Wow. Wow. Wow. There’re really no words to describe last week’s football game between Jefferson High School and Fitzgerald.
JHS won that matchup in triple overtime to advance this week to the semifinal round of the state championships.
It was the best high school football game this writer has ever seen, and he’s seen a lot. That game will be talked about for decades and is destined to become part of the school’s athletic lore.
It’s unlikely anyone who witnessed last week’s contest will ever see another one like it. So much was at stake between two evenly matched teams and both were surrounded by a massive amount of fan emotion.
JHS’ winning made it all the sweeter for the hometown fans, but even if Jefferson had lost, the game would have still been the most exciting in the school’s history.
Before last Friday night, the best high school game this writer had witnessed was the 1977 matchup between Commerce High School and East Rome. CHS had defeated Turner County the week before in the first round of the state playoffs.
In the second round at Commerce, CHS led East Rome the entire game until the final moments when East Rome scored to tie at 13-13.
The game then went into overtime and Commerce scored to make it 20-13. As the OT period ran down, East Rome scored on a pass to the corner of the end zone, but the touchdown was called back on a penalty.
Then with only seconds left, East Rome ran the exact same pass play again and the East Rome receiver made an amazing, unbelievable catch in the end zone. That time, the touchdown stood and the game was tied at 20-20.
In 1977, only one overtime period was allowed and if the game was still tied, the team that had penetrated the deepest on a non-scoring drive into their opposition’s territory during OT won. East Rome was declared the winner 21-20 on OT penetration.
CHS fans were stunned. Newspaper headlines the next week said the game had been “stolen” from Commerce.
But what a thrilling game it had been. East Rome won the state title that year and CHS went on to win state crowns in 1981 and 2000. (CHS had been in the state championship in 1976, but lost to Turner County in the final.)
But for JHS, it’s been a long time since its football program has been this deep into the state playoffs. The last time JHS was this successful was also in 1977 when the Dragons went to the state finals. (In 1975, JHS had also been in the state championship game. Both CHS and JHS were in their football heyday in the mid-1970s.)
JHS lost that state championship final in 1977 on a very cold December night in Lincolnton against powerhouse Lincoln County 22-7.
But what a team that was in ‘77. It had several players who went on to play big time Division 1 college football. And that team had players who are today still affiliated with the school.
JHS athletic director Tommy Corbett was on that ’77 team, as was wrestling coach Doug Thurmond and JHS teacher and former head football coach Bob Gurley. And the parents of several 2012 JHS football players were students at JHS in the mid-1970s when that team was making its run for state.
So in a way, a circle is being created by the 2012 JHS football team, a circle that echoes back to the glory of their parents’ era of the 1970s.
Now sitting in the same stands are grandparents who watched their sons make a run for state 35 years ago. This year, they are watching as their grandsons try to surpass those accomplishments.
And there are parents who were sweating on the gridiron in 1977, or were cheerleaders or band members or JHS students who remember their own era’s glory and are now watching as their children create a new chapter in the school’s history books.
At the conclusion of last week’s thrilling JHS victory, fans exploded in an emotional outburst unlike anything ever seen at Memorial Stadium. Fans rushed the field, the band played, helmets were held high, everyone hugged someone, and tears of joy stained the mascara of many moms. The torch, as the saying goes, had been passed to a new generation.
Friday night, we shall see if this circle where the present meets the past remains unbroken.
From such striving does tradition bloom.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald. He was a senior at JHS in 1977 and photographed the historic football games mentioned in this article. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.