In Jackson County, on Jefferson Road, lies a bridge that runs over the North Oconee River. That bridge separates two high schools — Commerce and Jefferson — that are engaged in one of the richest football rivalries in the state.
That bridge is more than just a way for cars to get across the river — it’s a place where students from the two schools go to express their bragging rights in a storied rivalry that dates back to 1947.
The bridge is covered in red and light blue — Jefferson’s school colors — along with black and gold — Commerce’s school colors. The bridge’s color changes as the rivalry unfolds, and currently it’s mostly red and light blue because Jefferson has won the last three meetings.
That bridge, along with the series history, are just two reasons this rivalry is not only special, but a fixture in Northeast Georgia high school football.
“We call it the ‘River War’ because of the bridge,” said Jeff Prickett, Commerce’s statistician of 38 years who has attended 54 of the rivalry’s matchups. “People who drive over the bridge immediately after it’s painted get the colors on their cars, but it’s a good, clean rivalry.
“The Georgia-Georgia Tech rivalry is characterized as ‘Clean, Old Fashion Hate.’ There’s no hate in this rivalry.”
Jack Keen shares Prickett’s view the matchup is a clean rivalry. Keen was a long-time Jefferson wrestling and track coach, and also athletic director during his tenure at the school, which ran from 1965-2008.
“When Commerce plays anyone but us, I pull for them,” Keen said. “And I don’t think they pull against us. A lot of times when a rivalry starts, not only do the fans and players hate each other, but there’s just a bitterness there. This is just a great rivalry with no bitterness and I’ve enjoyed the experience.”
Whether bitter or friendly, the rivalry is just like any other in that both sides want to win probably more than any other game in the season.
“It’s definitely not just another game,” said Cody Berryman, a senior defensive tackle for the Dragons, who enters his third season as a starter. “It’s the biggest game, really, in my opinion, because of the history of the rivalry.
“For us seniors it’s a real big game because no one wants to lose to Commerce their last year. If we can get them all four of my years (with a win tonight), it would be a dream come true. I can’t explain it. I want to be able to say I won all four years.”
The rivalry begain in 1947 with the Tigers winning 38-6, and they went on to win four of the next six meetings, with the other two ending in ties. The Dragons would first get into the win column in 1955 with a 27-13 win, and also topped the Tigers in ‘56 with a 12-0 win. From there, the rivalry went mostly back and forth for the next 26 years, with the series record going 12-11-3 in Commerce’s favor, and with the Dragons winning five consecutively from 67-71 — the longest streak for Jefferson in the series history.
Then, beginning in ‘83, Commerce took over the series through 2006, going 23-2 in that span. Jefferson’s wins in ‘94 and 2006 ended separate Commerce win streaks of 11, both the longest for the Tigers in series history.
Keen credits Jefferson’s slide during that time to horrendous coach turnover — the Dragons had 11 coaches from ‘82-’06, including six from ‘82-’88.
On the flip side, Commerce has had just two coaches — Ray Lamb (‘67-88) and Steve Savage (‘89-present) — since ‘67.
Jefferson’s coaching turnover led to Keen deciding to step down as athletic director.
“I didn’t want to be a part of musical chairs,” he said. “Things weren’t going well.”
The Dragons began to tip the scale in their favor in 2007 with a 42-7 win and haven’t lost to the Tigers since. Last year’s Dragons win came with current coach T. McFerrin at the helm in his first season at Jefferson.
“I can only speak for last year, but it might be whoever won games had the best team,” McFerrin said.
Added Savage, who has been on the Tigers’ coaching staff for 34 years and, as a player at Commerce, started in three games from ‘70-’72 at linebacker and offensive tackle, “They’ve had better teams recently, but that hasn’t diminished the rivalry.”