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The Last Game Of The Year

Peach County Coach Chad Campbell (Photo - Macon Telegraph)
We now know the final 16 teams and there are a lot of different stories that play through my head when I look at them. 
 
Every year, the GHSA has an event that involves the coaches, Athletic Directors, Band Directors, Principals and anyone else that the schools think need to find out about the biggest event at the end of the football season. It’s an early morning thing where you congregate at a central point and get to see your opponent at the other side of a table in a library. You get to learn about ingress, egress, ticket allotments, where buses go, where they’re not supposed to go, parking passes, dressing rooms, hydration and everything in between.
 
It’s an early morning thing that requires more than one handful of your favorite caffeinated beverage to get through and -- for those who can -- a nap in the afternoon when you get back home.
 
I know that Tommy Palmer took a look at the teams and what went down this past weekend, but I’m looking at it a little differently. 
 
I’ve spent time touring the state and have had the chance to see what football means to the towns that have made it to this last step.
 
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Irwin County Coach Buddy Nobles
In an Ocilla or a Homerville, you have coaches like Buddy Nobles or Jim Dickerson who have made these towns home or grew up in them and keep spreading the vibe of growing up there. Coach Dickerson calls playing for Clinch County a “rite of passage” to adulthood playing for the hometown team. And if you go to either campus, you see what the school means as the Friday Night Cathedral shines the way it does.
 
In Rockmart, the Yellow Jackets have banners in their gym that take you through the titles in all of their sports. Football has a run in the 1950’s that rivaled everyone, but there’s only the one championship for Head Coach J.D. Langley from 1950 when they ran the table in Class A. The season ended with a win over Holyoke (Massachusetts) High in the Peanut Bowl down in Columbus. 
 
Max Mason was the team captain, for the record, and the Jackets gave a coach named Wright Bazemore his last playoff loss ever in the Single-A title game … in Valdosta … at Cleveland Field. The ‘50s were kind with five more region crowns and a final state title game in 1957. Until Biff Parson’s back-to-back region titles the last two years, the last time the school was top of the ladder was 1988. Before that, it was 1979. 
 
Nothing in between.
 
Coach Parson is a coach’s son, so he understands the value of being a role model. At the same time, it’s easy to get lost in conversation with the football historian in him about his playing and coaching career that spanned continents. He grew up playing quarterback at Franklin County High School, Liberty University and with the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats. As a coach he went back to Liberty, got a ring with NFL Europe’s Frankfurt Galaxy (that he still has), then back here in Hart County, Villa Rica, Dublin, Lamar County, Mary Persons and Banks County.
 
All that before Rockmart and coming to Polk County for family.
Down the road on U.S. Hwy. 27, Heard County Head Coach Tim Barron admits that the town of Franklin has only one stop light. But, on Friday nights, everyone throws their collective weight around the Braves. The same goes for Joey King and the Cartersville Purple Hurricanes.
 
The 478 area code has three teams that will be more than happy to schedule each other in non-region play every single year with Peach County, Northside and Warner Robins. The last two schools cut Georgia 247 in half and Eagles Head Coach Kevin Kinsler says that Eagles fan’s years are in direct proportion to the season. 
Average team -- average year …  and so on …
 
But, when you go to Fort Valley, there are multiple Campbells on the sideline. Chad and his brother, Lee, became the answer to a trivia question when Chad win his state title in 2009 against Gainesville after Lee win his over in Hawkinsville. They’re the first brother combo to hold a trophy high. But, now they’re on the same staff and when you ask Chad who wins the discussion when they disagree during games, he laughs.
 
Having family on the sideline speaks volumes.
 
This year, one interview stuck with me more than most, though…
 
It was Bainbridge High Head coach Jeff Littleton’s sit-down. He was the last interview we did and he had one of the farthest drives back to study for his game with Warner Robins. One of the things I remembered was that his community was hit pretty hard by Hurricane Michael’s steamrolling through the state. 
The week after landfall was a bye week (if memory serves) and I don’t think Coach Littleton took his entire roster to Warner Robins to face Coach Chastain in a region game. The Bearcats lost 38-0. They were either spread to the four winds or had more important things to do at home. 
 
They haven’t lost a game since and the team is a source of unity and pride for everyone affected. And, for the record, Northside was 4-5 after a loss to Valdosta. Coach Kinsler said his team could have folded up their tent. They didn’t and he and his coaching staff couldn’t be more proud.
Tim McFarlin
Milton is in the last game of the year for the first time in school history. Colquitt County is chasing history and a “national title.” Lee County and the Dean Fabrizio staff have built a tremendous foundation in ten years to add to the stories of Buster Posey, Phillip Phillips and Luke Bryan. ELCA and Athens Academy get to see each other again. Cedar Grove seems to live in quiet inside the city of Atlanta’s high school scene, but their talent is off the whole bicycle (not just the “chain”). And Tim McFarlin has built Blessed Trinity into a 4A juggernaut with a title and a Finals appearance in the last three seasons all by themselves.
 
That’s what I look forward to this time around, Dear Reader…
 
What about you?
 
Play it safe, everyone. I’ll see you at the Benz.  

Jon Nelson has been a television journalist for twenty-five years based in Atlanta. He graduated from Lakeside High School in Atlanta and Florida State University with a Bachelor's of Science degree in Political Science. His television career has given him the opportunity to cover as varied events as Super Bowls, World... more