The first time they faced off with a championship on the line, Florida State's Heisman-winning quarterback, Jameis Winston, was just a lanky 11-year-old still floating beneath the radar, and Georgia Tech's Justin Thomas was the lightning-quick QB all the other kids were whispering about before the game kicked off.
This was the 2005 Turkey Bowl, a showdown between Alabama's top Pop Warner teams, with Winston and Thomas as the stars. Winston was the quarterback and linebacker for hometown Hoover. Thomas played QB and safety for a team from Montgomery that, as fate would have it, was called the Seminoles. They wore the same color scheme and helmets as Florida State, but that was really just one of the many fascinating coincidences that would follow these two in the years leading up to their meeting in this weekend's ACC championship game.
Neither team had lost a game that year, and both players arrived confident their respective streaks would continue. Hoover's coach, Greg Blackman, had Winston and receiver Sam Gillikin -- now the left fielder on Auburn's baseball team -- as his chief weapons, and he was sure no team could match that talent.
"I had no idea who Justin was," Blackman said. "Some of the guys that played baseball knew he was a real good baseball player, but I was pretty arrogant about our little team."
Gillikin was a speedster, and the word was out before the game that if he got into the open field, he couldn't be caught. So, sure enough, Winston found his favorite target in the flat early on, and Gillikin set his sights on the end zone. The only problem was that Thomas was even faster, catching Gillikin from behind and saving a touchdown.
"I was like, 'Well, we've got a player here,'" Blackman said.
Thomas scored the Seminoles' lone touchdown that day, recovering a stripped football in the red zone and returning it 95 yards for a touchdown. Cramps forced Thomas from the game, and that helped Winston's team pull off the victory, but it was still a performance Gillikin wouldn't forget.
Years later, Thomas would face Gillikin's high school team in the state championship game, and he hadn't lost a step.
"I remember a specific play where he had a 50-yard touchdown run in the state championship game," Gillikin said. "His speed, he's so fast, but I definitely had experienced it already in that [Pop Warner] game. He's a great player."
Of course, Winston was a great player, too. At age 11, he already displayed the live arm and football smarts he's displayed during his Heisman run at Florida State. In that Turkey Bowl game, Winston was responsible for all three of Hoover's TDs, and he starred on defense, too.
"Jameis was, at his age, his knowledge of the game was phenomenal," Blackman said. "Everybody knew he was going to be special."
But it wasn't any of Winston's laser throws or hard hits that Blackman remembers from that game. It was his quarterback's demeanor coming out of the half.
As the team readied to take the field again in a one-score game, Winston trotted up to his coach, put his hand on Blackman's shoulder and simply said, "Don't worry, Coach. We're not losing this game."
Blackman still tells all his players about Winston's confidence, and when he flips on Florida State games now and sees the Seminoles trailing late, he knows exactly what to expect. The kid hasn't changed much.
"That's how he was -- just a great teammate," Gillikin said. "He showed those leadership qualities at such a young age."
The game ended with a 22-6 win for Winston's Hoover team, but it was hardly the last time the two star quarterbacks crossed paths.
As recruits, both players were valuable commodities in the state, and both had a similar list of schools they were interested in visiting.
For any top recruit in Alabama, the lure of the in-state schools is strong, so both Thomas and Winston gave Alabama and Auburn significant consideration.
"There was no way we were going to turn our back on those schools until we found the right school was for us," said Antonor Winston, Jameis' father. "They got the first chance."
For Thomas, Alabama wasn't just his default choice. It seemed like his only choice.
Growing up, Thomas loved the Tide. His middle name is Bryant, after legendary Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant. For a full year, he was committed to play there, but eventually, the decision started to feel wrong. The recruiting pursuit heated up, and as fate would have it, those Seminoles ties from his Pop Warner days still mattered.
"His biggest dream was to play for Alabama or the Seminoles," said Justin's dad, Milton Thomas. "And people don't know that FSU actually offered him as a quarterback."
In fact, as Milton tells it, a small bit of hesitation on Justin's part during his recruitment set the stage for the ACC championship matchup in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Saturday.
Former FSU assistant coach Dameyune Craig was the primary recruiter for both Thomas and Winston, and he gave the hard sell to both. Winston was a top QB prospect, and Thomas was one of the top athletes in the area. Both had a chance to play baseball professionally, and there were plenty of questions about whether Winston, who was drafted by Major League Baseball's Texas Rangers out of high school, would end up playing college football. So when word spread that Thomas' commitment to Alabama was on life support, Craig made his play.
Craig was in the Thomases' living room and put Milton on the phone with Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher. The offer, Milton said, was simple. If Justin would commit to FSU right then and there, the Seminoles would tell the rest of their recruits -- including Winston -- that they had their QB.
"It was one of those deals they were only going to take one of us, and if I'd pulled the trigger first, it would've been me," Thomas said. "Sometimes it works the way it's supposed to work, and this time it did."
Still, the two crossed paths again and again during their recruitment. It actually became something of a running joke among the families.
"Through the whole recruiting process, we were always stepping on his toes," Milton said. "We went to LSU, Jameis was there. We'd go to Florida, and Jameis was there. We went to Alabama, and Jameis was there. He said, 'Y'all are following me.'"
In the end, however, the man who settled things was actually Florida State defensive coordinator Charles Kelly -- only at that time, he was working on Georgia Tech's staff.
Thomas' family all rooted for Alabama, and his mother was a Louisiana native, so he had plenty of people pushing him to go to LSU, too. But Kelly implored Thomas to make a visit to Georgia Tech, and the quarterback quickly fell in love.
"Coach Kelly talked with my wife, my daughter -- all these Bama fans, he talked with them and won them over," Milton said. "He said all the right things."
Two years later, Kelly bolted Atlanta for Tallahassee to work as Fisher's linebackers coach, and this season he was promoted to defensive coordinator -- the man now charged with trying to slow down Thomas and the Georgia Tech offense.
And while Thomas decided on Tech, Winston found a home at Florida State. It was hardly an easy decision for either quarterback to leave Alabama, and the folks around town didn't offer much support. That's the politics of recruiting in that state.
"Going through our recruitment, you got the gratitude, the 'I wish he'd play for Auburn or Alabama,'" Antonor said. "After he left the state, that turned into bile. They turned into enemies once he left. The same people saying we want him to come to Auburn or Roll Tide, when he left, they were the same people who didn't like him anymore."
Milton remembers a similar response.
"A lot of people told me I should have more control over my household and he should go to Alabama," he said. "But we told him he could go wherever he wanted."
In the end, it has worked out well for both quarterbacks.
Winston has yet to lose as FSU's starter, and he has the Seminoles poised for a shot at a second straight national championship.
Thomas took over Georgia Tech's offense this season and has injected new life into the Yellow Jackets' familiar scheme.
That the two are meeting again with a conference championship on the line seems like fate.
Of course, this rematch of the 2005 Turkey Bowl has a little bigger spotlight, but so much of the matchup remains the same.
Antonor remembers chatting with Justin's uncles before that game, listening as they touted the talent of their nephew, assuring he'd be the one to finally slow down Hoover's juggernaut. They didn't know Jameis, and Antonor simply grinned. When the game was over, Justin's uncles playfully tossed some popcorn Antonor's way as a means of tipping their cap to his kid.
"He has a very supportive family," Antonor said.
This time, Justin Thomas and Georgia Tech know exactly what they're up against.
But so, too, does Florida State. At a meeting of the Montgomery Quarterback Club following Thomas' senior season in high school, Fisher was the guest speaker. He spotted Justin's father in the crowd, said hello and posed for some pictures. Then during his speech that night, he reminded the crowd that Florida State had missed out on a good one.
"He said, 'I recruited him but we couldn't get him to pull the trigger,'" Milton recalled. "And he said, 'I just hope we don't have to see him any time soon.'"
Fisher should have known better. Saturday's matchup was destined to happen.