The Grey Cup will have distinct Chattanooga flavor this year.
Running back Gerald Riggs and defensive lineman Demonte Bolden, teammates at the University of Tennessee and former prep All-Americans at Red Bank and Tyner respectively, will face off Sunday in the 100th Grey Cup, the Canadian Football League championship, at 6 p.m. on NBCSN.
Both players are in their first seasons with their new teams, Riggs with the Toronto Argonauts and Bolden with the Calgary Stampeders. Chris Jones, who played at South Pittsburg and UT-Chattanooga, is in his first year of coaching with Toronto as well, working as the defensive coordinator, assistant head coach and assistant general manager.
Bolden's Stampeders are the underdogs, having lost both regular-season meetings, but only by a combined 11 points. The former two-year Volunteers starter is in his third year in the CFL, having played with Hamilton for two seasons before signing with Calgary last summer.
This season he has 16 tackles and two sacks for the Stampeders, who have won their last six games.
Jones coached for several college teams in the South, including Alabama, and worked with current Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith when both were defensive assistants at Tennessee Tech, where Jones was also recruiting coordinator. Jones' defensive line led the Ohio Valley Conference in sacks and tackles for loss in 2001, and the next season he made the jump to Canada.
He is in his 11th season as a defensive coordinator in the CFL, beginning with Montreal, then Calgary before being offer the three-headed title with Toronto. His teams have been to the playoffs every season he's been in the league, and this will be the sixth time he's been on a Grey Cup staff, at least once with each franchise he's worked for, with two titles.
"I have gained a real appreciation and respect for this league," Jones said. "I try to keep it a simple system so my guys can play fast. I love what I do, and one of these days somebody will give me a chance to be a head coach here. When you grow up in the South the goal is to coach in the SEC or the NFL. That's the pinnacle. I believe I could coach at either of those levels, but I'm happy where I am in this league."
Since his early days as a college assistant, Jones has built a reputation for taking players with checkered pasts and giving them new opportunities. Those include Riggs, whose playing career appeared to be over before Jones convinced him to try out with Toronto.
"I relate to some of these guys like that," Jones said. "If it hadn't been for some of my high school coaches, I would've gone sideways. A lot of people have quit on some of these guys because they made bad decisions. You look into the backgrounds of a lot of my players, and they weren't perfect. But I judge them on what they do once they get here, not the past.
"Gerald has matured, and I think he can make a good career here."
After an early adjustment period, Riggs is getting more playing time now and averages 10.4 yards per touch for nearly 500 yards of offense.
He has been a key member of teams that have played for championships at every level, leading Red Bank to the Class 5A state title as a junior, then rushing for more than 1,000 yards to help Tennessee play in the SEC championship game his junior season.
"For me personally this opportunity is huge," said Riggs, who signed a three-year contract with the Argos in June.. "It's a blessing to have another chance to play. This year was about shaking the rust off and getting adjusted. Next year I think you'll see an improvement, and I'll work my butt off to get better.
"It took a while to get adjusted to some of the differences from American football. Like here we only get three downs to get a first, so the game is a lot more about the offenses. You take more chances to try and make a big play, because your opportunities are limited. But at the end of the day it's still football, and I love playing this game."