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Staff photo by Dan Henry / Calhoun High School cheerleader Maci Beaver cries with her twin brother, Yellow Jackets senior safety Chance Beaver, after their team lost 31-24 in overtime to Buford in the GHSA Class AA football state championship game on Dec. 3, 2010, at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. It was the third straight year Calhoun lost the title game to Buford.

The adage is that a picture is worth a thousand words. But what about one that leaves you speechless?

While scrolling through the newspaper's archives recently, I ran across an image — captured magnificently by former Times Free Press photographer Dan Henry — that stopped me in my tracks. In an instant, seeing the anguished faces of two teenagers, I was taken back nearly a decade to the heartbreaking moment and the beautiful story behind it.

Amid the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, we could all use a reminder about the importance of family and the soul-refreshing escapism that sports provide.

Moments after the Calhoun High School football team's gut-wrenching overtime loss to Buford in the 2010 GHSA Class AA state championship game, I stood on the Georgia Dome field and waited before following through on one of the toughest parts of any sports writer's job.

Emotions were raw across the Calhoun sideline, and I wanted to give coaches and players a few moments to grieve as a team before interviewing them. Suddenly one player, kneeling by himself, caught my eye. Coaches and teammates alike were pushed away as it became clear the kid wanted nothing more than to mourn the loss alone.

But then a pretty cheerleader with a white ribbon in her hair knelt beside him and wrapped her arms around his neck. The young man looked up, as if preparing to push away another well-meaning person with the nerve to console him, before recognizing the girl and collapsing into her arms.

For several minutes the pair cried together in the way only teenagers who feel every moment is larger than life can.

I leaned closer to a Calhoun assistant coach standing next to me and asked, "Is that his girlfriend?"

After a long pause the assistant's reply sent an immediate chill up my back.

"No," he said. "That's his twin sister."

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Contributed photo / Chance and Maci Beaver, born one minute apart, have been close throughout their lives, supporting each other during tough times, including the divorce of their parents when they were 5.

 

Strength in siblings

From the time they were born, one minute apart, Chance and Maci Beaver have been each other's support system and emotional anchor. Along with Blane, their older brother by nearly two years, they grew up riding dirt bikes and go-karts and generally finding ways to play in the dirt on the family's north Georgia farm.

"They would do what big brothers do," Maci said with a laugh. "They would gang up on me and beat me up to make sure I knew how to stand up for myself, but they also let me blame them for things I did so I wouldn't get in trouble, and I'm sure they threatened to beat up any boys they didn't approve of.

"I was the baby, so they just put me under their wing and let me know that I had two brothers who would always protect me."

Even after their parents divorced and the kids attended different schools, they remained a tight-knit trio, attending each other's soccer matches and track meets, and the boys would even show up to support Maci during her cheer competitions.

"No matter what, punch after punch in life, we were there for each other," Chance said. "We had a tough time growing up because our parents divorced when we were 5. That was hard because we sort of went back and forth between them. I was at two elementary schools, two middle schools and two high schools before finally settling in at Calhoun near the end of my freshman year."

Once he felt at home in the football-crazed community, Chance traded in soccer cleats for shoulder pads and a helmet, gravitating toward the defensive side of the ball, where he could release any pent-up frustrations.

By the summer before his senior season, as a 165-pound safety he had earned a starting spot on what would be one of the most aggressive and physical defensive units in Georgia.

"Talent-wise I wasn't special," Chance said. "But I was smart and understood how to analyze offenses, and I knew the coaches just wanted all-out effort and hustle. That's what I brought. I wound up cracking three helmets just because I would fly full speed into anybody.

"I liked being involved in a game where it wasn't about being the best player but about building the best team."

A season-opening win over perennial high-classification power Dalton announced the Yellow Jackets — who had finished runners-up each of the previous two years — were once again one of the Peach State's best teams. Led by a smothering defense that allowed more than eight points just four times, Calhoun won its first 13 games by an average score of 41-9.

When nationally ranked Carver-Columbus — led by All-America running back Isaiah Crowell — came calling in the semifinals, the crowd swelled to the point that Calhoun gatekeepers ran out of tickets to sell hours before kickoff. Among the shoulder-to-shoulder spectators were coaches from nearly a dozen college programs, including Alabama and Georgia.

But it was the Yellow Jackets' swarming defense that decided the game. Crowell, who was rated by most recruiting services as the nation's top running back and went on to play at Georgia, managed just 94 yards on 20 carries. A Carver offense that had averaged 40 points per game was held to 14.

"We came into the game with a plan to hit (Crowell) on about every snap, and that's what we did," said former Calhoun coach Hal Lamb. "Our defense hit him and hit him over and over and finally wore on him.

"We had some guys who were being looked at by colleges, but most of our kids were overachievers, like Chance, who got the most out of their ability and played with unbelievable effort. That's the sort of players we built our whole program around."

 

Overcome by emotion

A week later the Georgia Dome was again a house of horrors for Calhoun as three turnovers helped nemesis Buford jump out to a 24-7 lead. The Yellow Jackets fought back to tie the game on Adam Griffith's 45-yard field goal in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter and seemed to have momentum on their side heading into overtime.

After Buford regained the lead with a touchdown on its opening possession of overtime, Calhoun failed to score, getting stuffed for negative yardage or no gain on its final two snaps. It was an abrupt end not only to the team's title hopes but for many seniors like Chance a painful closure to their football career.

"I was standing on the sideline watching that final play, and it took a second for everything to sink in," Chance recalled. "When we didn't get the first down, it all just hit me at once: This was the last time I would be putting on a football uniform. Playing in college wasn't realistic for me. I knew that was my last game to get to play.

"I needed some time to collect myself and just let out all the emotion. People were coming around, but I didn't want anyone near me. When I glanced up to see who had their arms around me and saw it was my sister, well, that's family. That's the only person I was comfortable having there on that field with me.

"Growing up, we had been through hell and back together, and I knew she just wanted to be there to support me, so I just let it all out. That game was difficult, but it was not the hardest thing we had been through together. She knew I was hurting, and I loved her for being there."

Losses always sting worse the closer a team gets to winning a championship. But to lose three straight title games narrowly to the same team — Blane had been a part of Calhoun's loss in the previous year's title game — weighed heavily on coaches, players and the community.

"I was a cheerleader solely to support my brothers," Maci said. "When the game ended I was sad, but I wasn't crying. Then I saw Chance and it broke my heart because I had never seen my twin brother so torn apart. He wasn't letting anybody near him, but I knew I had to go help.

"The other cheerleaders were hugging and picking up their stuff, but I just ran to him on the field to hold him. That's when I broke down, so we just cried together. People would stop and try to help us up, but I just told them to leave us alone because we needed that moment together. Growing up in a divided family, we learned that sometimes you just need that support that only your brother or sister can give."

 

'The reason we love sports'

As he made his way off the field to conduct media interviews, Coach Lamb stopped several times to talk to his players, some who were lying face down on the field, encouraging them to rise to their feet and walk off the field with their heads up.

Even after addressing the team in the locker room, the veteran coach managed to hold back his own emotions. But when his father — a former Georgia high school football coach — tapped him on the shoulder and hugged him close, Lamb finally broke and was unable to hold back his own tears any longer.

"The first time I saw that picture of Chance and Maci, it was just bad memories," Lamb said recently. "But as time passed I realized that picture tells you what high school football and family are all about. The game teaches you a lot about life and overcoming adversity. In tough situations you rely on your family, and that picture showed that our program was close and the families in our community were close.

"It's the reason we love sports, because that emotion shows how invested we are in playing the game and representing something bigger than ourselves."

One year later Calhoun exorcised its demon by holding off Buford for a three-point win in overtime to cap an undefeated season with the program's first state championship since 1952. The Yellow Jackets added two more titles before Lamb retired after the 2018 season, allowing him to match the three championships his dad had won.

Chance, who would later graduate from Kennesaw State and become an electrical engineer in Atlanta, sat in the stands watching his former teammates and coaches celebrate their title a year after his playing days ended.

Maci still lives in the Dalton area and works for a local hair salon and Blane is a traveling nurse who, along with his fiancée Shannon Frady, volunteered to work a 16-week assignment at the Medical Center of Aurora (CO). They recently concluded their assignment but have extended their stay to continue assisting patients during the pandemic.

His father has a framed copy of the photo hanging in his garage, and Chance admitted he, too, has come to appreciate its significance.

"Every time I see that photo, it takes me back immediately to that moment, and I remember everything about it distinctly," Chance said. "I learned that it's OK to come up short in anything so long as you've left it all out there and given your best effort. If you do that, you can embrace every moment.

"It's been almost 10 years, but the thing I take from that moment, the image in that picture, is how fortunate I was to have that experience and family that cares that much."

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

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