JEFFERSON — If you take a left out of Jackson County Comprehensive High School, cross over Highway 129 and make the first left on Memorial Drive, you will find yourself at Memorial Stadium — the home of the Jefferson High School Dragons.
The total distance is just 1.3 miles.
Yet this Friday, Jefferson and Jackson County will meet in football for the first time since 1985.
To put that into perspective, the last time the Dragons and Panthers faced off, Ronald Reagan was president, the national minimum wage salary was $3.25 and Wham!’s “Careless Whisper” was the number one song on Billboard’s Top 100.
So why such a long wait for two schools that practically share a backyard?
“I’ve been trying to schedule this game since I got here and it just hasn’t worked out,” Jackson County coach Billy Kirk said.
Kirk, who took over the Panthers in 2007, said that he has felt the tension between the two schools since he first arrived at Jackson County.
“I live a mile from (Jackson County High) and since I’ve been here I’ve noticed that there’s a lot of animosity between us and Jefferson,” Kirk said. “I don’t think that it comes from our coaches or our players, but more from our fans. They just don’t like each other.”
When East Jackson, the school that was created after the split of Jackson County High in 2007, entered into the same region with Jefferson, the tension elevated.
“When (East Jackson) first played Jefferson (in 2008) it created a lot of animosity between us and Jefferson, because that was the school that split from us and a lot of our former players went there,” Kirk said. “Our players are hungry to get a chance to play Jefferson.”
Now that the two schools are in the same region (8B-AA), the Panthers and Dragons will at least have this year and next to face off against one another.
Whatever the reason for the 25-year wait, Friday’s game is expected to be one of the more memorable games of both teams’ seasons; seasons that haven’t gone as planned for either team.
The Panthers (3-4, 1-3) are in their first year after dropping down to Class AA — they went 4-6 last year at the AAA level.
While the Panthers came into the year looking for a fresh start in a new region and classification, the Dragons came into the season with high expectations and a target on their back after winning Region 8-AA for the past two years and doing it with undefeated regular seasons each time.
Instead, the season has been filled with injuries and a brutal schedule for Jefferson and coach T. McFerrin. So far, the Dragons have already played five playoff teams from last season, all on the road. That combination has Jefferson (3-4, 1-3) in a position most of the current players are not used to being in — staring up in the standings.
“At the beginning of the season I’m sure that Jefferson wanted their season to turn out differently than it has, as did we,” Kirk said. “I said at the beginning of the season that this game could be a big game for both teams’ chances (at making the playoffs) and it hasn’t turned out that way.”
What it has turned into is a matchup of two programs desperate for a win.
“There is certainly something to play for, as county bragging rights will be on the line,” said McFerrin before a team practice this week. “That’s something that we hope our players will take pride in. Our playoff chances are gone, but what we need to play for is pride and bragging rights for Jackson County and Jefferson teams, and I hope that’s going to be enough to inspire our players to play hard.”
For Kirk, this is an opportunity for his Panthers — a program that hasn’t gone to the playoffs since 1992 — to prove they can play with a Jefferson team that is a perennial powerhouse, despite struggling at times this year.
“Jefferson is still a really good football team and they have built a winning tradition over there. That’s something that we’re trying to establish here. They’ve got good players and good coaches and will come to play every Friday night,” Kirk said.
Despite going 8-28-1 in the last four years, the Panthers have had some big wins in their recent history, the most recent a 26-23 win in the regular season finale against Stephens County last year. It was Jackson County’s first win over the Indians in program history, and it came on the road.
“Going up there and winning proved that we can win big games. Winning up there is no different than going (to Jefferson) and winning,” Kirk said. “We’ve got to prove that we can do that. That’s something we’re still teaching our kids how to do and still showing them what it takes to do that.”
As far as the players go, although the two teams haven’t faced in their lifetime, many of them will line up against familiar faces Friday night.
“When we found out before the season that we get to play them, I just got really excited because I grew up with a lot of those guys,” said Jefferson linebacker/offensive lineman Kyle Mosley. “I played with a lot of them (in recreational leagues) back in the day and it should be fun playing against them.”
One player that Mosley will face is his good friend and Jackson County starting safety Alex Crawford.
Crawford had the rare opportunity to choose whether he would play his high school football at Jefferson or Jackson County.
Although Crawford lives within the Jefferson city limits, less than a mile from the Jefferson High campus, he was given the option of choosing to attend Jackson County because both his older brother and sister graduated from there.
While some might think the choice of joining a decorated and successful Jefferson team over a Jackson County program that has struggled throughout the past two decades might be an easy one, Crawford looked at the situation differently than most.
“Ever since I started middle school, I wanted to be a Panther,” Crawford said. “It wasn’t anything against the program at Jefferson, it was just that both my brother and sister graduated from Jackson County and I could see myself wearing the red and black over the red and blue any day.”
Crawford went on to explain that meeting coach Kirk, who took over as the Panthers coach Crawford’s freshman year, also was a big factor in his decision.
“Whenever I met coach Kirk and saw what he brought to the table and that attitude, I knew that that’s where I wanted to play my four years of high school football,” he said. “I guess I could have taken the easy road, so to speak, and went to Jefferson, but I feel that it’s more than numbers and felt like I could call Jackson County home, since this is where by sister went and my brother played.”
While Crawford sees this game as an opportunity to defend why he chose Jackson County High, Jefferson senior fullback/defensive end Zach Allen sees it as a chance to have a reunion of sorts with friends from his childhood and perform on a high level in front of family and friends.
“Our intensity has been high every week, but I think it will be at a new level this week because we have something to prove,” Allen said. “Everyone in the stands is going to know who you are and will have known you since you were a baby.”
While there will likely be just as many fans wearing red and black at Memorial Stadium on Friday as red and blue, Allen still feels that his team has an advantage playing at home.
“This is our field,” Allen said. “The seniors on this team have played here for the past four years and we haven’t lost many games here, so we’ll be ready to play when the lights turn on Friday night.”
Crawford summed up how much this game means to him and his team in five simple words: “I want to beat them.”