From the moment I pulled off of Interstate 40 and headed down Champion Drive towards downtown Canton, I could sense the excitement, and feel the buildup that something special was going to go down later in the evening.
Was it the added traffic that was probably five-times more volume than what’s typical at a 2:30 p.m.? Was it some of the businesses that had “Go Bears” on the marquee? Or was it the flags and sprayed on lettering displayed on several vehicles driving through town?
It’s hard to explain but you could just feel the energy among the locals in Canton, a tight-knit community of around 4,200 people that is situated along the banks of the Pigeon River.
After a great lunch at JRO’s Burgers and Subs on Main Street, I made my way over to Pisgah High School to take a gander through their athletic facilities and look through the trophy case at some of the outstanding accomplishments that has taken place since their opening in 1966. For basketball fans, the gymnasium at the school is among the better ones I’ve seen in North Carolina and would be well worth a trip to catch a game on the hardwood, but I digress!
After chatting with Brett Chappell for a few minutes, the head football coach who’s now led the Black Bears program for six seasons, I decided to walk down the hill and over the bridge leading to Memorial Stadium.
Upon entering the gates of the stadium, I had to do a double take and check my watch and make sure it wasn’t gametime! The massive grandstands on the home side of the stadium was already sprinkled with Pisgah fans while the visitors side was already nearly full of fans from Tuscola High School, and it was only 3:45 p.m.
The atmosphere at the stadium was like a carnival, in fact I would put the experience up against many County Fairs in the state, and about the only thing missing was the livestock, but the hustle and bustle of fans entering the grounds and the amazing smell of food coming from the tailgate parties was something you just don’t see or experience very often, in fact, it was very much like the experiences I see when going to SEC college football games.
After standing in line for a while waiting to buy a few 50/50 tickets, I made my way out to the field to start taking in the sights and await the arrival of the teams.
Finally around 5:30 p.m. you could hear police sirens blasting from across town and the busses from Tuscola arrived at the stadium. Not long after that, the players from Pisgah walked down the hill and entered the grounds, and they were greeted with an enormous roar of appreciation, by then from probably around 5,000 fans that were packed in tight on the home side stands.
The excitement was continuing to build while both teams were going through their pregame warm-ups, the players were definitely getting hyped up as the music blasted through the public address speakers, and by the time the bands started to enter the field around 7:00 p.m., there wasn’t a seat to be found anywhere in the grandstands, and space around the fences on all sides of the field was hard to come by.
Sportsmanship was on high display when both bands marched on to the field to begin the pregame festivities. For a rivalry this closely contested, and with two opposing fan bases that love to heckle their foes from across the county, it was a great sign of respect to see the members of both bands mixed in together.
As you would expect, the fans stood in unison for the playing of our National Anthem and the feeling of anticipation amongst the fans was something that could be felt by everyone. I have to admit, I’ve been going to high school football games in North Carolina since the early 1980’s and this was just something special, and something very different than other big games I’ve seen before.
Just when I thought the pageantry couldn’t get any better, school officials cleared the field as a prop plane entered the airspace high above Memorial Stadium and you could see a red stream of smoke following the plane. Then suddenly that stream of smoke fell at a high rate of speed from the plane as two jumpers began to free-fall towards the earth below.
One carrying the game ball, and the other a large American Flag, the two skydivers parachutes opened and Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA played over the loud speakers. The crowds roared in approval at this patriotic display.
I have to admit it, the hair on the back of my neck was standing as I could hardly contain my excitement. This is what I call “Big Time High School Football”, something that I usually don’t get to see in our state, but I was taking it in and loving it on this magnificent Friday Night!
I thought that things couldn’t be any better but the two teams entrance into the field, through tunnels on the 50-yard line on both sides of the stadium was spectacular. When the home standing Black Bears entered, it was like a college team entering the field with the cheerleaders carrying flags that spelled out ‘PISGAH’, and dancing around the midfield logo with a parachute that had a “P” on it, something I later learned is a tradition that has taken place for a very long time in Canton.
Memorial Stadium was bursting at its seams, both crowds were cheering as loud as possible and we hadn’t even had the opening kickoff yet.
When the game finally did begin, we experienced another ground shaking roar when Tuscola scored on its second play with a 66-yard run. This was exciting! I imagine if there had been a geological team in the vicinity, they may have felt some tremors registered from the excitement.
As both teams traded punches, the game was proving to be everything it was billed as being. Both of these squads were prepared, they were playing with tremendous pride, and you could tell that neither wanted to lose.
Ultimately Pisgah would pull away late and win the game 20-10, but the real winners was everyone in attendance that witnessed something special. This was everything that was great about our country! It didn’t matter what your political views were, everyone was there to support their communities, their teams, their neighbors, and the youth on the field that was giving it their all.
Special is the one word I keep coming back too. This was just a special environment and I feel lucky to have been able to be a part of it!