KIMBALL, Tenn. - It took Dale Winters three years of dating to persuade his girlfriend to become his wife seven years ago. It'll take a lot longer than that to convince her to sit on the same side of the stands with him for the annual Marion County vs. South Pittsburg high school football game.
"That won't happen. Ever," said Diana Winters, a 1989 Marion County graduate. Her husband, the chief of police in South Pittsburg, is a proud 1983 SPHS grad, and they are one of countless couples in this area known as "a house divided" thanks to one of the state's oldest prep rivalries.
That rivalry will be renewed tonight when Class 1A's top-ranked South Pittsburg travels cross-county to Class 2A's third-ranked Marion County. The South Pittsburg Pirates lead the all-time series 46-38-4, having won the last seven games, and 28 of the previous meetings have been decided by a touchdown or less.
Tonight marks the first time since 1982 that these bitter rivals have met in the final game of the regular season, and each enters with an 8-1 record. For the first time in recent memory more than just bragging rights are on the line, as the District 6-A championship will be decided.
In a county where fireworks stores are outnumbered only by churches, the command to "love thy neighbor" is forgotten each year when the game is played.
"We actually don't speak all week leading up to the game unless we have to," Diana said. "He comes home from work and I've got supper ready, but we eat in different rooms and before bedtime he watches TV in one room and I stay in another room.
"We'll take separate cars to the game and we've always sat on opposite sides. He would never sit on Marion's side for this game and there's no way I'm sitting on their side. This game is the No. 1 thing we argue about, so we just decided it was best we don't even talk until after the game."
The couple lives in Kimball, the tiny mapdot that divides Jasper and South Pittsburg, and their two sons attend Jasper Elementary, where both play little league football. There's already debate over which high school the boys will attend.
"If my boys go to high school in Jasper, I'll support them every Friday night," Dale Winters said. "But when they play South Pittsburg, I'll be on the other side, wearing my orange and black. I'm already working on convincing her to send them to South Pittsburg but it's hard because if mama ain't happy, nobody's happy."
An eight-mile stretch of county highway separates the two schools, but it's not hyperbole to say that for the week of the game that road is paved by old-fashioned, unbridled hatred.
"I've coached for a long time and been around a lot of rivalries in a couple of different states, but nothing comes close to the intensity I've seen and felt around this one," Marion County second-year coach Mac McCurry said. "It's actually a little scary when you hear how some of the people on both sides feel about it."
Football is the heart, soul and common thread that binds and divides the two towns. It is the biggest point of pride for each community, as both have well-established statewide reputations. The two teams have more state championships, more title-game appearances, more playoff wins and more players named all-state than any other programs in the tri-state area.
South Pittsburg is the only program in the state that has played for a championship in all six decades of the TSSAA's playoff format. While the series dates back 90 years, it really took off in 1969 when the teams met in the regular-season finale with a playoff berth on the line. The Pirates rallied late for a narrow win and used the momentum from that game to claim the first of their five state championships. They have also finished state runners-up five times, while the Warriors own four titles and have finished runners-up twice, giving each side proud traditions that they guard like a family heirloom.
"It's two programs with a lot of tradition and pride and two communities that want to prove they're better than the other," said South Pittsburg Principal Danny Wilson, who has been both a head coach and assistant with the Pirates. "It's such a small, tightly knit community that both sides know exactly which buttons to push to agitate the other. There's so much competition and jealousy on both sides, it's not a stretch to say there's quite a bit of hatred.
"The best example I've got is that when I came back to work here I had a little old lady from Jasper come up to me in Walmart and tell me, 'You boys don't own this valley anymore. I just wanted you to know that.' And she wasn't playing around."
Jasper is the county seat and since 1910 the official name of the high school there has been Marion County. Warriors fans have for years played on South Pittsburg's "little brother" complex by proudly reminding Pirates fans which team carries the county name on its helmets. Conversely, Pirates fans view that as an act of arrogance and refuse to use their rival's official name, calling them "Jasper" instead, and saying it with the same contempt normally used when referring to atheists and yankees.
"That's the biggest thing we still fight about, is he refuses to call us Marion County," said Missy Hargis, a 1992 MCHS grad whose husband, Gene, is chief detective for the Marion County Sheriff's Office and a 1989 SPHS alum. The couple sends their daughter Sara to MCHS, while their son Mason attends SPHS.
"Even though our daughter goes to Marion, Gene refuses to sit on that side for the game," Missy continued. "And I've never heard him refer to the school as anything but 'Jasper.'"
NO LOVE LOST
Less than five minutes into the 1997 game, former South Pittsburg all-state player Eddie Moore became so excited he began to hyperventilate and had to be taken by ambulance to a local hospital. As the transport made its way around the track toward the exit on the home side, Moore remembers feeling the ambulance being rocked back and forth and seeing Warriors fans knocking on the door and flashing obscene hand gestures at him through the windows.
The next year, during pregame warmups a Marion player approached Moore and asked, "Which quarter are you going to lay down in tonight?"
"I have never been more ready to just go out and destroy people in my life," said Moore, who went on to become an all-SEC linebacker at the University of Tennessee and had a four-year NFL career. "Walking out on the field that night, I was so emotional and hyped up I had tears in my eyes."
Moore's experience is far from the only example of how intense this series has been.
• Former head coaches Vic Grider and Troy Boeck exchanged barbs during the postgame handshake in 2010 after the Pirates went for two points on each of their last four touchdowns to run up the score. And during warmups prior to the 2002 game, the Pirates' Grider and Marion's Tim Taylor got into a very animated argument at midfield after Grider accused Taylor's staff of having a spy scout the Pirates' practices in the week leading up to the game.
• For several seasons players from both sides would walk halfway onto the field for the pregame coin toss, then turn their backs on each other, refusing to acknowledge the opposing side.
• Prior to the 1995 game, one year after the Warriors had shut out the Pirates in a season in which both teams went on to win state championships, Marion students made T-shirts that said "No. 1 in the state, No. 2 in the county."
• Pirates coaches accused Marion of nailing the window in the visitor's coaches box shut and smearing grease over the glass to obstruct their view of the game two years ago.
• South Pittsburg students uprooted both goal posts at Marion prior to the 1993 game and used diesel fuel to kill the grass in the shape of a large "P" at midfield of the Warriors' home turf.
"I've never been a part of a rivalry, at any level, that was as intense. Nothing compares to the emotion around that game," said former Warriors all-state player Eric Westmoreland, who also went on to become an all-SEC linebacker at Tennessee and played six seasons in the NFL. Westmoreland is now an assistant at Baylor.
"The Baylor/McCallie rivalry is pretty heated," he said, "but I don't think it's as scary as far as how the people feel about each other."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.