The blanket brigade typically begins to show up in the early morning hours of game day. Each colorful blanket is folded neatly at just the right length to cover the amount of seating space the owners need for their watch party.
For a rivalry game or playoff matchup, however, those limited spots in the bleachers at Meigs County High School are reserved as far in advance as two to three days before kickoff. Such is the value placed on staking claim to a prime viewing spot for the town's beloved football team.
"You can see it on our players' faces how much it means when they come running out on the field and see the stands are packed and loud with people from their hometown cheering and supporting them," Tigers coach Jason Fitzgerald said. "Our sports teams have given people in Decatur a reason to puff their chest out and say 'We're better than you' to their neighbors in other towns. For them, we may not have the money or the entertainment options that other places do, but our football team will wear you out."
The priority placed on football at many of the rural schools in the Chattanooga area has helped maintain a level of success that simply has not been matched by the majority of Hamilton County teams, and this year is no different.
Of the seven area public schools that survived the start of the TSSAA playoffs last week to advance into Friday's second round, six are from small rural towns. Meanwhile, seven Hamilton County teams lost in the first round and another five failed to qualify for the postseason. Only Red Bank — plus private schools Baylor, McCallie and Silverdale Baptist Academy — remain as Hamilton County representatives this fall.
The other area schools still working toward state championship dreams are Meigs County, Marion County and neighboring South Pittsburg, Bradley Central, McMinn County and Rhea County. With the exception of McMinn County, which has never advanced beyond the semifinals, each of those schools has either played for or won a state championship. All carry community expectations to be in the hunt for a deep playoff run every season.
"There's a sense of community pride here that you don't get at most of the schools around Hamilton County," said Meigs' Fitzgerald, who coached at Hixson for two seasons and in 2013 guided the Wildcats to the Class 4A quarterfinals for the only time in program history.
"When I was at Hixson, that sense of community was lost in terms of getting support for the program and having people show up for games. I noticed it at a lot of the other places around Chattanooga where we would play, too, with the exception of Signal Mountain, and that's because they're still a true community.
"A lot of the better players in Chattanooga wind up at a private school, but here and at most of the outlying schools I know of, the best athletes stay home. We have a lot of legacy players, kids whose dad or uncle or brother played here, so it means more to them to carry on the generational tradition and play for their town and their families."
All of the area's six remaining rural teams are in the second round for a second straight year, just the way the people in every nook and cranny of those communities expect.
Marion County is home to the area's two most tradition-rich programs — the Marion County Warriors and the South Pittsburg Pirates, who have combined for more state championships, title game appearances and playoff wins than any of the area's other 35 schools. One of those two teams has played for a state title in eight of the past 12 seasons, and both are once again looking to add to their total of gold ball trophies.
It's not uncommon for restaurants and other businesses in Jasper and South Pittsburg to close early on game nights because most prospective customers will begin making their way to the stadium hours before kickoff anyway.
While there is often more pride than prosperity in map-dot towns, there is also a sense of comfort in the dependability of a deep-rooted cycle that is rhythmic and continuous. The sequence begins when young adults choose to either not venture out too far or find their way back home shortly after completing high school to earn a living and soon begin raising a family of their own. The next step is sending their kids to the community school they attended and eventually sitting in the same bleachers their parents and extended family sat in to listen for familiar last names to be called out over the stadium's PA system.
"It's sort of a point of pride for us that when we walk out on the field, our side of the stands are packed," Bradley Central coach Damon Floyd said. "Even when we're on the road, we outnumber the other team's fans a lot of times, especially with our student section.
"Me and some of our players have talked about how we may be eating in a restaurant around town, and when it's time to pay the check, the waitress will tell us that someone already paid and signed the receipt with 'Go Bears!' Or you might be in a drive-thru line at a fast food place, and the person at the window will say the car in front paid and said to tell us 'Good luck Friday.' That's just some of the stuff that let's you know how important the team is to the people who live in our community."
FRIDAY NIGHT FAMILY REUNION
Moments before kickoff of that 2013 quarterfinal game in which Hixson hosted Knoxville Catholic, Fitzgerald turned to a friend on the sideline and asked sarcastically, "How many fans do we have in the stands?"
The count took just a matter of seconds, and when the answer returned that only 17 people were seated on the home side, Fitzgerald made a vow: "I'm going to find some place that cares as much about the game as I do."
Two months later, he was hired to take over at Meigs County, and the Tigers have become a perennial playoff power, compiling a 72-7 overall record over the past six seasons that includes consecutive state runner-up finishes in Class 2A.
During that time, the Tigers are also an astounding 44-1 at home, including 14-1 in the playoffs (Rockwood upset Meigs County 9-8 in the 2017 quarterfinals).
The town has responded with unwavering support that includes selling out some 20 booster club packages that range from $250 to $1,000 and include prime parking spots closer to the stadium, game tickets and Tigers merchandise. Local businesses also clamor to be included in the game night atmosphere as more than 70 signs — at a cost of close to $200 apiece — hang on the fence that surrounds the field, each one an orange-and-black advertisement broadcasting their support for the school.
There's also McDonald's paying $2,000 per season for the rights to have the PA announcer proclaim "That's another Decatur McDonald's first down!" each time the Tigers earn a fresh set of downs. The local laundromat pays the same fee for the announcer to beam excitedly "Rub-a-dub-dub, put six in the tub!" after each Meigs touchdown.
The other outlying programs all have similar support from their business communities, ensuring there is no shortage of financial and emotional support for the team.
There may be fewer entertainment options in the small towns that surround Chattanooga, but most of the rural residents are just fine with their social gatherings happening on concrete and metal bleachers that rise from a muddy football field.
At the Decatur Family Diner, located barely more than two blocks from the Meigs County High School campus, customers show up as hungry to share their outlook on each week's game as they do for a plate of fried food.
Briana Burnette is a 2019 MCHS graduate who has worked at the diner — with its 15-table capacity — for almost a year. She raises her eyebrows when asked to compare the number of customers on home game Fridays opposed to every other day.
"Oh, we have to have two waitresses to handle all the people instead of just one," Burnette explains enthusiastically. "Pretty much everybody in town who's on their way to the game will stop here to eat. It's kind of like a big family reunion every Friday night during the season."
TSSAA FOOTBALL PLAYOFFS
Friday, Nov. 12, 2021
All games 7 p.m. local time
Clay County (10-1) at South Pittsburg (7-2)
Trousdale County (9-1) at Meigs County (10-0)
Marion County (9-1) at Watertown (8-3)
Macon County (8-3) at Red Bank (8-3)
McMinn County (8-3) at Powell (9-2)
Karns (7-4) at Rhea County (9-2)
Farragut (5-6) at Bradley Central (9-2)
Silverdale Baptist (9-2) at Lipscomb Academy (9-1)
Father Ryan (7-4) at McCallie (10-0)
Baylor (7-4) at MBA (7-3)