That Daniel Murakami was even in position to deliver such a profound second-half impact in Service High's 37-23 large-school state football championship victory over South was a testament to fallibility, forgiveness and second chances.
After the intermission, Murakami furnished an interception return for a touchdown and also parlayed 14 second-half rushes for 82 of his eventual game-high 129 rushing yards to help the Cougars claim the crown in the First National Bowl. The guy who wears No. 8 stamped his digit all over Service's climactic win in an undefeated season (10-0-1) -- he also tipped the ball on a South option play in the first half, which led to Stephen Ellis' fumble return for a touchdown.
But you can easily make a strong argument that Murakami should not even have been on the field in the second half Saturday afternoon at Tom Huffer Sr. Stadium in Chugiak.
That's because Murakami, in the waning seconds of the first half, drilled his fellow No. 8, South's Griffin Toomey, with a right cross to the jaw.
That transgression warrants an automatic ejection, by rule.
One problem: Evidently, none of the five officials on the artificial turf saw Murakami's punch, a wicked shot he threw while kneeling over Toomey, who was prone on his back. Murakami's punch went unpenalized.
Murakami said he felt Toomey went after his knees following a fumble, but said that did not excuse his punch.
"I just lost my head," Murakami said.
Toomey said he didn't retaliate because he had absorbed a hard punch in a defenseless position and because he didn't want to harm his team's chances by losing his cool.
"If I retaliate, I'll just hurt the team more and I might get ejected," Toomey said.
While the officials missed the punch -- hey, it happens; you perfect at your job? -- Service offensive and defensive coordinator Numi Ilalio saw the incident, which occurred behind the play after Toomey fumbled after he caught a pass and took a brutal hit to the helmet from Service's Erich Pili. At halftime, Ilalio said, he told Murakami, a senior, he was done for the day.
"I gave him a piece of my mind about playing disciplined," Ilalio said. "I teach kids to play the right way, and he wasn't playing that way. I told him, 'Daniel, your behavior is a reflection of me, and the way you are playing is not how I teach football.' "
As the Cougars headed back to the field for the second half, Murakami approached Ilalio, the coach recounted.
"He said, 'Coach, I apologize, I want to make you proud,' " Ilalio said. "I said, 'Daniel, you will -- because if you do one thing (wrong), you're done."
Murakami's impact was evident. He was Service's principal ball carrier in the second half, when the Cougars' offensive line dominated -- credit to center Michael Muller-Stubblefied, guards Michael Pearce and Samuel McCallum, and tackles Jeff Overbaugh and Justin Wilson -- and ate up the clock.
"They opened up holes, as usual," Murakami said. "They always get me through the first level."
South, like every team before it, did not have an answer for Service junior quarterback Amu Aukusitino, who rushed for 115 yards and passed for 179. Time and again, Aukusitino escaped pass-rush pressure with ease, thanks to his startling quickness and instinct for the best avenue of escape -- it's easier to capture a wisp of smoke in your hand than it is to corner Aukusitino.
Murakami, meanwhile, doubled as a force at outside linebacker with that 25-yard interception return in the second half after Pili deflected a Zach Lujan pass at the line of scrimmage. Murakami in the first half leaped up to get a hand on Lujan's awkward, overhand pitch on the option, and that generated Ellis' fumble return for a touchdown.
Murakami credited Ilalio with sticking with him and giving him a chance to redeem himself.
"He believed in me, and I believed in him," Murakami said.
The Service senior also touted Toomey, who conducted himself with dignity and poise throughout the game, even as he absorbed hard shot after hard shot. Toomey caught five passes for 39 yards and rushed three times for 10 yards.
"I have a lot of respect for him," Murakami said. "That kid took so many big hits, and he got right back up. He's the toughest kid on that team."
Afterward, Murakami was contrite about his punch and Toomey said he could forgive Murakami, off the field -- "Between the lines, there are no friends," Toomey said.
As the teams traded the traditional postgame handshakes at midfield, Murakami momentarily stopped a teary-eyed Toomey to speak to him.
"You were tough," Murakami told Toomey as he looked him in the eye. "You keep fighting."
Murakami, of course, meant that figuratively, not literally.
He made good on his second chance Saturday, and brought his high school career to a dream ending.
Toomey is a junior. That means he gets a second chance at state-championship glory -- next fall.
This column is the opinion of Daily News reporter Doyle Woody. Find his blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.