Football, Heartbreak and the Backyard Brawl

It’s always those specific things that let you down the most.  That job you knew you had in the bag. The girl you thought would be there forever. The people who leave your life too early. Or that game you should have won easily. The first three scenarios have happened to me more times than I would be proud to count. However, it was the last of the four that prepared me for future heartbreak and more.

In the world of Southwest Virginia football, there are only a few rivalries that grab the entire region’s attention. Graham/Beaver, Powell Valley/Appalachia and Honaker/Lebanon just to name a few. On the hilly front of Tazewell County, the Backyard Brawl has been a yearly treasure.  The numbers that you can find on Rick Baker’s FourSeasonsFootball.com only tell part of the story, but those enough are intriguing.

Coming into this 94th meeting between the school nicknamed after the University of Georgia mascot and the team who’s whirlwind like play earned their nickname from former Bluefield Daily Telegraph scribe Stubby Currence, the Richlands Blue Tornado hold a 50-41-2 edge against the Tazewell Bulldogs.  

Both towns began their football prowess in 1926. On November 11, 1926–a day that would later become Veterans Day, a 3-0 Richlands squad traveled to Tazewell to take on the 2-4 Dogs. Tazewell dawned purple and gold at the time. Both teams had taken care of Triangle Mountain Institute from Buchanan County earlier that season, Tazewell a 12-0 victor October 2nd and Richlands winning 6-0 18 days later. On paper, it looked as if the team from the western end of the county had the edge, but as we’ll touch on later, that’s not always the case.

Tazewell would win the first game by a score of 6-0, and the rivalry was born. It wasn’t until the 1929 matchup that Richlands would earn their first win in the series by a score of 7-6. It’s been back and forth ever since with Richlands holding the record 15-game winning streak going into this Friday’s matchup.

Some notable numbers throughout the history of the Brawl include –

  • Although playing 93 times prior to this year, the two schools only met once in the playoffs. The 2008 Region IV Championship was decided by a missed extra point in overtime. Richlands continued their playoff push and more importantly the winning streak against the Dawgs, 28-27.
  • It’s an even year so Richlands will host at Ernie Hicks Stadium, a place the Blues hold a 25-19 edge in the series. Richlands is also 25-20-2 in Tazewell. The last time the Dawgs won in Richlands was in 2000 by a score of 7-6. That is also the last time Richlands failed to score in double figures in the Brawl.
  • Since 1926, Tazewell has had 25 head coaches compared to just 11 at Richlands.
  • Ernie Hicks has coached the most games in the rivalry compiling a 15-21-1 record from 1926 to 1964 in 37 games.  
  • Dave Litz, Tazewell’s head coach during its 1986 state title run, coached in 12 Backyard Brawls, the most for the Dogs. He posted an even .500 in those battles.
  • Other coaches for Tazewell who owned a .500 winning percentage or better in the rivalry include VHSL Hall of Famer Nick Colobro, former Emory and Henry head man Casto Ramsey (who is the grandfather of former Dallas Cowboy Jason Witten), Dave Rider, Holmes Byrd, John Richmond, Buddy Dodson, James LaVanchie, Howard Quillen, Bob Miller, Buddy Young and Mick Lusk.
  • For Richlands, Woodrow Robinson, Bill Perry, George Brown, Terry Wess, Dennis Vaught and Greg Mance are 50% or better winners against the Dogs.
  • One coach, out of the 36 to lead a team in the Backyard Brawl has never won or lost a game. Jerry Perry held on to a 0-0 tie on September 8th 1973, the lone year he coached. This served as only the second tie in the series. The other coming back in 1941.
  • On the losing end, eight Tazewell coaches have never beaten Richlands. Those include current coach J’me Harris, Shane Allen, Brandon Tate, Bobby Wyatt, Howard Deel, C.A. Wilkenson, Eugene Ross and Perry.
  • Current VHSL Executive Director Billy Haun is the only Blue Tornado head coach not to beat Tazewell. He was 0-3 from 1987 to 1989 against some of the Dogs best teams.
  • There have been 36 times in the rivalry in which one or both teams have failed to score a point. Including the scoreless shutouts of 1941 and 1973, Richlands owns 20 of those compared to Tazewell’s 14.
  • Speaking of shutouts, Richlands has shutout Tazewell in their last two meetings. The last time the Blues kept the Dawgs scoreless in consecutive meetings was the 1994-97 seasons.
  • Of the 93 previous meetings, 36 of those have been decided by a spread of seven or less.  The largest point margin came when Richlands won 61-0 in their state title run in 2006. Tazewell beat the Blues by a score of 29-0, the most substantial point gap in the series until 1992, another Richlands state title year.
  • A number of people have crossed the line and been a part of both programs. Mike Compton, the current offensive line coach at UVa-Wise, began his coaching career at Tazewell after playing for Richlands in the late 80s. The offensive lineman played collegiately at West Virginia before making pit stops in Detroit, New England and Jacksonville in the NFL. Compton was a member of the New England Patriots Super Bowl XXXVI and XXXVIII championship teams.
  • Bulldogs head coach J’me Harris is 0-1 in his lone Brawl appearance last year. This year, he brings in a 2-3 Tazewell squad to face off against the veteran Greg Mance and the Blues. Mance is 19-3 in 22 rivalry games. He also leads his team into battle with a 2-3 record this season.

As it has been mentioned before, the numbers, despite many, don’t always tell the tale.

Case and point, the 2003 matchup. This is where it gets personal.

Both teams were coming in 0-1 on the early year; we had lost to 24-14 to a Gate City squad that would go on to win the D2 state title that year, they had lost a 21-9 contest in Hillsville to Carroll County. 

The morning of September 5, 2003 was just like any other game day for me. With a pick in my curly hair and Korn blaring in the speakers of my 1994 Pontiac Sunbird, I fed ducks hash browns, nibbled on my sausage biscuit and perused the Bristol Herald Courier for their weekly picks.

Richlands 35, Tazewell 0

For a dumb 16-year-old outside linebacker from Raven, that was all the confidence I needed for the day.

We knew our enemy personally. Some of which we had fought over girls with at United Skates among other localities. Nothing short of punishing them for 48 minutes would suffice. However, something about this game would be anything but ordinary.

It felt as if we were behind the 8-ball from the get-go. The opening kickoff was fumbled around by Tazewell for what seemed to be an eternity. I was mere yards away from the ball, as were others in blue and white, but still, the Dogs would recover.

All night was a struggle of field position in which we seemed to win, but the score told otherwise as the trash talking was prevalent, but points were not.  

Momentum had swung our way in the late stages. Scoring a touchdown, converting a wild, unplanned two-point conversion and then securing the onside kick, it seemed as if everything that had gone wrong throughout the night was finally countering our way late in the 4th.  A missed field goal as time expired sent those from the right in green onto the field in joy and us in the road whites down to our knees.

Tazewell 12, Richlands 10

There were plenty of chances to score for us before that. We traveled inside the 10 four times coming up empty, but the last gasp was a dagger to the gut nonetheless.

Navigating through the Tazewell fans scattered all over the field was a blur for me. I just wanted to get back to the locker room and get the hell out of there. Oh, and those girls that I mentioned fighting over before; they were some of the first onto the field to laugh in our face and enjoy their victory.

That game would be my first heartbreak, and a few of those girls mentioned earlier, would be some of my later.  

Google Maps, which wasn’t even a thought in 2003, tells us that it takes 24 minutes to get from Tazewell High to Richlands High. That ride back may have been the longest 18.1 miles of my life.

The season was not a total loss though; we would go on to play in the playoffs while that night was the only night in 2003 the Dogs tasted victory. Despite their 1-9 record, that was far from a one win team as it would show in 2004 when they would play in the D3 state-semifinals on the same day we competed in the D4 state semis.

Many of those wearing green that my teammates and I battled on that balmy September night 15 years ago have since dropped our guard and become acquainted, hell, even friends. Something in the heat of that game and throughout high school would have never been a thought.  After all, life is short and it is just a game.

This Friday night when the Blues and the Dogs meet for the 94th time, don’t forget about those who played, coached and had their hands in the rivalry long before this week that left us all too soon.

People like Cody Thomas and TJ Rasnick, who played just a few short years ago.

Dr. James McVey, who taped me up a few times after a cleat to the shin in that 2003 contest. He taped up many young men in blue during the Brawl.

Terri Mosley, who taught at both high schools, shared her beautiful photography and spirit with kids wearing both green and blue.

Stevie Mitchem, who played and coached for many years in Tazewell, all while seeing some of the best teams from both schools come through.

Aaron Smeltzer, who loved his alma mater, had gone to great lengths to put together what was going to be an excellent documentary on the rivalry.

Finally, a man who made a significant impact in the area, James C. Ramey, a Bulldog by birth, Blue Tornado by marriage, and the man who gave back to both these athletic programs and communities countless times. That’s just one of the reasons the trophy that is gifted to the Brawl’s victor should always bear his name.

Those are just a few who will have from the best seat in the house above Ernie Hicks Stadium Friday night.

The rivalry is back, but hopefully not this year. Go Big Blues!

 

I’m just a simple man. I enjoy breakfast food and beautiful women.

Homegrown Raven boy with a passion for sports and broadcasting.

Coming up this fall I will have broadcast close to 500 sporting events including football, baseball, basketball, volleyball, soccer and even hockey at levels ranging from pee wee to professional in states such as Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, North and South Carolina, New York, Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia.

But one thing has always been certain, high school athletics in Central Appalachia have always been where I could find the most passionate fans and participants.

I’m excited to be a part of this great team and look forward to sharing with you just some of my musings here on the site.

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