By Anthony Rhoads
For just about all of his life, Al Hughes has loved football. Back in the 1970s, Hughes played football at Jonesboro High School and went on to play at Jacksonville State University in Alabama.
After graduating from JSU, he came back to Clayton County to coach at his alma mater.
Now, as head coach at Lovejoy High School, Hughes loves the game more than ever ? and with good reason. His Wildcat football team has gone to the playoffs for three straight years and is coming off an 11-1 season last year.
Tonight, the 2004 high school football season begins as Lovejoy takes on Mt. Zion at Tara Stadium.
It's definitely something Hughes is looking forward to.
"That's kind of what I live for," Lovejoy head coach Al Hughes said. "If you're in it for anything other than the game, then you're in the wrong business. It's the excitement in the air and the anticipation of getting your team ready to play."
Mt. Zion head coach Jackie Green has been at the helm of his school's football program since it began in 1989. Even after all these years, Green is still excited about starting another season on the gridiron.
"That's what you look forward to as a football coach to see if your off-season conditioning and practices have paid off," Green said. "Unfortunately, with have to open the season against a team that's ranked in the top 10 in the state in 5A. We feel like we can compete with them. There's no pressure, it's all on them."
For Green, you can't beat the excitement of amateur football.
"High school football and college football are probably the greatest football of all," Green said. "High school football means more to so many more people. You live for Friday nights."
This week, Mt. Zion and Lovejoy won't be the only Clayton County rivals to be clashing on the football field.
Friday night, North Clayton takes on Riverdale at Tara Stadium and Mundy's Mill plays Jonesboro at Twelve Oaks Stadium. Saturday, Morrow plays Forest Park at Twelve Oaks.
Jonesboro fielded the first high school football team in Clayton in 1946.
Five years later, Forest Park and North Clayton started their football programs.
Forest Park wasted no time establishing itself as one of the top teams in the state. The Panthers won the Region 3-C championship and completed an 11-0-1 season by winning the Class C state championship in 1951.
In 1987, Morrow High School brought the second state championship to Clayton County by beating Effingham County in Class AAAA state finals at Tara Stadium.
That team featured future University of Georgia and National Football League wide receiver Andre Hastings.
The 1999 season was the last time a Clayton team played for a state championship. That year, Mt. Zion plowed its way to a 14-0 record before losing to Oconee County in the Class AAA state championship game.