Fired up over Devil’s championship runWritten by Quintin Ellison
If you want to talk high school football in Swain County there’s plenty of options. But one of the most enjoyable is to head to Smith’s Dry Goods on Everett Street, a Bryson City mainstay since the mid 1970s, and a place that doesn’t just smack of local color — Smith’s Dry Goods is local color personified.
Here in the wooden-floored, unabashedly blue-collar store you’ll often find former player David Smith, sporting his trademark Swain Pride ball cap, bellied up to the welcome heat of a big woodstove. He’ll undoubtedly be talking about the latest game — or the upcoming game, or even Swain County football games played several decades ago — while customers shop for items such as work clothes and work boots.
This was a Friday, game day, in Swain County. Smith, along with everybody else in this small town, was excited. Everyone, practically, seemed intent on being at the game that night. Which in Smith’s book is exactly how it should be, and why Swain County is such a fantastic place to live if you are a local football fan. At least, this is the place to live for those fans supporting Swain County football and who bleed the school’s colors of maroon and white, of course.
“The town could just about burn down, and no one would realize it until after the game,” Smith said, only semi-jokingly.
How important is football here in Swain County, where the population stands just fewer than 14,000 residents? The Chamber of Commerce has changed the annual Christmas parade from Dec. 3 to Dec. 10 so as not to conflict with the upcoming state championship game; and here in Bryson City, even the town’s crosswalks are painted maroon and white.
Football unifies community
Last Friday night, the Maroon Devils — cheered on by Smith and hundreds of other screaming Swain County fans — played West Montgomery for the right to vie for a state championship. Swain County ultimately won the game in heart-stopping fashion, off the kicking foot of player Evan Sneed, who saved the day and the hopes of Swain County football fans with his 32-yard kick. There were just 33.6 seconds left in the game at the time.
It took Swain’s players most of the game to rally from a near-fatal thumping in the first quarter.
“It was 28 to nothing at the end of the first quarter. We were wondering where our team was at,” said Teddy Green, a sports photographer in Swain County who has been shooting Swain football games for 35 years.
But in an amazing turnaround, the team closed the gap 28-21 by the end of the second quarter.
“By halftime they had the Maroon Machine hitting on all pistons,” Green said. “It was wonderful. It was so exciting. I tell you the truth, it was down to the wire.”
As for Sneed’s winning kick?
“That boy is a hero,” Green said. It was the first game Swain has won via a field goal in at least 15 years.
Football serves as a unifying force that has long knitted the people of Swain County together — the game is more of a passion than a sport here. This is one of the state’s powerhouse football programs, with a total of seven state championships. The last one was in 2004. Now Swain will play for the 1-AA state championship title Saturday against Ayden-Grifton High School, located in Pitt County.
Swain is 14-1 this season, and has won the last 11 games here at home. Swain County Coach Sam Pattillo coaches the team. That Pattillo is homegrown — a former Swain County quarterback now leading the team to victories — makes this team’s run at another state championship all the more sweet in Bryson City.
That’s endeared Teresa Maynard even more tightly to the team, too, though she’s admittedly not a huge fan of the actual sport of football itself. But Swain County football? Now that’s entirely different matter. A horse of a different color — a maroon and white horse — as it were.
“I’ve known Sam all of his life,” Maynard said proudly, taking a brief break from her volunteer job at the Friends of the Library Bookstore to chat. “I keep up with Sam through the newspaper, and with what he’s doing. I would really like to see him go all of the way — we are so proud of him, and of the football team and all of their coaches.”
Maynard, a Swain County native who lived away from the area for a time, knows what a great football community exists here.
“The local people are football people,” Maynard said. “You think Swain County, you think football.”
Want fries with that?
If you come to Bryson City on a game day, you might want to stop at Na-Bers Drive-in along the Tuckasegee River. If it’s in the evening, you could find yourself dining with many of Swain County’s football players and cheerleaders. There’s a tradition here of eating at the six-decades old restaurant before each home game.
Eating at Na-Bers is considered good luck.
So what do the football players eat? Practically anything and everything on the menu — and plenty of it, said owner Ronnie Henderson.
“I’ve seen them eat hamburger steak, cheeseburgers, all of it,” Henderson said. “They’ll show up in a wad, three or four at a time in one car.”
These days, Na-Bers stays open only from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. There is more restaurant competition in town than in the old days, when the drive-in would serve its trademark burgers and shakes as late as 1:30 a.m. on game nights. The place would be packed with fans and players, all eager to relive the game play by play, in endless and seemingly down to the smallest detail.
“We don’t stay open like that anymore, but we’ll stay open as late as people are here,” Henderson said.
Lance Holland isn’t exactly a newcomer to Swain County, but the owner of Appalachian Mercantile on Everett Street previously lived in Graham County and his daughter went to Robbinsville High School.
The Black Knights in Graham County, even the most ardent Swain County fan might agree, have played some pretty good football of their own. Between 1969 and 1992, Robbinsville High School’s football program won 12 Class 1A state titles. Holland, a former football player in Georgia, cheered them on. These days, however, Holland has caught the fever for Swain County football.
“I certainly am pulling for them,” Holland said while finishing up a smoke outside his store.
This Swain County team, Holland added, is really a good, fun one to watch.
“If you’re still practicing on Thanksgiving, like this team was, you made it pretty far,” he said.
Overwhelming community support
A bicycle shop might not seem like the place to stop and chat about local high school football. But sports are sports, after all, and football in Swain dominates everything anyway, at least during a championship drive — even conversation at the bicycle shop.
Diane Cutler, co-owner of Bryson City Bicycles, has been suitably impressed by football’s uniting power in Swain County since moving here about two-and-a-half years ago. Things were different in her previous hometown, the big city of Raleigh.
“It was hard to have that same concentration of attention there,” Cutler said. “But here, there’s an outpouring of support from the community.”
What else but football?
Down the road, at a new consignment shop in a new small strip mall along the river, local lawyer Elizabeth Brigham was overseeing sales. Brigham helped open the store, and agreed to cover business there on this day. She jokes about this being a “one-stop shop” where Swain County’s finest can take care of both their legal and shopping needs.
How important does she believe football is to the people of Swain County?
“Is there anything else here but football?” Brigham responds rhetorically.
Well, yes there is, of course. But not today, game day, with the team headed toward a possible eighth state championship.
Brigham’s boys didn’t play on the team, though one played a bit of league football, she said. That doesn’t prevent her from appreciating what the game does overall for this community.
“It brings the people here together,” Brigham said. “You can be of a different political mind, a different religious mind, but one thing unifies everybody in Swain County: football.”
Listen to the game
Swain County’s bid for its eighth state football championship takes place Saturday, Dec. 3, in Winston-Salem. A web broadcast will begin at 10:45 a.m. The pre-game show and kickoff is scheduled for 11 a.m. Listen to this live audio stream by going to www.ustream.tv and typing “maroon devils network” in the search box.