For 364 days out of the year, anyone in Waynesville — and greater Haywood County for that matter — would not notice the attire.
But, today isn’t one of those days.
Today, the Pisgah Black Bears of Canton are facing off against the Tuscola Mountaineers of Waynesville. In what has become one of the greatest high school football rivalries in the country, tensions are high as the impending matchup later that evening looms over the county.
A 2008 Pisgah graduate, Brookshire has been going to the games with her grandfather, David Marler, a 1971 Pisgah graduate, since she was a little girl. Behind the counter, her mother, Tina Rollins, a 1984 Pisgah graduate also dressed in red and white, had to wait on Charles Starnes earlier, the former longtime principal at Tuscola.
“He said, ‘You’re not waiting on me with that shirt on, do you have another server back there?’” Rollins smiled. “Working in Waynesville and being from Canton is pretty tough, especially if you’re egging it on.”
Sitting a few stools down at the counter is Marler. He’s finishing up his breakfast and ready to head into the day, but not before giving his 2 cents on the “big game.”
“Oh lord, if you want to talk some football, this game is bigger than a lot of college games,” he said. “Whoever wins get bragging rights in the county. It’s the whole nine yards — big crowds, big players and big excitement.”
Eve of battle
The day before the game, both teams are putting the finishing touches on their battle plans. Each school has won their share of the rivalry (as of 2012, Tuscola is in the lead 26-22-1). In 2012, Tuscola won 24-21 in overtime, and it also won the year before, 28-27. This time around, the squads are equally tough, with both poised to make a run for the Western North Carolina Athletic Conference championship, and perhaps even a state playoff berth. Coming into the WNCAC 3A/2A matchup, Pisgah’s record was 5-2, 2-1 (conference/season), with Tuscola 6-1, 3-0.
And as the Thursday dismissal bell rings at Pisgah, Coach Brett Chappell walked outside and gazed down on the streams of students, teachers and parents exiting the property. A first-year coach at the school, he’s known about the rivalry for years.
“I’ve lived around Western North Carolina all of my life, and this game has always been a topic of conversation,” he said. “I’ve coached big games before, but none like this one. I won’t truly know the feeling of this game until I step out onto that field tomorrow night.”
When he was a teenager, Chappell was a running back and linebacker at Rosman High School in nearby Transylvania County. He’s very astute about final preparations and what it takes to be prepared for the “Friday Night Lights.”
“I told my boys you only get one chance at this game,” he said. “We’ve had some injuries this season, and they know to take care of themselves, especially during this week.”
Heading west on U.S. 23, past the enormous smokestacks of the Evergreen Packaging in Canton, one soon finds themselves at the practice field for Tuscola. The field sits on a rise with a view to the west, as a fading sun drifted behind the majestic Balsams. Tuscola Coach Brandon Allen stepped onto the field and looked around at his players warming up for practice.
“The hay’s in the barn, and these boys are ready to play,” Allen said. “This rivalry is a big as it’s ever been. Tomorrow will be an extremely mental and physical game. As always, I’ve told my team to stay focused, and they’re fired up.”
Allen is no stranger to the rivalry. A 1994 graduate of Pisgah, he was a wide receiver and defensive back for the team. Playing in three Pisgah/Tuscola matches, he’s well aware of what the game means to each team.
“Ever since I was a little boy, I wanted to play in this game, and I think it’s a dream for every boy growing up in Haywood County,” he said. “It’s something you look forward to your whole childhood. I know what it felt like as a player — the goosebumps, the adrenaline. I know that look in their eyes and how much this game means to them.”
Where it all began
Though the Pisgah/Tuscola rivalry officially began on Sept. 23, 1966 (Pisgah won 26-12), these two towns have been at each other on and off the gridiron for several decades prior. Before Canton Township High School became Pisgah and Waynesville Township High School became Tuscola, the communities, even those many years ago, had a deep, competitive hatred of the other.
Some think it relates to the factory town nature of Canton and the tourist ambiance of Waynesville, while others point to the mere fact you had two prime football programs only eight miles apart, with many family trees overlapping in the recruiting process.
“This rivalry will live on way past when we’re all gone,” said Gavin Brown, mayor of Waynesville. “When you’re sitting there watching the game, you obviously have loyalties, but it also reminds you of how important this game is to the communities.”
Graduating from Waynesville Township in 1965, Brown was part of the last class before the Tuscola merger. He was a member of the “Meat Squad,” a group of players used to play against the starting football team in practice. According to him, when it came to women back then, a Waynesville boy never looked for a date in Canton, and vice versa, for fear of retaliation.
“I did ask out this one girl from Canton,” he laughed. “A few boys from there found out about it and came to my window one night. Needless to say, I was advised to not come back over there and see her.”
A 1969 graduate of Pisgah, Canton Mayor Mike Ray has looked forward to the rivalry game every year.
“Each side wants to win, but after all the excitement, after it’s all over, everyone comes back together,” he said. “It’s a special day and night. Everyone is on edge until the kickoff. People not from this area don’t even realize how many folks come out for this game.”
As the heated contest has evolved, so has the national acclaim and attention. At any given rivalry game, attendance can hover anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 spectators in the stands. In a recent USA TODAY voting poll, the game was ranked the #1 rivalry in the state of North Carolina, and one of the most highly anticipated matchups in the United States.
“I don’t care if we win by one point or 100 points, we just want to win,” said Dale McDonald, principal at Tuscola. “For three hours, once a year, the communities go to battle on a Friday night. After it’s over, we shake hands, go to movies together Saturday and church with one another on Sunday.”
And yet, it doesn’t matter if you are undefeated or lose every match before the “big game.” The true litmus test of a successful season in Haywood County comes down to the victor in this rivalry. You don’t want to be a player on the losing end, because you’ll be seeing your opponent around town for the rest of your life, always knowing they won the one game that should have been yours.
“You really do throw the records out the window at this game in anticipation that this just might be the game for us,” said Greg Bailey, principal at Pisgah. “But, each year, when the first game of the season rolls around, you want to build a winning record heading towards this game. It’s nice to have one in the oven, something great to display before we meet.”
Even legendary southern rockers The Charlie Daniels Band have a part in this storied game. Following the Canton floods of 2004 that devastated the town, and destroyed the football field, the community rebuilt itself. The field was eventually repaired to perfection, and to celebrate its grand reopening the band was brought in for the 2006 match (Pisgah won 56-10) to play the post-game show.
But, before Daniels could take the stage, and the players take their positions, a mysterious helicopter landed on the field to the roar of the enormous crowd. The Pisgah mascot, a large black bear, exited the aircraft with the game ball. The beast ran around the field, taunting the opponent with Heisman Trophy poses, ultimately handing the pigskin over to the officials to start the game.
Inside that black bear suit was Mark Sheppard, a 1985 Pisgah graduate and the current support services director for the Haywood County Schools System. At that time, he was the assistant principal at Pisgah.
“We needed a big entry for the ball for this game,” Sheppard said. “The doors were so small and the suit was so big, we had to sit in the helicopter and practice going in and out of it to make sure the mascot’s head didn’t fall off.”
For Sheppard, the rivalry is more about tradition, where generations of families are vested into the game, and the pride of being from each of the respective towns.
“You have second, third and fourth generation folks interested in it,” he said. “This kid’s dad and granddad played in the game, and they want to someday, too. Everything is so transient these days and a lot of communities don’t have that anymore.”
It’s Friday evening, and like a cavalry charging across the Great Plains, thousands of vehicles descend on C.E. Weatherby Stadium in Waynesville for the 50th county gridiron fight. Car horns, raucous screaming and loud diesel truck engines blasting through downtown soon shatter the tranquility. A caravan of Tuscola teenagers ride along the idle streets in the back of large pickups. They’re adorned in bright orange hunting vests and camouflage gear. Tied to the trailer-hitch of the last truck is a small teddy bear dragging down the street en route to the stadium.
Upon entering the stadium, the air is electric. Family members, some Pisgah alumnus, others Tuscola, separate to their cheering side of the stadium. If you’re not wearing black and red, you’re wearing yellow and black.
On the Tuscola side, the large group of teenagers in bright orange hunting vests and camouflage gear stand proudly, shouting at the top of their lungs, “I believe, I believe, I believe that we will win.” Leading the cheers is Tuscola senior Chase Carpenter.
“We’re excited about the game today, we’re here to support our team and make a lot of noise,” he said. “This is the craziest thing you’ll ever go to, it gets pretty rough.”
So, why is it great to be a Mountaineer?
“Because we hunt bears, and it’s bear season right now,” he confidently stated.
Across the field, amid a sea of black and red, Pisgah senior Emily Rhea is cheering as loud as she can, all in an effort to provoke those around her to join in and get rowdy.
“This game is indescribable,” she said.
So, why is it great to be a Black Bear?
“Because we’re better than Tuscola and because a black bear can take down a mountaineer,” she enthusiastically shouted.
Surrounding the field are rows and rows of families and old-timers, ready for the night to begin. On the Tuscola side, Waynesville resident Cecil Hightower has “only missed seven rivalry games in the last 32 years.”
“I just love football, plain and simple,” he said.
A few feet away, Nece Hedges, a 2005 Tuscola graduate, is waiting in line at the concession stand. Attending the game for several years now, the rivalry means the world to her.
“It’s in my blood,” she said. “I’d rather be the hunter than the prey.”
Awaiting the kickoff, Chris Jones, a 1990 Pisgah graduate, is all smiles.
“It’s intense, when they kick that ball, it’s ‘Here we go’ for 48 minutes,” he said. “I just hope the referees don’t mess it up.”
Way up in the announcer’s booth, Don Frady has been calling the games in these parts for decades. He’s a 1956 Canton Township graduate but now runs the stadium microphone for Tuscola.
“Oh, this is the game of all games,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see who will be the county winner this year.”
Let THE GAME begin
The ball is in the air, and Tuscola has it. Quarterback Woody Cornwell hands it off to Bryce Myers, who dodges the defense and runs 96 yards for a touchdown. Tuscola is up 7-0, but the tide would quickly turn.
Pisgah quarterback McKinley Brown immediately answered back with a rebuttal touchdown. Now 7-7, Pisgah then kicks a field goal — 10-7 Pisgah. Supportive mothers and restless fathers stand in the bleachers. Little brothers and adolescent cousins ran the length of the sidelines, dreaming of the day they would fill the athletic shoes of those who came before them.
At halftime, Pisgah is still up 10-7. Hopes were high for a heated race to the finish. But, that wouldn’t be the case as the third quarter unfolded. Amid a handful of fumbles by Tuscola and interceptions by Pisgah, and a vicious defense holding back Tuscola, the Black Bears found themselves with a 24-7 lead in the final minutes of the games. Looks of shock and dismay were on every face sporting yellow and black, while those in black and red had endless grins across their lips. Add in another Pisgah field goal and the final nail had been hammered into the coffin for Tuscola.
The clock ticked down to 00:00, with many Tuscola fans already warming up their car engines in the parking lot. The Pisgah crowds remained in the stands, each ready to claim a win that was rightfully theirs, for this year at least. While troves of vehicles did a victory run back down U.S. 23 to Canton, an eerie silence fell upon Waynesville.
For Coach Chappell, it was a honeymoon triumph he’ll never forget. For Coach Allen, it’ll be another day at the office tomorrow as he prepares for next year. And as Haywood County citizens laid their collective heads down that night — some in frustration, some in pure ecstasy — they’ll all wake up, foes yesterday, friends once again today.