Just call this Panther the closer

Cornelius Gallon is king of the clock-beating big play.

Published November 28, 2006

TAMPA -To slip into Cornelius Gallon's psyche, one first must peel back the outer layers of the Plant High junior.

All four of them.

Two UnderArmour shirts, a USF T-shirt he earned from a flag football tournament this past summer and his game jersey.

Mid-autumn or mid-August, Gallon wears them each contest. Yet somehow he remains a 5-foot-10 defiance of body insulation when the Panthers are in dire need of a big play.

Which is to say, he's arguably the coolest player on the field at clutch time.

"He's a playmaker," Panthers quarterback Robert Marve said. "He's the type of guy who you might say, 'I don't know if he can make that catch,' or 'Can he jump that high?' And in big, clutch situations he gets that high. He's a great teammate to have."

Thumb through the most recent pages published in Panthers football lore, and Gallon's name shows up at the most climactic junctures with uncanny frequency.

In last season's district title-clinching 26-23 win over Jefferson, Gallon dove for the winning touchdown catch - on a 32-yard sandlot fling from Marve - with 30 seconds to play.

Last month at Hillsborough, Gallon snagged the ball from the Terriers tight end in the Panthers end zone with 48 ticks remaining, preserving a 28-21 triumph and atoning for the pass-interference whistle he drew seconds before.

And in Friday night's Class 4A region title victory over Armwood, Gallon caught a pass deflected by Plant cornerback Luke Rorech in his end zone for what amounted to the game-sealing interception in the Panthers' 38-20 romp.

Say this for the kid: He plays the way he practices. According to Marve, Gallon caught the decisive touchdown pass on fourth and 4 against the first-team defense in a two-minute drill two nights before the Armwood game.

"He's just one of those types of guys I know I can fall back on," Marve said.

This pattern of opportunism suggests Gallon will come up big again Friday, when the Panthers 13-0 host Miami Washington (12-1) in a Class 4A state semifinal that ranks as the biggest game in school history.

But of course, there's no predicting - or even explaining - such things. Ask him to account for his timeliness, and Gallon shrugs the narrow shoulders atop his 170-pound frame.

"I have no idea," said Gallon, who enters Friday's game with 53 catches for 839 yards, seven receiving touchdowns, five interceptions and 37 tackles. "I think God just shows me the way to be there at the right time and I'm just there. ... I don't know why."

Coach Bob Weiner attributes such big-play capability to "heart" and "character." Marve says Gallon possesses a calming presence that reassures him during moments of frustration.

A few subtle superstitions may also help the cause. In addition to his multi-layered clothing ritual, Gallon's pregame routine includes prayer and listening to the same selection of songs on Weiner's iPod.

But none of that matters nearly as much as the philosophy he'll wear Friday on his sleeves - all eight of them.

"If it comes down to it," Gallon said, "big players have to step up in big-time games."

Joey Knight can be reached at jknight @sptimes.com or (813) 226-3350.