By Rory Sharrock
Football is a game of emotions and there will be plenty of high-strung feelings floating through the air and on the field when the Jonesboro Cardinals take on the North Clayton Eagles tonight Tara Stadium.
There will be enough energy on the field to short circuit the wires at Georgia Power as playoff implications and local bragging rights will be on the line when these two schools collide between the lines.
Tonight's game is the 41st meeting between North Clayton and Jonesboro dating back to 1953 when the Cardinals won 46-0.
Jonesboro won five straight to begin the rivalry, however, North Clayton has taken the last four in convincing fashion and leads the series 22-19. During this most recent run, the Eagles have only given up one touchdown and have won by an average margin 33.2 points.
But all that's in the past and means nothing to this current crop of players seeking to carry their club into the playoffs.
North Clayton's record stands at 7-1 and 6-0 in Region 4-AAAA, which is good enough for first place. Jonesboro is 5-3 overall and stuck in a three-way tie for third place in the region at 4-2 with Griffin and Dutchtown.
North Clayton earned a trip to the playoffs last week for the first time since 2004 after beating Stockbridge 30-6 at Tara Stadium. With a win against Jonesboro, the Eagles will clinch the region championship and be one step closer to a No. 1 seed in the state tournament.
"Jonesboro's a tough team. It's one of those scenarios where it's a rivalry like playing Riverdale. You don't know what to expect," said North Clayton head coach Rodney Hackney. "The good thing about it is, our kids are ready play. They're enthusiastic about being out here at practice and listening to the game plan. These are the games you live to coach and play. But I've tried to refocus our kids that our goal was to win a region championship, not to beat Jonesboro. Jonesboro is just a step in the way."
While a game between these two long-time foes with playoff implications on line doesn't need any spice, the extra seasoning on this bountiful dish resides with the men wearing the headsets.
The entire defensive coaching staff at Jonesboro, which includes defensive coordinator Tim Floyd, defensive backs coach Cedrick Brooks and defensive line coach Nate Wardlaw were calling plays for North Clayton in 2007 under then head coach Don Shockley.
However, the most intriguing twist to this plot centers around Jonesboro linebackers coach Cap Burnett, who not only coached at North Clayton, but played his high school ball for the Eagles before suiting up for the Georgia Bulldogs.
And if that wasn't enough, he's also the older brother of former Eagles defensive back star turned college playmaker Morgan Burnett of Georgia Tech, who currently leads the nation with six interceptions.
Although Cap's previous ties were with North Clayton, his job is with Jonesboro and his mission is to help fly the Cardinals to victory lane.
"I look at it like I'm trying to win a football game. True enough I'm going against my alma mater and the school I coached at, but at the same time, I'm here and dedicated to Jonesboro so I'm trying to get this win for us," said Cap Burnett. "Not so much because I'm over here and I went there and coached there, but for the simple fact that we need this win so we can accomplish our goals we set at the beginning of the year."
While the coaching changes provide neighborhood sizzle, when the ball is snapped, field position will be a key factor in determining which team walks to their school bus with arms raised at the final gun.
The Eagles' stingy 3-5 defense features a trio of stud linemen in Drew Thompson, Albert Carlisle and Emmanuel "Too Tall" Dieke, who have created havoc for the opposition every week. Their constant pressure up front is a major reason why North Clayton has given up only nine points per game this season.
"Those (defensive) coaches were really close to us. They're at Jonesboro now, so everybody's excited about playing them," said Thompson.
Jonesboro has been led by its defense all year.
The Cards are giving up 15 points per outing, which includes holding perennial powerhouse Valdosta to nine points below its average in a game earlier this season.
Last week, Jonesboro's three-game winning streak was snapped when it fell 27-0 at Griffin.
The defeat set the team back in the standings, but a win tonight or Dutchtown loss at Griffin Friday night will punch Jonesboro's ticket for the playoffs.
"It's a big game. Obviously, my defensive staff came from North Clayton. We got our backs against the wall and we're in a must win situation. We just have to go out there and play and not turn the ball over," said Jonesboro head coach Clint Satterfield.
"They're real good defensively, so we have to find something that works. In a game like this, you have to limit the mistakes. Hopefully, we'll have a good night (weather) to play."
In between the first and second quarter, former Jonesboro multi-sport athlete Harry Douglas will have his football jersey retired as part of Senior Night.
After a phenomenal career at the University of Louisville, Douglas was selected in third-round with the 21st pick by the Atlanta Falcons in the 2008 NFL Draft.
He currently ranks fourth on the team in receptions with 11 and his 148 receiving yards puts him third on the club in that category.