CORRECTION: Updated at 2:02 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020, to correct the fifth paragraph to state the Lions won by an average score of 40-12.
There are snippets — singular images and brief highlights — ingrained in the memories of those who experienced the incredible state championship run by the 2000 Red Bank High School football team.
There were so many unbelievable moments that it would be cliché to say Hollywood would turn down a script detailing the events that made up that season. But this was one of those stories where what actually happened far surpassed anything that could be imagined.
Because it's the 20-year anniversary, the title team was scheduled to be honored before a home game against McMinn Central that was originally scheduled for Friday night. But as with many best intentions this year, those plans were ruined by the COVID-19 pandemic as Red Bank's current team is under a two-week quarantine after having a player test positive for the coronavirus.
However, even if the on-field celebration has to be postponed, the 2000 Lions deserve their moment in the spotlight once more. They were the first team from Hamilton County to win a championship in Tennessee's largest classification in 27 years, and they wound up soaring as high as No. 11 in USA Today's national poll.
The Lions went 15-0, won by an average score of 40-12, finished with a plus-33 turnover margin and held all five of their opponents in the TSSAA Class 5A playoffs to 14 or fewer points. What they accomplished is such a rare feat that the closest any county school competing in the state's largest class has come to matching it was Ooltewah reaching the semifinals twice (2006, 2008).
With essentially the same roster from a team that had finished a disappointing 5-6 during the 1999 season, Red Bank was picked to finish third in its own region in a preseason coaches poll.
"The frustration of the previous season led to an attitude change in the offseason about how serious we were going to be as a team, and it brought us together," said Richard Phillips, an offensive lineman and linebacker who was one of the few Lions who started on both sides of the ball that year. "People put personal stuff aside, and the further along the season went, the more we realized we were a part of something really special.
"Now you look up and 20 years have passed somehow, and when you look back on it, whenever we see each other we always retell the stories from that season and hold on to those memories together."
Fortunate enough to be allowed to tag along for the ride, I still share some of those memories the Lions made.
— It began with a start-to-finish throttling the Lions gave nationally ranked Brentwood Academy to open the season at Finley Stadium, announcing themselves as a legitimate title contender.
— The entire team rushing to the hillside overlooking Bradley Central's stadium and celebrating a win with head coach Tom Weathers through the chain-link fence after Weathers had been ejected for arguing a missed call by the officials and was relegated to watching the second half from the parking lot. That was one of six losses from the previous season Red Bank avenged, including beating rivals Ooltewah and Bradley Central in the regular season and the playoffs.
— The contrast of Richard Phillips, with specks of mud dotting his face, kneeling on the chewed-up turf in a thankful prayer while surrounded by dancing teammates celebrating a narrow win in the semifinals.
— The line of former Red Bank players who had gone on to become coaches at other programs standing near the team's locker room doors to wish their former mentor well as Weathers, a TSSAA Hall of Famer, made his way to the field. Each of those men have been positive role models for countless young men they coached, and each built his own career on the foundation Weathers laid when they were players.
— The snow that fell — beginning as tiny pregame flurries before becoming giant flakes by kickoff — to cover the field in the finale at Middle Tennessee State University. And the Red Bank players, moments after winning the Class 5A title, laying flat on their backs in more than two inches of white powder and moving their arms and legs side to side to create snow angels.
— The note. Whether others share the same collection of images and memories as personal highlights from that season, the one thing everyone who experienced it comes back to is the note.
Just days before the season began, Coach Weathers' wife Lynda passed away after a two-year battle with cancer. Before she died, on her personal stationery, Lynda thanked the players for sending flowers and candy, adding: "What a very special team you are. I hear so many good things about you and I know the football team of 2000 is going to be Red Bank's finest ever. Your kindness means so much to Coach Weathers and me. Go for state!!"
In what became the pregame ritual for 15 straight Friday nights, a different senior would take his turn reading the handwritten message aloud to the team. Each week the locker room, which had been buzzing with noise, would fall completely silent as all eyes focused on the reading, as if hearing it for the first time.
Inside the expansive visitors' locker room at MTSU just before the state championship game, it was Phillips, a team captain, who took his turn, choking back tears as he read the note one final time. There wasn't a dry eye in the room by the time he finished, then gently folded the note closed. One player's voice broke the silence by yelling out "Remember who we're playing for!"
"When Lynda passed, we didn't expect Coach Weathers to come back that season," said Gerald Riggs, a junior that year who gained more than 1,000 of his 2,435 rushing yards in the playoffs alone and earned state Mr. Football as well as championship game MVP awards. "But he walked in before a practice and said there was no other place he wanted to be, and we knew we were playing for more than just ourselves then.
"We were playing for a coach that we loved and we knew loved us. He was a man you wanted to play hard for and succeed for. Even though you didn't always like what he might say, you knew he was right and his advice was just trying to make you a better player and person.
"By the time we got to the state championship game, we knew we were exactly where Lynda wanted us to be."
The emotionally charged Lions — who wore blue hearts with Lynda's initials on their helmets to honor her — went out and buried perennial power Riverdale under an avalanche of rushing yards, outgaining the Warriors 359-94 to win by 20 points.
"I live in Spring Valley — about a minute from the school," said Bumper Reese, who played for Weathers, served as an assistant on the 2000 team and later helped Signal Mountain win the Class 2A state title in 2010. "Every time I come down Morrison Springs road, I see the sign that says 2000 state champions, and I can't look at that and not smile.
"Your success depends on talent level, for sure, but we had other teams that were just as talented as that team. But there was just something very special about that group of kids. They loved each other and they loved their coach, and they've got a bond that's unbreakable because they came together to experience something that gets more special every year that passes."
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