Hargis: McCallie's No. 17 tradition honors tenacious spirit of late Baylor star

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / McCallie's John David Tessman, left, closes in on Brentwood Academy's Ian Scott on Sept. 4 at McCallie. Tessman is No. 17 on the roster, and wearing that jersey for the Blue Tornado is considered a high honor because it is given to a player who shows the leadership traits displayed by former Baylor standout Jason Green. McCallie coach Ralph Potter coached Green during his time leading the Red Raiders.

Numbers often define a rivalry. Especially one with as much tradition and pageantry as Baylor versus McCallie, which dates back so far and is so contrary that the two schools can't even agree on the all-time record in their football series. Each has itself listed as leading, and the total number of games differs depending on which side you ask.

But whether it's the series record, individual player stats from a memorable game or a winning streak by one side or the other, most numbers are simply hard facts used as a way to distinguish between the two proud programs.

The No. 17, however, is what unites them.

Some may not remember that, while few can match his ties to McCallie's football tradition, the Blue Tornado's Ralph Potter actually began his head coaching career at Baylor. Ralph's father, the late Pete Potter, had such a legendary coaching career at McCallie that the football field is named in his honor, and Ralph was a star quarterback for his dad.

But from 1994 to 1996, Ralph coached at Baylor, and it was there that he and assistant Chris Richardson became impressed with the competitiveness and leadership of Jason Green, a tenacious running back and linebacker for the Red Raiders.

During a break from college in 1999, Green returned home to visit friends, even stopping by to have lunch with his former coaches Potter and Richardson and taking in a McCallie home game. The next night, on the drive home from dinner with friends, Green was killed in a car wreck.

The news shook Potter and Richardson to their core.

"If there was ever a kid who epitomized team player, it was Jason," Richardson said. "He would always come up to me after practice to ask if I saw anything he needed to improve on. He was a good athlete who had great character and desire to win and make the people around him better.

"As a coach, the hardest thing I've ever had to do was to be part of his funeral. Kids have their whole life ahead of them, and that's not supposed to happen. I still think of him often, especially during the season and for this game."

Beginning the following season, Potter and Richardson decided to honor their former Baylor player each year by giving Green's No. 17 - which he wore during his career at Campbellsville University in Kentucky - to the McCallie senior who most closely shared the same characteristics.

"Chris and I just want to make sure we honor Jason by having a high-character kid wear his number," Potter said. "It's been a tradition at McCallie ever since. The first thing we look for is that it needs to be an impact player, somebody with toughness, both physically and mentally. A leader."

photo Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / McCallie outside linebacker John David Tessman (17) celebrates after the Blue Tornado picked off a pass for the fourth time during their game against Calhoun on Sept. 11 at Finley Stadium. Tessman was chosen this year to wear the No. 17, a McCallie tradition that is tied to rival Baylor.

For 20 years, the list of Blue Tornado players who have honored the unrelenting spirit of a young man who once wore the rival red uniform has included captains of state championship teams and all-state athletes as well as others who went on to decorated military careers or became teachers and mentors themselves.

John David Tessman, another high-character senior who plays with a high-motor style, was chosen to wear No. 17 prior to the start of this season. On the field, Tessman mimics Green's no-nonsense approach and has lived up to the responsibility and expectations placed on those who honor his memory. The outside linebacker leads the Blue Tornado in tackles and tackles for loss and is tied for the team lead in interceptions and sacks entering the latest meeting with Baylor on Friday night at Finley Stadium.

"You learn about the meaning behind that jersey early on at McCallie," said Tessman, who had previously worn No. 36 in honor of his great-uncle who played for the Blue Tornado. "We all know how much it means to our coaches, and when they present that jersey before the season, it's a very emotional thing.

"For me, it's a huge honor. Since my freshman year, I've looked up to the guys who wore that jersey because of the type player and people they were and because, even though I never knew Jason Green, just from the stories our coaches tell us, you know he was the type teammate everyone wanted to have.

"The first time I was able to put the number 17 jersey on, you understand the meaning of it and how this is just something else that makes our rivalry really special."

photo Times Free Press sports editor Stephen Hargis

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.