In less than a month high school football's regular season will kick off and Chattanooga-area teams, along with hundreds of others across Tennessee, will spend the months that follow piecing together a lifetime of memories.
The ultimate goal for all of them is to end the season in Cookeville, playing for a state championship. It's been that way for the past 50 years as this year marks the golden anniversary of the debut of the TSSAA's football playoffs. Before that pursuit begins, beginning this Sunday, the Times Free Press will commemorate the 50-year anniversary in a two-day series (with a three-page spread each day) that will include a feature on the playoffs' history, which began with champions being crowned in three classifications in 1969. We'll also include a timeline of important dates and highlights from area coaches and players, plus several lists with key playoff facts and stats as well as a ranking of the area's top 10 state championship teams.
The top 10 is sure to give readers a chance to argue and debate our choices.
Prep football has always been my favorite sport to cover, especially those five playoff weeks that never fail to produce in the drama department. But it wasn't until researching information for the upcoming series that I realized I've covered 17 of the Chattanooga area's 20 state championship teams. And since this fall will mark my 30th season of walking the sidelines to cover games, here are some of my favorite playoff memories as we prepare to make new ones this fall.
» Shortly before sending his team onto the field to face nationally ranked and heavily favored Brentwood Academy for the 1992 Class 2A championship, Marion County coach Ken Colquette gave one of the most memorable and inspiring pregame speeches I've ever heard.
"Boys, you know what you've got to deal with," Colquette said to an anxious room of players, coaches and supporters. "Pretty much their whole team is going to play college ball somewhere — Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Texas, MTSU. Somewhere. Most of y'all ain't going anywhere except back to Jasper to work on a farm or in some factory. They've got all these Saturdays coming up where they'll still be playing and you'll be watching or riding some tractor.
"But you've got tonight to show them something about us. You can make them remember you for as long as they live with what you do tonight."
After falling behind 13-0, the Warriors did, in fact, show BA and the rest of the state something. Marion scored two touchdowns in the final three minutes to rally for a 28-26 win that former TSSAA executive director Ronnie Carter still calls the biggest upset in championship game history. The loss was so devastating that the Eagles left the runner-up trophy on a bench on their sideline. It was only after a TSSAA official boarded the team bus and ordered coaches to come claim their silver trophy that a team manager was sent to retrieve it.
» On a cold, damp weekend in early December 1994, three of the five state championships were won by area programs. It was the highlight of prep football for the area, and began with South Pittsburg winning the 1A title on a Friday night, followed the next day by Marion County earning the 3A title and Cleveland winning the 4A championship in sleet and a biting wind. That was the second of three straight championships for Cleveland, which put together a run of 54 consecutive wins before finally bowing in the 1996 quarterfinals on a muddy field at Anderson County. Just as impressive, Marion would finish a run of four titles in six seasons with the 1995 crown.
» Tyner rallied with a late 29-yard touchdown pass — Rory Hinton to a diving Windarek Stewart — for a dramatic win over Union City in the 1997 2A final to become the first public school from Hamilton County to win a championship. It came one season after the Rams were beaten soundly by a Melrose team that set a championship game record for unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties — including one when quarterback Cedrick Wilson ran past the Rams' sideline, pointed at his gold cleats and yelled "Shine my shoes!" after tossing his sixth touchdown pass of the game.
» South Pittsburg tailback Sam Pickett, who ranks behind only Cleveland's dynamic Cobb twins (Keith and Kevin) among the fastest players I've covered, slowed to allow a Boyd Buchanan safety to get an angle on him before waving "bye-bye" and hitting another gear for a 64-yard touchdown sprint in the 1999 quarterfinals. Officials flagged Pickett for unsportsmanlike conduct, waving off the score and causing Pirates coach Vic Grider to look as if he might spontaneously combust from sheer anger.
"Sam had a level of speed that nobody we had seen had," said former Boyd Buchanan defensive coordinator Grant Reynolds. "When he waved at us, I couldn't believe it. I was standing there thinking 'Did he really just do that?"
» Bill Price down on his hands and knees — looking like a pit bull — pounding the ground to implore his defense to make a stop when Bradley Central took on Red Bank in the 2000 quarterfinals. Price, who never lost his intensity on the sideline, guided Signal Mountain to the 2A title a decade later in that program's second varsity season — the fastest championship ascent for any start-up program in state history.
» Several Red Bank players lay flat on their backs on the field, moving their arms and legs to make snow angels in about two inches of the white powder after the Lions beat Riverdale to become Hamilton County's first, and only, public school to win a title in the state's largest classification. It already had been an emotional season as senior players took turns reading before each game an inspirational letter that had been written to the team by head coach Tom Weathers' wife, who passed away before the season. Just minutes before kickoff, snow began to fall, and it accumulated during the game, adding a dramatic backdrop to Red Bank's magical 2000 season.
» McCallie calmly converted a fourth-and-16 to keep alive a desperation drive in the closing minutes, setting up sophomore Trey Meyer's 22-yard field goal with 11 seconds remaining for a 17-16 win over Brentwood Academy in the 2001 Division II-AA championship game. The heroic kick was made only after Blue Tornado coaches realized — about an hour into the trip to Nashville — that they had mistakenly left Meyer behind at the school and had to scramble to find him an alternate ride to the game.
» Drew Akins, a junior quarterback at the time, rushed from the field to the sideline to embrace his dad, head coach Robert Akins, after the final seconds ticked off the clock and Boyd Buchanan had won the 2004 1A championship. That also was part of an impressive run by the Buccaneers, who played in three straight finals, falling twice in heartbreaking fashion with overtime defeats.
» One of the best quick-witted zingers I've overheard came from the late Tim Daniels when he was Red Bank's head coach. As Daniels picked out a pair of gloves to wear on the sideline, Polk County coach Derrick Davis thought he would get in a dig by yelling out, "You big pansy. What do you need gloves for?"
Without missing a beat, Daniels turned and responded, "Derrick, when you get past the first round it gets colder."