Class AAA state championship
Gainesville vs. Peach County
When: 4:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Georgia Dome
Tickets: On sale in the Gainesville front office for $15 each. Tickets at the Georgia Dome are $20.
On radio, TV: 550-AM, 1330-AM; Georgia Public Broadcasting Channel 8
Jeff Stowe remembers that rainy and bitterly cold night at Bobby Gruhn Field like it was yesterday. A man’s fondest memories have a way of staying fresh in the brain.
“Those of us that were on the team reminisce about it regularly,” Stowe said.
Stowe, then a sophomore, was part of the North Georgia champions from Gainesville High that played, and lost, the Class AAA state title game against the South Georgia champions from Bainbridge High, 7-6, in 1982.
Back then, they didn’t have the luxury of playing the state title game under the roof of the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. That year, the state title game was played in miserable conditions in Gainesville.
Due to heavy rainfall in the days leading up to the game, water collected ankle deep on what was then a highly-crowned field at City Park. Conditions were so poor that some proposed moving the game back until the weather cleared, but the game was eventually played as scheduled.
In the end, a botched snap on an extra point late in the fourth quarter separated the Red Elephants from the state championship in a game that was played 27 years to the day on Friday.
Since then, members of that Gainesville team went off to college, established professional careers, started families and watched their children grow.
However, even though the years have passed and those former players aren’t lacing up football cleats any longer, they still hold those memories of a great run in high regard.
“Those were four of the best years of my life when I played football at Gainesville High,” said Bryan Strickland, who was a junior defensive lineman of the 1982 team. “It’s all about tradition and pride that comes from playing in the program.”
Now the shoe is on the other foot for a handful of those former football players that got to experience the 1982 state title game run with the Red Elephants.
Now, seven men who played for Gainesville in 1982, have the priceless opportunity to see their sons be a part of a Gainesville football team with the same opportunity to win a state championship when the Red Elephants face Peach County in the Class AAA state title game Saturday at the Georgia Dome.
This year marks the first trip for Gainesville to the state title game since 1982, despite five Region 7-AAA titles this decade and a trip to the state semifinals as recently as 2002.
“I’m very happy to have this chance to play for a state title,” Jeff’s son Taylor Stowe said. “But it is kind of bittersweet knowing it is my final game.”
The members of the 1982 team that have sons currently playing at Gainesville include: Tim Rucker and son Tim, Lionel England and son Chase, Strickland and son Sloan, Mark DeFoor and son Dallas, David Stringer and son Toddrick, Jeff Stowe and son Taylor, and Ken Millsap and son Kendrick.
These fathers would love little more than for their sons to win the state title that eluded them during their playing days. But more than anything else, these fathers want their offspring to be able to cherish the experience and be able to remember it fondly during this generation’s playing days.
For some, it will mark their final game.
“It’s awesome being able to talk to my dad about playing for the state title,” Sloan Strickland said. “It’s certainly unique to be able to share that.”
Naturally, the question arises, which team from Gainesville is better: 1982 or 2009? Well, it depends on who you ask. Some will say they’re equally talented.
Others would say that this year’s team is more talented as a result of its progressive style of offense. Everyone agrees both teams share the link of a phenomenal defense.
However, it probably isn’t possible to compare the two teams fairly.
In 1982, Gainesville was molded under then-coach Bobby Gruhn to move the chains by running the ball and overpowering the opponent with strength along the line of scrimmage.
Running backs Sammy Williams, Mike Byrd and junior quarterback Cris Carpenter were the athletes that were the primary ball carriers, and passing was only used as a tool to catch the other team off guard.
“Coach Gruhn always said, ‘only three things can happen when you pass the ball, and two of those are bad,’” said Lionel England, a sophomore on the 1982 Gainesville team.
This year, the Red Elephants have showed how much football has changed over the past 27 years. Gainesville has playmakers such as quarterback Blake Sims, wide receiver Tai-ler Jones and running back Teryan Rucker that can essentially score from any point on the field.
And the current version of the Red Elephants doesn’t bat an eye at airing the ball out and going straight for the end zone.
“We might not have thrown as much in one entire season as they do in one game now,” Jeff Stowe said. “But what worked for us in 1982 might not be successful today.”
The weather conditions for that state title game in 1982 made it even more necessary to run. Stowe recalls that there were probably 10-12 fumbles in that game against Bainbridge and any time a player slid, they would travel about an extra 10 yards through the mud before coming to a rest.
Still, Gainesville found a way to rally from a 7-0 deficit in the fourth quarter with a 48-yard punt return for a touchdown by Olaffie Hester in the final minutes of the game. However, the extra point attempt was not executed properly and Carpenter, after a lateral from kicker Joe DeRose, was forced to improvise with the ball and run around the left end toward the end zone.
Gainesville players felt like he crossed the goal line for the two-point conversion, but the referees saw things differently.
“It was like (the movie) Friday Night Lights,” Bryan Strickland said. “It was maybe 6-or-8 inches short.”
The story from the 2009 state title appearance for the Gainesville program still hasn’t been revealed. It may result in Hall County’s first football title in the GHSA, or it could result in a loss at the Georgia Dome.
Either way, it is a journey that none of these families will soon forget.