With fall fast approaching, high school football is already underway, and in Western North Carolina there’s no bigger rivalry than the one between two Haywood County high schools.
On any given Friday in small-town America the latest news about the area’s most important issues can be heard at the barber shop. “Oh, it’ll never stop, I mean, as long as there’s Tuscola and Pisgah, it’ll be here,” said David Bryson, a barber at Doug’s Barber Shop in Clyde. He’s talking about what some call one of the greatest high school football rivalries in the nation. “It’s the Super Bowl of Haywood County,” Bryson says.
Since the mid-60s, Haywood’s been home to just two high schools – Tuscola in Waynesville, and Pisgah in Canton. That’s spawned a generational rivalry, especially as graduates then move on into the local business and political spheres, according to Canton native Zeb Smathers. “My father Pat Smathers played for the Pisgah Black Bears in 1972, wore number 80, won a state championship and was mayor of Canton. I played for the Pisgah Black Bears in 2001, wore number 73 and now I am the mayor of Canton.”
“My name is Chuck Francis, I graduated from Tuscola High School in 1974, and I’ve been chairman of the Haywood County Board of Education for 16 years.” Each year, the two schools meet regularly in what’s become a microcosm of American society today. The winner brings home the Haywood Cup, as well as something far more important. “I can tell you one thing,” Francis said. “It’s bragging rights for a year for one end of the county whether it be east or west, it’s the bragging rights.”
As the game approached Friday, Aug. 31, those rights were at stake not only across the county, but also across some kitchen tables – like that of Stephanie Ferguson and her husband Tubby, married a year this past May. “I graduated from Tuscola in 2008,” said Tubby. “And I graduated from Pisgah in 2008,” said Stephanie. “I know we joke about it but it’s all in good fun,” he said. “All I have to say is, Pisgah has won the past five years,” she said. “It’s been tough getting up in the morning,” Tubby continued. “The little comments in passing…”
Two years ago, the game ball was delivered midfield by helicopter; this year, by skydivers. 13,000 spectators made it the largest city in Haywood County, at least for the night. The rivalry is such a part of the day-to-day fibre of life that Canton’s paper Mill, it’s smokestacks within sight of the field, blows its steam whistle at kickoff. Country singers like Canton native Keil Nathan Smith even write songs about the game.
But it sounds a lot different in the locker room, where Tuscola coach J.T. Postell delivered a rousing pregame speech to his team, many of whom will take off their helmets for the last time after the game – win, lose or draw. “I’m tired, I’m sick and tired of losing to them! Seniors, this is it, this is your last chance! Underclassmen, make sure they go out winners! Because that’s what everybody in this room is! We are winners! God dangit, I love you! Let’s [roar]”
Half-a dozen media outlets – most of them visiting – saw the Bears take their sixth straight over the Mountaineers. They also saw one spectator walk with $20 grand after winning the 50-50. Pisgah’s victory gave the Black Bears a 28-26 advantage in the series overall. “Even though we’re divided on this one night,” Francis said, “we will work together to get things accomplished for the betterment of all the citizens of Haywood county.”
And there’s nothing more small-town America than that.