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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / South Pittsburg's Hunter Frame (4) drags a Warrior tackler as he gets yardage. The South Pittsburg Pirates visited the Marion County Warriors in a TSSAA rivalry game on September 13, 2019.

Where's leadership when you need it?

I ask that question after learning that Marion County High School's football program elected to pass on an alternate date to play South Pittsburg after the Warriors were forced to cancel last Friday's game due to a Marion player testing positive for COVID-19.

This isn't to criticize the original postponement. Any team in any sport that discovers one of its members has tested positive for the coronavirus has a responsibility to quarantine for 14 days, then forfeit if an alternate date can't be agreed upon.

To do otherwise is to needlessly threaten the lives of not just your opponent, but your own teammates and those teammates' friends, family and anyone else they may come in contact with. Though certain members of society will argue otherwise, this pandemic is real. We have more than 194,000 American dead to prove it.

But the state's second oldest prep football rivalry is real, too. And for South Pitt — which has also lost a $15,000 pay day when Red Bank was forced to cancel its game with the Pirates for COVID-19 reasons — losing the Marion game is, at minimum, a $25,000 shortfall.

READ MORE: Decision not to reschedule this season could end Tennessee's most bitter rivalry permanently

Not to mention the emotional toll it takes on the South Pitt and Jasper communities.

As longtime South Pitt coach Vic Grider said Tuesday morning as he recalled having to tell his Pirates there would be no game between the two bitter rivals this season: "It's one of the two or three hardest conversations I've ever had with my teams. Twenty years ago I had to tell them we were out of the playoffs because we were going to have to forfeit games for having (unknowingly) played an ineligible player. The looks on their faces were almost the same this time. You see that look in their eyes. So much hurt and disappointment. As a parent, or a coach, you don't ever want to see that look in the eyes of the kids you love."

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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / South Pittsburg head coach Vic Grider gives the play to quarterback Brayden Sanders (1). The Meigs County Tigers visited the South Pittsburg Pirates in TSSAA football action on October 11, 2019.

Grider certainly tried hard to remove that look. He asked Marion County coach Dale Pruitt to consider playing on Sept. 25, when the Warriors' 14-day quarantine would have been at an end. Pruitt declined, citing a lack of preparation time after having practice denied for two weeks due to COVID-19 protocols.

Yet knowing that Marion Co. had earlier played Sequatchie County on short notice due to a weather situation that moved the game from a Friday to a Thursday kickoff, Grider offered to move the Marion-South Pitt game from Friday to Saturday in order to give the Warriors the same preparation time they'd had for Sequatchie.

Again, Marion — which would have been a heavy underdog against the Pirates — declined.

Said Pruitt — the father of third-year University of Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt — to this newspaper on Monday: "The whole deal is the fact our kids are in the middle of a 14-day quarantine, where legally I can't even be around them. We would come in on a Wednesday, after two weeks of not hitting, and try to get our kids ready in a short amount of time. That's a big deal."

It shouldn't be that big a deal. Especially since the game plan and preparation should have been taken care of the week the game was originally to have been played, since Marion reportedly waited until almost 2 p.m. Central Time this past Friday to cancel.

If everything was on the up and up before last week, if Marion had been focusing all its energy on facing South Pitt until Friday afternoon, three days should be plenty of time to get ready a second time.

For those of us who've long wondered if anyone anywhere should be playing a contact sport in this pandemic, the argument to play has always centered on the kids, that the emotional risks to young people of not playing — depression, loss of interest in school, even suicide — overrides the health risks of playing.

If that's true, what could be more important to the emotional health of every young man who plays football in Marion County for either Marion County High or South Pittsburg than playing this game? Whether you ultimately play it in September, October (Halloween's supposedly canceled, why not give the county a real treat then?), or New Year's Eve, just play it.

Beyond that, the life lesson of sports isn't supposed to be about winning or losing, but about giving your best effort, regardless of the outcome. It's kind of hard to do that if you don't show up.

At the risk of pointing fingers from the top down, true leadership from Marion County schools superintendent Mark Griffith would be to order the Warriors and Pirates to play on Saturday, Sept. 26, at South Pitt, the coronavirus willing. Yes, Marion might get spanked on the scoreboard, as Grider's Pirates did in 2015, when they lost at Marion by 41 points. But that's not the point.

As Grider said of that defeat, the last one he's suffered against the Warriors: "I was man enough to go compete because what kind of message would that send to our kids if we didn't?"

What kind of message does it send now if Marion doesn't compete?

How about this message: Whether fair or not, if this non-region game really isn't rescheduled, and South Pittsburg decides to cancel the rivalry because of that, as has been rumored, no matter what Pruitt accomplishes from here on out, he'll be remembered, at least throughout the Sequatchie Valley, as the guy who ended the second oldest rivalry in the state because he didn't want to risk getting pummeled by the Pirates.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / First-year Marion County head coach Dale Pruitt works with the offense during drills. The Marion County Warriors held a evening practice, at the high school, on June 14, 2020.
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