Twenty years ago the Italy Gladiator basketball team won state. Their legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of each of the athletes, coaches and Italy Gladiator fans. This year the Gladiators wanted to repeat what the 1997 team had done and worked hard to achieve that goal.

Last Friday night, however, that dream came to an end. It also came to an end for several of the 1997 team members that were in attendance at Leon High School Gymnasium.

But the 2017 Gladiators left a mark on Italy sports history that will never be forgotten by anyone in attendance.

The Gladiators were facing the Tenaha Tigers in the regional semifinal round of the UIL playoffs. In the first quarter, the two teams showed quickness on both sides of the ball. Italy trailed at the end of the first quarter, but stepped up and tied the game at 39 by the end of the first half.

At the end of the 3rd, Italy was trailing by 10 points. Determined to make a comeback, the Gladiators fought hard, but could not overcome the deficit.

Then, with around two minutes until the final buzzer, three Gladiators did something no one from either side expected when the Tenaha coach sent in Fer’Davion Thomas — a special needs player.

Instead of driving down the court, Gladiator Christion Washington passed the ball to Thomas, who missed his shot. What followed brought the fans from both sides to their feet. Washington walked Thomas in the perfect position to score. When Kenneth Norwood passed the ball in bounds for Italy, he passed it to the Tigers No. 33 — who hit his shot.

The crowd erupted.

Again, Norwood threw the ball to Thomas to attempt a 3-pointer. The shot missed and that's when Kenneth's brother Kendrick Norwood took over. Standing under the goal, he got the rebound and passed to Thomas for another try. He didn't pass it to him once, he passed it to him four times before the final buzzer sounded.

The scoreboard showed that Tenaha won the game, 92-67, but everyone knew Italy's Gladiators were the true winners that night.

“I played a couple of games this year on JV with Mikey South,” Washington said. “Mikey is a special needs athlete. I wanted to give No. 33 a night he would never forget.”

Friday night was Kenneth's last basketball game as a Gladiator.

“At the end of the day it is bigger than the victory,” Kenneth said. “It was the right thing to do.”

When asked if the scoreboard mattered at the moment Thomas came into the game, all three Gladiators answered in unison, “No.”

“We have a club that was started this year called Circle of Friends,” Kendrick said. “We help our special needs friends every day at school. I got to help coach our friends in Special Olympics.” Norwood stated, adding that he wanted to give Thomas a chance to shine. And that he did.

David Weaver, Italy’s athletic director, was a member of the 1997 Gladiators team that won the state title.

“We were able to enjoy the moment as a community,” Weaver said. “I am just as proud of our team now as I would have been had they won state. Those last two minutes will last longer than a trophy. What they did on the court proved who they are. They left their mark in Gladiator history.”

South’s mother, who is an Italy ISD board member, said Mikey never gives up. When he was in the eighth grade, she received a call her son would be playing in his first basketball game that night and she needed to sign a form.

“Mikey signed himself up for basketball,” Tessa explained. “He has taught us so much. His determination is an inspiration to everyone he meets. We are so proud of him. He is a member of the Italy JV basketball team. His teammates are amazing. They allow him to shine every game. We are so thankful for them.”

Kelli Ballard knows how important it is for a special needs child to be allowed to shine. The Circle of Friends helped her son Wyatt and other students to shine at Special Olympics this year. They will also be going with the students to the Ellis County Expo on April 7 for “A Day in the Ring," where the group will help the Italy special needs students show animals that day.

“My heart is full of joy because of what our athletes did Friday night,” Ballard said. “What Christion, Kenneth and Kendrick did might be small to some people, but it was huge to me. I am so thankful they are my [son] Wyatt’s friends.”