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Wednesday, 14 June 2006 00:00

A heated rivarly where everyone’s a winner

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By Eric Larson

Where I grew up, you had to choose sides early: You were either a University of Alabama football fan or you pulled for the Auburn “War Eagles.” I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but some people were actually shot and killed over arguments that arose from this bitter, storied rivalry.

Until my little sister matriculated at Auburn, I would have told you I was a Crimson Tide fan to the core. I would have said this, even though I’d never set foot on the Tuscaloosa campus. Aren’t the most uncompromising college football fans the ones who never attended their favorite university?

Attending Duke in the early 1990s, I learned very quickly to love a different game — basketball — and despise that other school down the road. “Chapel Hell,” as we came to refer to it, was a great place to stroll down Franklin Street and grab a bite to eat, but that was about it. Everything else about the school was corrupt. Then a few years later I met my future wife — a co-ed at (gulp) the same Chapel Hill — and before too long I had to eat my words. It’s hard to dehumanize the person helping to raise your lovely daughter. These perfect school rivalries always seem to come with fine print.

Now I live in Haywood County where I’ve found myself embroiled in yet another rivalry. But this time it’s different. No one gets shot or (too badly) maligned. No one gets mad during March Madness. And no corporate sponsor gets rich feeding (and feeding off) the hype.

I’m talking about the intense rivalry between Canton and Waynesville as they raise money each year for the American Cancer Society through Relay For Life, the largest annual fund-raising event on the planet.

Here’s the way it works: businesses, schools, churches, you name it, organize into teams. They might give themselves catchy nicknames and create uniforms for the big event. In the weeks leading up to the event they fund-raise with bake sales, raffles, contests, and the like. The teams are competing to see who can raise the most money for cancer services, education, and research.

Relay For Life Haywood County traditionally has hosted two large Relay events in the same county. This year they occurred on different weekends in May. Canton had somewhat of an advantage this year, as they could see what Waynesville’s event produced and then try to surpass efforts the following week.

In 2005, Canton squeaked past Waynesville, but not by much. And there was a bit of a dark horse this year in Waynesville’s stable: Tuscola High School, for the first time, would contribute several Relay Teams. Senior Lauren Thomas and Tuscola faculty member Rena Wyatt helped form more than a dozen Tuscola teams to go head-to-head with Pisgah’s usual well-orchestrated money machine.

Thanks to the teen-agers, the all-night event in Waynesville at Vance Street Recreation Park had more energy than in years past. There were bands, karaoake, and thank goodness, Team Wachovia was selling coffee to raise money. It got bitterly cold for May. “Just being there is the reward,” reflected event chair Ricki Mehaffey. “When the survivors walk that first lap ... that’s the reason we do it. There are more survivors every year because we’re doing what we need to do to keep them here.”

Canton would have its own weather challenge the following weekend, but their opening ceremony started off beautifully. Karen Hall had helped recruit more teams than ever before, and it was a festive atmosphere. The beauty pageant — with guys as contestants — alone raised over $1,400. However, said event chair Michael Allen, “the dunking booth was cold!” spoken like someone who would know.

At 9 p.m., a bagpiper led the candle-lit parade of participants around the downtown course, lined by luminaria to honor those who have fought the cancer battle, some successful, too many not. Late that night the thunderstorms came, drenching clothes but not spirits.

Just after the Relays, a count of the receipts showed Canton’s effort well ahead: $76,000 to $66,000. But the final total isn’t complete until August. There’s still time for Waynesville to catch up.

Whether or not Waynesville matches Canton’s totals, both teams are winners: together they have already raised more money than they did last year for the same great cause. I know I’ve won something: I’ve finally found a rivalry I can get passionate about for many years to come.

(Larson is president of Stellar Media in Waynesville and served as publicity chair of Relay For Life Haywood County 2006. For more information about Relay For Life, visit www.cancer.org. Larson can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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