear sideline. Manny Garcia finally chased him down at the North 16, but soon Lopez found Nacho Gonzalez on a 13-yard scoring pass (the Bears completed two balls all night) at the 10:37 mark to regain a lead that would eventually slip from their fingers thrice before the end.

The key juncture of the first half was reached with just over a minute to play, after Espino had skated 42 yards down to the 12. He can run over you, or he can make you look silly with a hip-slip, can Espino. He’ll block with a passion, and he’s just damn good, Man, Gilbert even walks cool! However, No. 32 made the mistake of looking up quickly at the onrushing defense as Lopez pitched his way on a later carry, losing the ball a dozen yards away from a 10-point lead.

“After last week, we were just looking to survive, really,” North coach Garza later admitted. “This was the toughest week we have ever had in this program, from a lot of perspectives. So that turnover late in the first half was absolutely something we had to have to stay in it.”

STAY TUNED, HIGHLIGHTS TO COME

So 13-10 at the half, Bears on top.

In came Munoz off the injured reserve, and though he exhibited the requisite rust one might expect, it didn’t take the lanky senior long to shake loose the cobwebs. He was 1 of 3 on the first possession, and a rare penalty (holding) in a remarkably clean, whistle-free contest set North into punt mode. But the Bears committed a 15-yard chop-block foul and their first try wound up with an interception from senior Garcia, who had eight tackles at strong safety for North, to go with eight from junior LB Robert Rodriguez and 10 each from feisty senior corner Bryan Trevino and the redoubtable Reyes at tackle.

From his own 47, Munoz started to find the range, and North transitioned from careful short-passes and runs by Simon Edwards (62 yards on 13 plows, the team picked up 145 rushing) into a more vertical, field-stretching approach. The big one went 22 yards to Cardenas (five for 73 in his best effort of 2009) and eventually, Quiroz snagged one over his defender on the fade left. At 6-3, Quiroz can go up and get balls that the corners can only watch sail by, and on the 13-yard TD that gave his team a 17-13 advantage at 5:15 of the third, the leggy junior made a sweet grab, getting both feet in before hopping out of bounds.

“We have playmakers all over the field,” noted Munoz, who nonetheless missed the swerving snake Ramirez from out of the slot Thursday.

Assistant coach Raul Salas asserts that each of the North wides brings a certain skill to the table, and assistant Rodney Mayo estimates that given the height advantage Quiroz brings, the Coogs should be able to count on him bringing the rock down at least seven out of 10 times on the fade.

The visitors were cranking it on offense, but the Bears were not through yet, not in the least. Espino may be an All-Valley fave, along with the likes of Hanna’s Enrique Saldana and a short list of other fabulous backs, but Rios can count on some other kids to step up and get the job done. Foremost among them is a little cat named Ossie Cantu, a speed demon with lots of varsity experience. North began to seal the periphery and find the mark on Espino, and held the superduperstar to a paltry 23 yards in the second half.

But Cantu (80 yards on just six carries) made up for that, zooming 46 yards for the go-ahead touch early in the fourth, on a key 4th-and-4 call. This came after Garza and North had gambled on their own 4th and 4, coming up empty.

Now it was 21-17, Bears, and the rest of the game would unfold with three memorable TD marches against a pair of tiring defensive units. North started the final rumble with a 13-play, 80-yard jag, Munoz going 5 for 5 in the air and Edwards banging for a key third-down conversion. Edwards finished it off with an 8-yard power play, and the Coogs had regained the nod, 24-21 with just over seven minutes left. Keep in mind, the P-SJ-A game is always the key, you have to take two out of three from the Pharrs, Coach Vela’s rule.

But the Bears seemed not to quite care about this traditional Edinburg town bromide, and they responded like a winning club will. Slow and easy, Lopez led the team down the field, as the Pharr O-line cleared the way for the mercurial Cantu and a very serviceable junior runner in the wings, Ruben Garcia. The team picked up 322 ground steps Thursday, about par for the course with a Rios unit. And Garcia outran the flagging Coog stoppers for a 17-yard touchdown with just 2:04 remaining.

It was a vintage Bear drive, methodical and smart, crunching toward the goal line with the staff knowing full well that time was wasting away.

North got it with 2 minutes left, and Mayo says that he and coordinator Adan Rendon will put their two-minute offense at the top of the list of effective gainers by that route. It was up to Munoz. Having already guaranteed one rally, the wounded warrior was called upon to do it again.

He ran for eight, and a key personal-foul call against veteran D-line star Joey Villanueva (relatively quiet with five tackles) moved the ball to the North 43. Then Munoz faded back on second down, saw some room in the middle, and set out for a 16-yard pickup that really gave the drive some legs.

From the Bear 26 with 1:21 left, the Coogs jumped offside, but Munoz had the antidote, swooping into the secondary for a 17-yard advance with 38 seconds to go. Two incompletes followed, one expertly defensed by Reyes of Pharr. But then Quiroz located an inch of open ground on the fade again, making a carbon-copy of his first-half TD by elevating for the toss from Munoz, landing on two feet inches inbounds, and completing the masterful comeback with 15 seconds left.

“I was just doing it the way the coaches taught us,” smiled Quiroz after the celebration began in earnest. He took a knee while Garza lauded his crew for fighting to the end, for getting mean, and in putting the horrors of last week’s problem behind them. “The coaches told us that this would be a tough game, that it always is, and that we needed to take our chances when we got them…and come through. I was just praying that God would put the ball on my hands, and that’s what happened out there.”

To sum, history mavens will forgive that we referenced Agincourt instead of Falkirk, and the Brits instead of the Scots. But Hell, it’s way-way-way late in the day at this point, and rewriting is such a drag. It is left to simply fall back on the clever device we writers like to call poetic license. To have watched Matt “Braveheart” Munoz rise from the depths of the training room to inspire his mates to victory Thursday was a once-in-a-lifetime gem, even if there was no King Edward I, or “Longshanks,” to root against.

It was one of the best football games one will ever see, and that’s a wrap from the Tri-Cities.

NORTH AT P-SJ-A

NORTH 10 0 7 14 - 31

P-SJ-A 7 6 0 15 - 28

SCORING

P: Gilbert Espino 24 run (Juan Alegria kick) 8:51

N: Alan Guajardo 24 FG 3:41

N: Michael Pacheco 8 run (Guajardo kick) 0:22

P: Nacho Gonzalez 13 pass from Johnny Lopez (run failed) 10:37

N: Jordan Quiroz 13 pass from Matt Munoz (Guajardo kick) 5:15

P: Ossie Cantu 46 run (run for two) 11:42

N: Simon Edwards 8 run (Guajardo kick) 7:11

P: Ruben Garcia 17 run (Alegria kick) 2:04

N: Quiroz 14 pass from Munoz (Guajardo kick) 0:15

STATS

NORTH: FD 25; RUSH 145; PASS 253; TOTAL 398; TO 1

RUSH: Edwards 13-62; Munoz 4-42; Pacheco 7-32; Roly Borrego 3-6; Mark Esquivel 2-3

PASS: Pacheco 5-9-1 86; Munoz 17-27-0 167

RECEIVING: Quiroz 8-106; Danny Cardenas 5-73; Andrew Partida 2-38; JoeMar Vazquez 3-23; Edwards 4-13

TACKLES: Bryan Trevino 10; Heltrin Reyes 10; Robert Rodriguez 9; Manny Garcia 7; Moises Beltran 7; Alan Garza 7; Josh DeLuna 7; Justin Escobedo 5/INT: Garcia

P-SJ-A: FD 14; RUSH 322; PASS 28; TOTAL 350; TO 2