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A look back: 1986 Pickens-Gilmer Football --- "The Biggest Game"

footballpic1986By Tommy Gartrell

former Progress sports reporter

Left, Todd Payne (#66) leading running back Marty Bridges  (#34) in the legendary 1986 Pickens-Gilmer game.

It was the perfect football storm: arch rivals, two undefeated teams, The Atlanta Journal’s prep game of the week and homecoming. Never before or since had the Pickens-Gilmer football game meant so much. When the teams met on Oct. 17, 1986, it became legendary.

From the time that the late Don Boggus, Sr., the “Voice of the Dragons” for 38 years, said, “We would like to welcome our friends and neighbors from Gilmer County,” until he retorted in disillusionment, “That’s all folks; game is over,” legends came to life and broken hearts abounded.

“It was the biggest game that I ever played. All of the story lines and dramas. It is cliche, but the atmosphere was electric. It made your hair stand up,” said Pickens junior end Trey Elrod.

 

Dragon senior Tommy Pye proclaimed, “It was Gilmer; we hated Gilmer.”

The Pickens-Gilmer football rivalry started in 1957, but the counties were rivals a century earlier. In 1853, Pickens County became Georgia’s 100th county with lands carved from Gilmer and Cherokee counties. Adding fuel to a bit of spark, Pickens County undermined southern secession during the Civil War by flying the American rather than Confederate flag during the war. A number of bloody skirmishes along the Pickens-Gilmer County line ensued. The hostility between residents moved from blood-letting in the 19th century to fist fights and drag races in the early 20th century. Ultimately, it evolved into athletic rivalry between schools in the modern era.

Former Gilmer head coach Mike Gates stated, “Out of all the places that I’ve been, the Gilmer-Pickens rivalry is by far the very best. It has the atmosphere and intensity like no other.”

 

 

In 1986, the Gilmer Bobcats crushed all opponents by a cumulative score of 188-35 and rolled into Jasper at 5-0. Meanwhile, the Pickens Dragons marched to a 6-0 mark through more modest margins of victory including a 7-6 win at Jackson County.

Senior Dragon John Pool said, “Coach Sewell told us that Gilmer was the best team we had seen so far.”

Recognizing the importance of the game, literally herds of fans from both sides swelled Dragon Stadium which was, at that time, located on West Church Street. The campus is home to Jasper Middle School now. The official count tallied well over 6,000 people, but other estimates exceed 8,000. It was the largest crowd ever at a school sports event.

“The administration brought in extra bleachers which weren’t nearly enough,” adds current PHS stadium announcer Tim Prather.

Longtime sports fan, Jackie Voyles, proclaimed that he managed to get a seat, “but I got there at 5 o’clock. It didn’t matter, we did not stay seated anyway. Everyone was on their feet throughout the game.”

Gilmer junior Mike Brumby, recalls too, “We were very confident ’til our bus came over the hill toward the school. There was cars lining the road and people everywhere. We had never seen anything like it.”

Kickoff

If the magnitude of this football game was lost to anyone in the stadium, the fierce physical play which was obvious from the outset made it clear that both teams intended to win.

Coach Gates indicated that he was apprehensive going into this game. “We both had strong teams and the hits in were tremendous.”

“Hitting had extra vigor. We were trying to knock each other’s heads off,” said Pickens junior guard Todd Payne.

Both defenses set the tone early. Pickens went 3-and-out to start the game and a botched punt gave Gilmer possession deep in the Dragons’ end of the field.

The Bobcats drove to the Pickens 18 yard line before the Dragon defense said no more. Gilmer was led by their big full back Mark Woodring, but he went down for the season versus Gordon Central so the ’Cats turned to their potent passing game led by quarterback Chet Frady and receiver Mike Brumby. On this night, however, the duo could not connect. Frady was sacked twice on the first series, once by Dragon senior Pete Kistler and once on a devastating hit by junior Trey Elrod.

“Three of us chased Frady around in the backfield for what seemed like 20 minutes. We had him surrounded and chased back and forth until Trey almost killed him,” said senior Mitchell Jackson.

Later in the first half when Gilmer threatened again, a violent blow from Jackson and senior defensive guard Robbie Barnes freed the football from Frady. Kistler recovered the fumble for the “Green.”

The battle stayed between the 35 yard lines most of the second quarter. Finally, Pickens mounted a drive into Gilmer territory but under heavy pressure from the ’Cats pass rush, Dragon junior quarterback Jason Logan’s pass was intercepted by Brumby.

The first half ended 0-0 on an

Continued on page 2B      other sack of Frady by Elrod.

After halftime, the defenses

continued their control of the game. Gilmer’s first possession actually lost yardage.

On Pickens’ first opportunity, the offense appeared refreshed. Runs by Barnes and freshman tailback Marty Bridges put the Dragons inside the Gilmer 20 yard line for the first time. The Bobcat defense stifled the drive and on fourth down Coach Sewell sent his kicker onto the field.

Jorgen Ljunggren was a soccer player and exchange student from Sweden. He assumed kicking duties after Pye suffered a broken ankle earlier in the season at Jackson County. His field goal attempt floated left of the uprights to the sighs of the home crowd.

The remainder of the third frame mirrored the earlier quarters, thus the game went into the final stanza scoreless.

Coach Sewell said, “In a game like that, it comes down to whoever makes the one big play...”

At the Gilmer 33 with 11:30 to play, Kistler recovered his second Bobcat fumble of the night. Again the crowd roared with the “Pride of Pickens” Marching Bank leading the cheers.

Bridges and Logan on multiple runs moved the ball inside Gilmer’s 10 yard line. Pickens reached first-and-goal at the 7.

“I thought we finally had them when Jason (Logan) got us inside the 10 for the first time all night,” lamented sophomore Marc Lohman.

Once again, defense took control. Gilmer’s Mark Waddell sacked Logan for a huge loss and crunched Bridges for a 2-yard loss on successive plays. On fourth down, the Dragons found themselves out of field goal range and tried a desperate pass which fell incomplete.

Two series later Gilmer made another run, charging deep into “Green” territory getting to the 7. A holding penalty pushed the ’Cats back. Kistler, Barnes and sophomore linebacker Adam Gayden dropped Evans for a 5-yard loss but on the next play came the Bobcat’s heartbreaker.

Frady dropped back to pass, scrambling from the Pickens defense which pushed him throughout the game. He flung a bomb toward the end zone and the waiting Brumby.

“Brumby and Watkins ran crossing routes and they both had a play on the football. Scott (Watkins) tried to catch the pass and deflected it just enough that Brumby could not hold on to it,” remembers Coach Gates.

Brumby agonizes, “I was well covered all night. (Doug) Wood and (John) Pool swapped up but they always had help. I had two men on me all night. This play was the best chance I had to catch a pass. The ball was right there and tipped away.”

Gayden and Barnes sacked Frady on third down. On fourth down and goal from the 28, Frady ran for 20 yards of it but the Pickens defense held.

With less than a minute remaining, the Dragons showed their determination to win. Coach Sewell reached in his bag of tricks.

“Steve (Sewell) always had a trick play or two, especially for us (Gilmer). I did not want him to steal the game on one of those plays, so we tried to be ready for them,” accounts Coach Gates.

First came a pass to Pool who lateralled to Bridges who fumbled the pitch, but Pool recovered the ball at the 18 with five seconds to play.

Elrod explained the atmosphere, “It is cliche I know, but the whole evening was electric. It would make your hair stand up.”

A halfback pass toward Wood was intercepted deep down field by Gilmer’s Pinson to conclude the fourth quarter.

The exhausted crowd stood in disbelief. “The game is not over?” “They will play overtime, won’t they?” The score is 0-0! Everyone waited.

As the teams lined up to shake hands, the fans were still dumbfounded. Finally, the clear comforting voice of Mr. Boggus  into the microphone echoed through the night, “That’s all folks; game’s over. There is no overtime rule in high school football.”

The unimaginable had happened. The biggest game had ended tied: Visitor 0 - Home 0.

The following season Georgia added an overtime protocol for high school football games. For Gilmer, one year and six days later the new overtime rule gave the Bobcats a 15-14 victory over another rival, Fannin County.

The Dragons finished their season at 8-1-1. They lost to a powerhouse East Hall team 35-14 in the regular season finale. At game time, both squads were ranked in the AJC prep top 10. They lost 32-10 to Oconee County in the region semi-final. Central of Carrollton won the state title.

Pickens High, who had not defeated Gilmer High in football since 1977, finally ended the “purple reign” in 1988 by a 19-0 score.

This 1986 Pickens team lost only one regular season game, ranking best in school history. Three other teams matched the group’s eight wins (1971, 1990 and 2004).

Gilmer finished 7-2-1 and missed the playoffs in 1986.

The senior members of the ’86 Dragons were Robbie Barnes, John Pool, Jorgen Ljunggren, Dennis Burnette, Doug Wood, Andy Pickle, Tommy Pye, Pete Kistler, Charlie Holbert, Mitchell Jackson, Barry Young, David Bell and Len Hett.

From this team David Bell, Marty Bridges and Tommy Pye played collegiately. The last two enjoyed the most success.

Bridges starred at Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Al. As a Gamecock linebacker, he played in two Division II National Championship games. He earned MVP in 1992 when JSU defeated Pittsburg State 17-13 in the title game. Sadly, Marty Bridges suffered a heart attack on Dec. 19, 2009. He was 39 years old.

Pye missed most of his senior season with a broken ankle. He returned to kick a field goal in the Dragon’s 32-10 playoff loss to Oconee County. He played four years at Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tn., as a fullback, followed by a number of seasons as a member of the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos. He now makes his home near Nashville.

Unbeaten but unsatisfied”

Mike Blatt, who covered the game for the Progress, described both teams as “unbeaten but unsatisfied” in print. His assessment was clear and true. Now, four quarters and 25 years later, this single football game has not ended for many of the graying warriors who fought to a draw in Dragon Stadium on that fabled October evening. They recount the events and the result with a still burning flame, raw emotion, passion and longing.

Tommy Pye said, ‘If I could’ve played, we would have won.”

Jeremy Henderson added, “We should have won. We know it but there simply is no way to ever prove it now.”

David Bell angrily fired, “It was a tie, a damn tie!”

On the Gilmer Side, retired head coach Mike Gates remarked, “I remember it all so well, too well, I suppose.”

“I wish I could step back on that field. I would do it again. I tell my kids about that football game and I still get chills,” concluded former Bobcat Mike Brumby.

Todd Payne, a junior offensive guard for the ’86 Dragons, vividly describes the aftermath even a quarter century removed, “That game never ends. I feel like a part of each of us is still there, still on that field, on a cool night, covered in sweat, grass and dirt. We are all still there! We are all still trying to finally decide the winner, and I guess that we always will be.”

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