By Zack Huffman
It only seems appropriate that when North Clayton and Riverdale inaugurate the 2009 football season at the brand new Southern Crescent Stadium tonight, they will cover the field with black and blue, to maintain a 31-year rivalry that has become perhaps Clayton County's most anticipated annual grudge match.
"It's a big rivalry for both teams," said Riverdale head coach Nick Davis. "This is my fourth year at Riverdale, and it's always been a real big game for us. We're looking forward to a hard-fought game."
"It's a very important game," said North Clayton head coach Rodney Hackney. "Kids sometimes pick which school they're going to go to based on this game."
Hackney is perhaps the only head coach to have the unique experience of coaching both sides of the rivalry.
Before becoming head coach at North Clayton, Hackney led the Riverdale Raiders from 2001-2003.
Hackney has also never lost a Riverdale and North Clayton game in the four seasons he participated as head coach.
"It would be nice to get another win. Everybody in the community wants you to win that game," he said. "If you lose people remind you that you lost that game."
Hackney once candidly mentioned that a loss to Riverdale would leave him unable to show his face at the Quiktrip located just down the road from North Clayton.
"You definitely can't go to the Wal-Mart in Riverdale if you lose this game," he added. "That's what we tell the kids on the team."
While rivalry games can sometimes have playoff implications, more often than not the games simply come down to bragging rights between neighboring schools.
"You definitely want the bragging rights," said Davis. "If you're a senior this is how you want to be remembered."
Rivalry games are the lifeblood of any football schedule. Every fan who roots for a particular team has at least one, maybe two teams they want to see beaten more than any other.
This is the case for many of the rivalries in Clayton, one of the oldest of which began over half a century ago when Jonesboro and Forest Park completed their respective football seasons in what amounted to a North vs. South game in 1952 when there were still just three high schools in Clayton County.
Jonesboro nailed Forest Park with a 34-0 win to spark a series that has only missed four season in 53 years.
Among the many battles that took place over the years between the two teams, perhaps the most controversial came in 1957 when the Jonesboro coach Gene Kendrick encouraged members of his squad to pick a fight with Forest Park players who were watching Jonesboro's practice from a nearby swimming pool.
In the aftermath of the fight, Kendrick lost his job and Forest Park defeated the Cardinals 14-6.
Although Jonesboro has won five of its last six games against Forest Park, the Panthers currently lead the series 37-16.
Duel rivalries against both Jonesboro and Forest Park by North Clayton also began in 1952, although the Eagles were unable to win more than a single game against either team for about a decade.
Since then, the Eagles have built a 23-19 record against Jonesboro, while trailing Forest Park 27-22-2.
Since then, with the inclusion six new schools in the county, each of the original three programs have moved on to other rivalries, though with all three teams currently sharing Region 4-AAAA they will continue to do battle, even if the rivalries are not as heated as they once were.
Currently the biggest rivalries in Clayton are arguably North Clayon-Riverdale, Jonesboro-Mt. Zion, Lovejoy-Mundy's Mill.
While proximity and history have contributed to long-standing rivalries in Clayton County, a rapidly expanding school system and a lack of classification consistency in Henry County have made it difficult to maintain rivalries in the east side of the Southern Crescent.
The two oldest teams in Henry, who have enjoyed the oldest rivalry in the county are Stockbridge and Henry County High School.
Stockbridge holds a narrow 18-17-1 lead in the series, which began in 1966, but the two teams have not met on the playing field since 2005.
Eagle's Landing High School was the third public school to open in Henry County just under twenty year ago. When it opened, the school pulled students from Henry County High School, creating the perfect climate for a rivalry, which kept both teams fighting for sixteen years, with a just a single season during the stretch where both teams took the year off.
Eagle's Landing leads 8-7.
In 2007, Eagle's Landing and Henry County were both in region 4-AAA which made rival games between the two inevitable, but with the opening in 2006 of Ola pulling enough students away from Henry County for it to drop down to 4-AA when regions where re-classified in 2008 the rivalry had to be put on hold.
Similarly to Eagle's Landing and Henry County, Ola, which was also in 4-AAA, was in a position for a new rivalry with the Warhawks, but when Henry Country moved to 4-AA, Ola moved up to 4-AAAA.
This season will be the second one where Henry County and Ola have managed to salvage the rivalry by scheduling pre-season scrimmages.
Just two weeks ago, Ola final scored its first win against Henry County 31-23.
Currently, the biggest rivalry in Henry is between the two Class AAAAA powers in the county, Union Grove and Luella. Union Grove, which is three years older than Luella leads the series 3-1.
Woodland's opening took students away from Union Grove, while Locust Grove took away student from Luella, so there is no telling if the two teams will be able to continue their rivalry in 2010 after re-alignment.
Other potential rivalries such as Dutchtown and Stockbridge and Eagle's Landing and Woodland make sense on paper considering each match-up takes place within region schedules, but neither has enough history for an established feud.
With the Georgia High School Association switching from two-year to four-year region alignment, there is potential for the development of future rivalries in Henry County, but only time will tell.