Brad Stephens brings his own Southern flavored sports perspective and humor to Bartow Sports Zone. He is a Bartow County native and has his own law office in Cartersville, but he's mostly a Georgia Bulldogs' football fan.
On Friday night, across the state of Georgia, the sound of cleats and pads will be heard for the first time in eight months for many Georgians.
The smell of barbecue and burgers will waft through the air while fans clad in their school colors file into stadiums from Clayton to Bainbridge, from Kingsland to Trenton and all points between. Shops close early and downtown areas resemble a scene from the Walking Dead with its silence and lack of human activity.
Businessmen in ties and farmers in overalls come together under the collective lights with the ever-present attitude of “this may be our year.” Rocks go into milk jugs, buttons with pictures of the hometown heroes adorn every momma’s shirt in the bleachers and nervous dads talk to other nervous dads about the other side’s giant offensive line or the opposing quarterback who supposedly threw a 70-yard bomb from his knees in yesterday’s practice.
“The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” “Louie Louie” and the occasional hip-hop song will blare out of the horns and beat out of the drums until feet meet the pigskin and high school football makes its grand entrance. It is a tradition that defines our state.
In Bartow County, nowhere is this tradition more evident than when the Cass Colonels and Cartersville Purple Hurricanes meet on the field. It has been said that if a criminal wanted to rob somebody in Bartow and get away with it, the night of the Cass-Cartersville showdown is the night to do it. Every home from Pleasant Valley Road to Euharlee Road will be deserted. Only Wal-Mart and the Waffle House remain open for those who choose not to partake in the festivities. Yes, this game means everything to this community.
However, if any outsider examined the history, they would probably wonder why this game is played at all.
If one was to view the all-time record between Cass and Cartersville, several questions come to mind:
Why does Cass continue to play this game?
Why do fans bother to show up?
Does Cass just enjoy pain?
The all-time record as it stands before Friday night is 5-40, in favor of Cartersville. It began in 1956 and was all Purple and Gold for many years. In fact, Cass was winless in the series until 1983, which remains the Colonels’ best season to date. There have been some close ones, but those are exceeded by embarrassing blowouts and games that were over in a matter of minutes. The wins dot the landscape like tiny ponds in a giant desert of desolation. Glutton for punishment, thy name is Cass High.
Being the fourth person in my family to graduate from Cass High, I have seen my share of these defeats. As a small child, I remember sitting at the Waffle House on Cass-White Road before the fourth quarter started because we could not stand to watch another second. I would drown my sorrows in sweet tea and scattered, smothered and covered hash browns, wondering if we would ever win again. Cartersville always seemed better prepared, more talented and exuded that swagger that Cass never could match.
The series took a break from 1990-93 and was rekindled at Earl Cunningham Stadium on the night of September 16, 1994. I was 13 years old at the time and as luck would have it, I was one of the team managers for Cass High’s football team and my main job was the carrying the headset cord for head coach Bruce Miller. Coach Miller’s daughter was one of my best friends and in 1992, she asked me and a few other folks if we would help out with the team. It was a no-brainer for me and after helping out with wet footballs, catching extra points and carrying equipment, Coach decided that he wanted me to carry his headset cord full time.
Up until that September night, several great things had taken place while I was there. The team went 0-10 in 1991 and the guys in 1992 were all fired up, many of them saying, “0-10, never again!” That season, the Colonels went 6-4, which was the first winning season since 1983. Although we did not make the playoffs, the feeling of that monkey coming off Coach’s back was wonderful.
I witnessed my first bench clearing brawl at Gordon Central, where Coach picked me up and sat me behind the bench and said “don’t you move, boy!” Our running back body-slammed their linebacker right in front of me and I remember our safety doing his best Chuck Liddell impression, throwing haymakers at anyone from Gordon County. We won the game and the fight handily, the bus was about implode as we trekked home down Highway 41. There were some tough guys on that team – you don’t mess with folks from White, Cassville, Acworth and Emerson like that.
1993 was not as successful but there was a feeling that Cass was moving in the right direction. Yet, there was always that murmur around that we did not play Cartersville anymore. As if somehow, that winning season was tainted. This September night was not only about rekindling, it was about proving that Cass was no fluke.
The entire week before, all of my friends from Cartersville were taking their shots:
“Yep, we might as well play the JV in the first half.”
“Maybe they’ll let us spot y’all two touchdowns to make it fun.”
“Isn’t there a trailer park in y’all’s stadium?”
After absorbing this and talking myself out of cherry-bombing their mailboxes, I figured I would just save the talking until after the game. As the guys warmed up, I looked over at the visiting bleachers, full of the smug faces I had seen all week. I could not wait to see our guys shut them up. As the sun started going down, I was standing next to Coach and I said, “Coach, I got a good feeling about tonight.” He replied, “Me and you both, son. We are ready.” Then he says into the headset, “let’s get one in the left-hand column tonight.”
The game, if anyone recalls, was a slobber-knocking defensive struggle. With all the offensive talent that Cartersville had, our guys matched it with toughness and grit unlike I had ever seen. They heard all the jeers, the condescending comments and knew the history. I have never heard pads popping like that in my life, not even Between the Hedges in Athens, Georgia. Players on both teams were limping to the sidelines all night. This was years of frustration versus a program with a long history of success.
The only scoring that took place was a blocked punt. One of our defensive backs came off the edge and blocked Cartersville’s punt into the end zone and we recovered. I was nearly stampeded by the extra point squad as all the coaches screamed and herded guys off and on the field. The feeling was too much apparently and we missed the extra point, leaving a 6-0 on the scoreboard. My heart sank, I just knew how this would turn out. I thought of all those times in the Waffle House, moping.
As the fourth quarter trickled away, we punted to Cartersville to give them a chance to drive down and win. Their quarterback and number one receiver had been effective but could not find the end zone all night. Our defense was completely exhausted. Coach kept saying aloud, “c’mon boys, one more time!” I looked across the field and saw hands on hips, with faces hanging. No matter what happens, Cartersville will walk away respecting us tonight. It was not the cakewalk they expected.
Seconds remained and Cartersville had marched down to our five-yard line. All I could think of was them scoring and kicking the extra point, beating us 7-6 and enduring a year of smack talk and trailer park references. Coach Miller was basically foaming at the mouth. Our defensive line coach was throwing hand signals so aggressively that he almost knocked out a ball boy. One freshman prayed aloud behind me. The Cass crowd was going absolutely ballistic, I heard combinations of cuss words that I did not know existed.
The final snap lasted about three years. I saw it in slow motion. The quarterback backed up and then took it up the middle, as if the play was a designed draw. He had an open lane and he was fast, so I muttered, “oh God, no.” His footsteps crossed the four, the three, the two and then……BOOM. Our bespectacled linebacker came from nowhere and stuck him. They struggled for a split second and fell to the grass, short of the goal line. The clock read zero. Pure elation and insanity ensued.
I will never forget Coach Miller addressing the team on the field after that. Despite the ugly past, it was all gone that night. Everybody hugged everybody. The feeling of pride and relief is unforgettable. I could not wait to get to the Quality Inn after church on Sunday, so I could rub it in to all the Methodists and Presbyterians behind me in line who not only lost on Friday, but were going to get the leftover fried chicken. We all walked a little taller in 1994.
Despite the terribly one-sided numbers, I still enjoy this rivalry because of that night. We won a couple of more times in the late 90’s but nothing will match that first taste of victory. Momentum is firmly with Cartersville right now, but the game still must be played. This Cass team can channel their inner-1994 and crack the Canes just like those guys did. Pride can do amazing things when put to good use.
If not, there is always the Waffle House.