Blue-Red, once again
Once upon a time these same men met on this very field to play a game of football. For most, it was the single greatest event in their lives up until that point, a rite of passage that marked the coming of age for a young man in a small town.
It was the Blue-Red rivalry, East versus Central, under the bright lights and in front of the whole county. It was where local legends were born, it was where immortality began and for them it just didn’t get any bigger than that around here.
Friday night the stakes were considerably lower for the alumni game between East and Central as time has a way of bringing perspective to things. The men that gathered on the field had long since left the safety of high school and ventured out into a much larger world.
Most still had family in the stands cheering them on but this time the families were made up of wives, children and for the more seasoned players it even included grandchildren.
The press box gave shout outs to the players on the field from their friends and family throughout the night. “Little Erin is proud of you, Poppy,” read one. “Honey, you still look good in those pants,” went another.
In the locker room however, the light-hearted mood began to change as game time neared. The boys of fall were slipping into old familiar routines like one slips into a comfortable pair of slippers or in this instance, a new pair of cleats. Men made adjustments to their equipment with the same expertise and confidence as a great musician tunes his instrument. It was still second nature.
The always colorful Brad Levine, head basketball coach for East and the acting coach for the alumni, delivered one of his patented championship pregame speeches as trainer David Milam wrapped ankles, hamstrings and other various body parts.
“I’m glad they asked me to come and take care of the guys,” Milam said as he tugged the tape tight around the ankle of the massive man reclining on the table. “They are some superstars. Right here sits one. He should be in the NFL right now.”
The man Milam is referring to is East great and former Tennessee Volunteer Chavis Smith. He is a polite gentlemen with an easy-going disposition that seems in conflict with the violent nature of his defensive tackle position. He looks the part of an NFL player and somewhat out of place playing here on a Friday night but he’s ready nonetheless.
“I played in the last one and it was so much fun that I had to do it again. I couldn’t pass up the chance especially against R-S, an old rivalry, so hey I’m out there,” he said. “I might slide off the end tonight... like I did in high school. I don’t have the speed I used to but I still got some moves left in me.”
Central opened the game a bit nervous fumbling the ball on two straight plays but managed to keep possession long enough to punt it away to East on their first possession. East, with the game against the Burke alumni squad already under their belts, appeared much more comfortable. A couple of hard runs by Darius ‘Rocky’ Williams and a completion from Jordan Mabe to Micheal Milam and the Cavaliers were on the move.
Reco Jones moved the sticks with a toss sweep to the right before Tyler ‘Casper’ Hamilton advanced the ball to the one-yard line on a hard-nosed run into the defense.
A moment later, Mabe connected with Josh Russel for the first score of the contest. East missed the extra point attempt leaving the score at 6-0.
Central’s shaky start continued as lineman turned starting alumni quarterback and head coach Brad Hutchins first pass attempt sailed high and off target into the waiting hands of safety Grant Walker.
Walker proceeded to dodge and weave his way around would be Central tacklers on his way to a 65-yard interception touchdown return. It was a sweet feeling for Walker who never had the chance to play against Central while in high school.
“That felt good,” Walker says smiling. “I never got to play in high school because I broke my shoulder,” he says, highlighting the fact that this game is all about second chances.
Walker continued to make up for lost time intercepting two more passes during the contest to go along with the two that he had in the East Burke game.
Mabe’s quarterback keeper on the successful two-point conversion attempt pushed the East lead to 14-0 midway through the first quarter. The game looked to be getting out of hand for the Hilltoppers.
The mood was high on the East sidelines.
“We’re in football country,” Rocky said. “We’re representing Forest City.”
The Hilltoppers desperately needed to get their groove back and it had to begin with their inexperienced quarterback. Hutchins had stated before the game that he wasn’t nervous about playing quarterback but a 14-0 deficit can rattle the best of them. It was time to see what the coach was made of.
A quick handoff to Logan Cope moved the chains for Central’s first first down of the game. Then Hutchins did with his legs, head and heart what he could not do with his arm and began to move the team down the field.
Two well-executed options gave the old ball player plenty of daylight on the edge and Hutchins rumbled down the sidelines for large chunks of yardage. A play later Hutchins had the ball sitting on the East 7-yard line.
Central’s battering ram, Chris ‘Odie” Murray smashed the ball across the goal line on the next play to tighten the score 16-6 after the failed extra point attempt.
Murray, a semi-professional ball player for the Morganton Bobcats is used to the load.
“We’re only down one. We’re going to catch them,” he said.
The remainder of the first half proved to be primarily a defensive struggle as both teams pounded the ball on the ground.
The speed may not have been as impressive as it was once but the hitting was ferocious. The target of most of the punishment was saved for Hutchins though as Rayford Johnson and the Cavaliers defense took every opportunity to punish him.
Asked why they were trying to kill poor Hutchins, defensive tackle Ace Champion replied, “He’s got on the wrong color.”
“I took a couple of shots,” Hutchins said staggering towards the field house at halftime. “That front four is huge and they are coming off. It’s East and Central, throw the ages out the window, we all act like we’re 18 again.”
Central continued their comeback in the third quarter as Brandon Williams broke through the first level of defenders and then simply ran away from the rest on his way to a 52-yard touchdown. The two-point conversion from Charles Tate to Logan Cope knotted the game at 14-14.
“Unbelievable. I haven’t done that in about four years,” Williams said trying to catch his breath. “I knew that I was taking it to the house and I had to give the crowd that flip into the endzone.”
Central threaten to take the lead for the first time on their next possession when Odie bulled his way around the right end but the touchdown was nullified by a holding call.
Andy Gibbons’ field goal attempt sailed wide left and East took over after the strong defensive stand.
The last scoring threat of regulation came when East’s Jordan Mabe’s 45-yard touchdown strike on third-and-eight was called back due to a holding penalty.
Central sacked Mabe on the next play forcing East to punt the ball away and set up an overtime showdown.
The game was testy early on but as time expired and the teams realized they were heading into overtime, pushes and shoves turned into handshakes and smiles.
“This is how it’s supposed to be,” commented one Central player as he slapped the shoulder pad of his East counterpart.
East began the overtime with a strong nine-yard gain by Williams and a touchdown seemed like a fore-drawn conclusion. Central, as they had all night long, refused to break and stuffed the next play for no gain setting up third-and-one from the one.
Disaster struck for East on the next play as the chance for victory and glory slipped through their fingers as it is so apt to do when a botched handoff left the ball on the ground and Central pounced on it turning away the scoring opportunity.
Hutchin’s led Central out one last time to try and finish the comeback they had been working on since early in the first quarter.
A hand off to Williams for five yards and another tough quarterback keeper for two yards placed the ball at the three. Two plays later, Andy Gibbons attempted his second field goal of the night and drove it straight down the middle for the win 17-14.
“Never expected it to come down to a last second field goal,” a jubilant Gibbons said. “I was nervous as can be. The old man, 36.”
Perhaps the only person more nervous than Andy was his wife Leslie.
“We were high school sweethearts so it brought back a lot of memories of sitting up in the stands with your heart pounding out of your chest hoping that he can make it,” Leslie said. “I thought he was crazy (to play). He has a job, two kids and a wife but he loves the game and for our boys to see him play is something special.”
The game was over.
Those families who watched tensely from the stands now streamed onto the field to love on their sons, fathers, husbands and heroes.
It was a bittersweet scene as these aging athletes walked side by side towards the field house one last time but at least they had some more stories to tell.
By the way, Leslie still thinks Andy looks great in those pants.