By David Climer, The Tennessean
COOKEVILLE, TENN. - It's two hours before the
Division II Class A championship game kicks off and the menu at Mamma
Rosa's on Washington Avenue features lasagna, baked ziti and pizza, with
a side order of good-natured trash talk.
"You guys haven't seen
anybody like Todd Kelly Jr. You'll never tackle him," said Jordan West,
referring to the star running back for Webb School of Knoxville.
Christian fan Ryan Brady, sitting at the adjacent table and wearing a
sweatshirt with the phrase "Eagle Up" on the back, rolled his eyes and
said: "Talk's cheap. We'll see what happens."
Welcome to the
BlueCross Bowl, a three-day, eight-game football showcase where the
champions of Tennessee's eight high school classifications are decided.
It is a melting pot where players, students and fans from different
parts of our 440-mile-wide state converge on Tucker Stadium on the
campus of Tennessee Tech University.
Participating teams come from
near and far. The closest to the Tech campus is Division I Class 1A
finalist Gordonsville (a 32-mile drive). The farthest is Whitehaven (298
miles), which will play Maryville for the Division I Class 6A title on
Tennessee's state football championship is modest
compared to some of the competition. Tucker Stadium, a no-frills,
old-school facility that was built in 1966, seats 16,500. It's a far cry
from the Georgia Dome, which plays host to the Georgia state
And then there's Texas, where high school
football is equal parts sport and religion. Last year's Texas state
championship game, played at Cowboys Stadium, drew 43,369. And that was
only the fifth-largest crowd ever to see a high school football game in
Still, there's something appealing about this setting. The
city of Cookeville embraces the event as its own. This is the fourth
year the BlueCross Bowl has been played here, and the contract has been
extended through 2016.
"They go out of their way to make everybody
feel welcome, and that means a lot," said Bernard Childress, executive
director of the TSSAA, the governing body of high school sports in the
"There are bigger cities and newer stadiums, but this is a good fit for us right now."
there's a sense of community here. The souvenir program for the
BlueCross Bowl features page after page of ads, the bulk of them from
local businesses. More than 600 volunteers have stepped up to handle
various duties. Tennessee Tech pitched in to handle security - at no
cost to the TSSAA.
It's good for business. George Halford,
president and CEO of the Cookeville/Putnam County Chamber of Commerce,
says these three days of football pump at least a million dollars into
the local economy. It keeps Cookeville and the surrounding area on its
"We have 1,400 hotel rooms and we fill most of those, and
there are about 100 restaurants that expect the most business they'll
have all year," Halford said. "For three days, we're the epicenter of
high school football in the state. We try to put on the best show we
can. This is our Super Bowl."
A memorable experience
A positive economic impact is important. But more important is staging an event that is memorable for the participants.
No. 1 priority is making sure these kids have an experience they'll
remember the rest of their lives," Childress said. "We feel obligated to
make it a very special event."
It's not easy to get here. First, a
team has to make the playoff bracket via a convoluted system that is
more complicated than the Pythagorean theorem. Think I'm kidding? At the
end of the regular season, the Class 5A bracket originally included
Cleveland High School, but TSSAA officials circled back around a few
hours later and determined Cleveland had not qualified.
over 4,800 data that have to be entered to come up with the playoff
bracket," Childress said. "If one entry is wrong, it makes everything
incorrect. ... We need to get a system that is easier to understand and
easier to manage."
Details, details. It may be an imperfect
system, but the results are perfectly fine. High school football is
alive and well in the state of Tennessee.