Going through Benton was like trying to get through the Keith and 25th Street intersection at 4:30 on a Friday afternoon.
Pulling up to Polk County High School at 5:30 p.m., which the sign out front said was when the gates would open, people were already parking in the grass.
When we entered the stadium, the home-side stands were already filled to capacity and the visitors’ side was over half full, and kickoff wasn’t for two more hours.
What a setting to open the 2010 high school football season.
For the first time in 32 meetings between the neighboring schools, Bradley Central traveled to Polk County Friday night, and a tremendous atmosphere prevailed.
While all of the previous games had been played in Cleveland because of the larger facilities there, having this game with the beautiful backdrop of the Smoky Mountains almost close enough to touch proved to be ideal.
While more than 5,500 gathered at Bear Stadium for last year’s opener, at least 4,000 crowded into the 2,500-seat Larry G. Davis Football Complex.
Extra bleachers had been brought over from the school’s baseball and softball fields, plus, as is the norm at Wildcat games, the fence line was crowded with spectators; this time, though, it wasn’t just on the home team’s side, but completely surrounding the action.
“Game On” T-shirts with the team helmets and the date had been printed up. Homemade ice cream was available as well as some really good barbecue and other goodies just as grill smoke dominated the south end zone.
Although a rain storm passed by along the Chilhowee ridge about 45 minutes before the tussle began, the only moisture the stadium received was from the intense sweating from the extremely high heat index that forced the game to be delayed with extra water breaks.
A former Polk County student who just returned from serving in Iraq did the coin toss just before the game started.
Wildcat fans were a sea of red, while Bear fans wore their black and gold, except for some students who dressed in overalls to poke fun at their rural neighbors (today’s Bradley students are too young to remember we were called “pig farmers” in years past by our crosstown rivals).
Each play drew cheers from one side and moans from the other as the fans rode the roller coaster of the see-saw battle.
The excitement grew with each snap and both teams battled to the very end, with the Bears gaining some revenge for last year’s season-opening loss.
If you were lucky enough to get one of the prime parking spots near the stadium, it took you more than an hour to get out of the parking lot to head home.
“Win or lose, this is a great atmosphere for our players and fans to experience,” Bradley head coach Damon Floyd stated a couple of weeks ago.
“This is what high school football is all about,” he added. “Two local communities getting excited in supporting their teams. Polk County can play with anybody, so the difference in the size of the schools doesn’t matter.”
The Bears had been playing Polk in spring scrimmages for several years before they were able to work out the regular season game the past two years.
To be honest, from a public relations standpoint a Class 6A or 5A school like Bradley, Cleveland or Walker Valley playing a 3A team like Polk isn’t a good idea.
If you beat them, you’re supposed to because you have twice or three times as many students as they have.
If you lose, you have to deal with the questions from your fan base wanting to know why you lost to a smaller school.
But the fact of the matter is, Polk County is not just any Class 3A team. The Wildcats have made the TSSAA playoffs nine seasons in a row while compiling a 74-28 record during that time. They’ve been ranked in the Associated Press Top 10 for the past two seasons I’m aware of, including a perfect 10-0 regular season last year.
One big reason our local schools should find a way to have them on the schedule — money.
A near-capacity crowd at 6,000-seat Bear Stadium last August for the season opener turned out to be Bradley’s best “gate” of the season.
Polk County is one of the best traveling teams around. The Big Red Train carries a full load to every away game. When they went an hour and a half west to South Pittsburg last October, Polk had as many fans as the sold out Pirate’s stadium home crowd.
“Would you rather play some team from an hour or more away who might bring a couple hundred fans or play a team from the next county over that’s going to bring a couple thousand,” Floyd expressed.
The rest of the story is when you travel to Benton its only a 20-mile trip to the beautiful Larry G. Davis Football Complex, which other than seating capacity can rival any around.
When Walker Valley makes its trip east on Sept. 24, hopefully some of the fall foliage will be starting to turn. That was the only thing lacking in making Friday night’s opener perfect.
Any coach that isn’t trying to pad a record with walk-over opponents will tell you teams only get better by playing tough teams.
“You’ve got to play against good competition to improve,” commented Floyd, who added he hopes to be able to continue playing Polk in the future.
“When we go after the season to make the new schedules, I definitely want to keep this game. Our kids love it. Our fans love it. It’s good for the communities and it’s good competition,” he stated.
On the flip side for the Wildcats is Copper Basin. A Class 1A school sitting on the other side of the mountain in the southeast corner of Polk County.
While the ’Cats have been on the upswing for the past decade, the Cougars have struggled with just one winning season during the same stretch. The teams haven’t played since 2004 but hopefully with Copper Basin’s return to the playoffs last season, maybe something can be worked out to renew the inter-county rivalry.
I know to play Polk is to risk a loss — and with the new TSSAA playoff system taking teams’ overall records as the first criteria as to who makes the postseason some may be hesitant — but if you want to bring some excitement and a big financial boost to your program, the Wildcats are the way to go.