Hart County vs Elbert County to open the season.
This was not my first football game.
It wasn’t even my first Hart County game, but I was seeing it through new eyes, as I attended this game for the first time, as a resident of Hartwell, and mother of two small children who will grow up here.
Here is some of the backstory.
I was raised in Birmingham, Alabama.
I come from a family who are the sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters of a sports information director turned conference associate commissioner, and a basketball coach whose career spanned from the NAIA all the way to Division 1 programs.
My entire upbringing was steeped in football, baseball and basketball.
I fell in love with a man from this quaint, Georgia town.
Jeremiah comes from a family whose traditions also lean in to the game.
He spent his formative years at Hart County High School focused on one thing; football.
He then went on to play in college like his father before him; his younger brother also followed suit.
Jeremiah and I married in 2014, and when we started our family a couple of years later, it became abundantly clear we would move to Hartwell to raise our babies.
Cut to, August 23, 2019. Jeremiah walked through the door right at 5pm, and announced that we all need to wear orange to the game. The first Friday night football game we would attend as a family. I rummaged through the laundry looking for all of the bright orange I could find. He tried to convince our two and three year old daughters to eat some supper, while spouting off the historical significance of this rivalry between the Hart and Elbert teams to me.
As we approached the stadium that night, the atmosphere radiated energy.
My daughters excitedly pointed out every orange flag boasting a bulldog on our way in.
The line to purchase tickets reached far in to the parking lot. Luckily he thought ahead and we skipped to the entrance, tickets in tow. We made our way to the stands, and were greeted by familiar faces when we reached our seats near the student section. My father-in-law, who was one of the founding members of the Lake Hartwell Touchdown Club in the mid 90’s, was there with my mother-in-law, a woman who has sat through more football games than she can count.
We settled in under the bright stadium lights. The night air was thick and humid; it smelled like sweat. The student section buzzed. Orange clad kids filled the rows from end to end. Standing room only. My children watched them with eyes as big as teacup saucers when a big cloud of orange powder plumed over their cheers during kickoff. They were probably the only two people there who did not have eyes on the field. Every parent, teacher, volunteer, kid and coach watched as the Hart County Bulldogs took on the Elbert County Blue Devils.
Hart scored in the first quarter, and the crowd erupted. I recognized the name of the player, Cane Berrong, as he was one of the kids on the youth team Jeremiah coached when we were engaged. The band played triumphantly, and collectively spirits were high. That is, except for my two year old, Evelyn True. We had far surpassed her 730pm bedtime, in the name of Friday night lights, and she grew more tired and antsy with each down. I scooped her up out of the bleachers and we headed to the sidewalk to take a stroll and to try to buy some time.
I held her hand tightly, feeling like her almost 3 foot stature might be swept away in the crowd. The kids that zipped in and out racing to catch their friends were very considerate. They’d bob and weave and avoid running into my little one. We walked down the home team’s sideline. The fence by the field was covered in families, fans and friends all supporting the kids on the other side of the black, chainlink barrier. Our walk led us to the scoreboard. Two year olds cannot resist flashing lights, bright numbers and a giant tv screen. While she ooh’d and ahh’d at the lights, I had one eye on her and one on the kids next to us. A bit of a spat was brewing. Pubescent boys in their teams’ colors puffed up their chests, and trash talked each other in ways that seemed like they had been practicing in a mirror; awkwardly, and with no real threat of harm. They wanted to feel like they were part of this long standing rivalry. Take a side, draw a hard line. It wasn’t until they started repeatedly calling each other bitches, that my eyes cut over and stayed on them. They instantly felt my gaze and cowered away while I kept an eyebrow raised. Hey, I’m a mom. I’ll look out for your kids, and hopefully you’ll look out for mine one day. I’m proud to hold young men to a higher standard and encourage respect for women.
We ended up walking all the way around the field, and sitting to play on the grassy hill by the northwest side of the stadium. Evelyn True waved at other children who were proudly donning their older sibling’s jersey numbers or wearing custom shirts that said “Band Sister”. We watched as elementary aged kids in their youth football shirts incited a little touch rivalry game of their own. Each gunning to be the next star of their high school team one day, and carry on the Hart Co vs Elbert Co tradition.
At the end of the half, the Bulldogs were up 19 to 0. The band started to prepare for the halftime show as we made our way back to the stands. Black clouds loomed over head and thunder boomed in the distance. I assumed my girls would be enamored with the flags, sequins and showmanship of the band and dancers’ performances, but their favorite part of the whole experience was seeing the big drums and xylophones.
Jeremiah and I decided to get our little ones home to bed before the storm rolled in. We waited at the gate while he ran to fetch the truck. It was announced over the loud speaker that Hart County ran the kickoff back for a touchdown to start the second half. Let’s just say, we weren’t worried about missing a nail biter. We tucked our daughters into their beds that night with the little plastic footballs they acquired at the game. They weren’t letting these treasures out of their site.
I read later that Elbert County scored a touchdown towards the end of the game, but it was not enough to surpass the Hart County Bulldogs; the final score was 39 to 7. Even as a newcomer, I felt a sense of pride for those kids and our community who came out in droves to support them. I’m looking forward to what this season will bring. Follow along with my weekly special interest stories at HartwellandBeyond.com