COOKEVILLE, Tenn. — In a little less than 36 hours, Ralph Potter would coach his McCallie football team in the Blue Cross Bowl, also known as the TSSAA Division II-AAA state championship game, for the second straight year.
But on Wednesday morning, as he sat in his office, Potter was asked about his human Swiss army knife — wide receiver/running back/quarterback/defensive back Eric Rivers — electing to return to the squad for last year's state championship run after sitting out the 2018 season.
"Oh, gosh, I'm glad he did," said Potter. "He gives us a lot more energy."
Come Thursday night inside Tennessee Tech's Tucker Stadium, the whole Volunteer State high school football universe saw the reason for Potter's enthusiasm. Throwing for one touchdown, running for two more and lateraling to senior teammate B.J. Harris for another, Rivers gave the Blue Tornado all the energy they would need to crush Memphis University School 44-0 on their way to repeating as state champs.
"We created a lot of memories tonight," Rivers said afterward. "To win two in a row is unbelievable."
What's equally unbelievable is how close Rivers came to missing both championships, though McCallie might have won neither without him.
It was only last season that Rivers had to earn his way back onto the team after a serious disagreement with Potter over his splitting time between AAU basketball and Blue Tornado football.
"We got sideways about an AAU basketball tournament," Potter recalled Wednesday of the incident that led Rivers to concentrate on basketball only during the 2018-19 school year. "I probably should have reached out to him, but I didn't."
At the urging of his teammates, Rivers finally met with Potter about a possible return to football. The coach laid out a list of things the player would have to accomplish to receive meaningful playing time.
"Eric did everything that was asked," Potter explained. "He served his time. Scout team stuff, things like that."
And when McCallie traveled to Baylor for the biggest game of the 2019 season to that point, Rivers was a big reason the Blue Tornado prevailed. In a 35-28 McCallie win, Rivers' 37-yard touchdown catch was crucial.
From there, his roles increased on both offense and defense as the Blue Tornado rolled to their first state title in 18 years by defeating Montgomery Bell Academy 28-7 in the 2019 title game.
Then came this year's Baylor game at Finley Stadium, and Rivers was feared lost for the season with a broken collarbone.
"They said I'd be out six weeks," he said at the close of the championship game. "I made it back in 4 1/2."
Said Potter: "Even if Eric hadn't come back, I feel like these guys would have found a way to win. But Eric is irreplaceable."
So was Harris, who won the title game's MVP honor after rushing for 173 yards and three touchdowns, the last of those coming on Rivers' improvised pitch after it appeared he was being tackled for a short gain.
"I thought I was going down, then I heard him call my name and I pitched it," Rivers said afterward.
Said Potter with a grin of that 56-yard Harris touchdown: "That's one of those times as a coach you say, 'No, no, no,' then 'Great play.'"
It was perhaps the greatest performance in McCallie football history, so much so that Potter said afterward, "We played a flawless game."
And this coming after the stars of last year's team — 2019 Blue Cross Bowl MVP DeAngelo Hardy, Auburn signee John "Jay" Hardy and Thompson Byrd — had graduated.
"But we still had talent in Eric and B.J., and everybody knew their roles," noted senior defensive back Jackson Burns. "This is my greatest moment in football. It may be my greatest moment in life."
As McCallie headmaster Lee Burns — no relation to Jackson — watched his football team celebrate, he said, "Just to see the smiles on their faces, how happy they are, this is what sports is all about."
Potter has been about McCallie football his whole life. The Spears Stadium football field is named for his father Pete, who coached the Blue Tornado for two decades. Thursday's title was Ralph's third total with the Blue Tornado.
Reflecting Wednesday on what might have been if Rivers had played on the 2018 team that lost at MUS 10-7 in the state semifinals, Potter chuckled and said, "We might be going for a three-peat tomorrow."
But as successful as he's been during his two stints as head coach of the Blue Tornado, it's not what drives Potter.
"Every team writes its own story," Potter said. "Sometimes it ends in holding a trophy. But there's got to be more to it than that. My dad gave me a philosophy of what coaching should be, of what football can be. These guys are having experiences out there they can't have anywhere else. It's a great period to form responsible young men. It should be the reason why you do this."
Potter's now done it in back-to-back fashion in the toughest division of Tennessee high school football. Done it in back-to-back seasons with a different quarterback, a different star player, a different scheme.
Yes, Rivers might have been irreplaceable for this team, especially come the playoffs. But Potter might be irreplaceable as well. Though Ralph would surely balk at the suggestion, there should one day come a time when McCallie renames its football surface Pete and Ralph Potter Field.