Swain County High School’s football players and coaches on Monday were in a different sort of huddle than usual. Instead of planning the next play, they were picking out a design for their championship rings following Saturday’s 20-14 win over Ayden-Grifton.
They also were trying to absorb certain key facts, such as emerging from a hard-fought football season as the state’s 1-AA champions. And becoming the only Swain County team ever to win more than 15 games in a season.
That’s saying a lot — this is Swain County’s eighth state football championship title, though it represents the school’s first since 2004.
Player Lee Pattillo and Quarterback Colby Hyatt — Hyatt was named the game’s most valuable player for rushing 70 yards and passing for 48 more — looked a bit like deer in headlights. They admitted feeling sort of like deer in headlights, too.
“It’s awesome, unbelievable,” said Pattillo, whose father is head coach Sam Pattillo. Lee Pattillo led the team in tackles this year.
After helping to pick out the ring design, the football players returned to classes. Though it’s doubtful they were able to focus much on this day — or any of their excited classmates, for that matter — on assigned school material.
Coach Pattillo is a soft-spoken, seemingly unassuming man. He’s answered a lot of questions lately about Swain football, and patiently answers each reporter’s version no matter how repetitive they must, by now, truly seem.
What does a state championship mean to you, the team, the school, the community?
“It’s a big accomplishment,” Pattillo said. “… winning a championship is something special.”
What was different about this team; did luck play a part?
“I don’t believe in luck,” Pattillo said in reply. “I believe in opportunities.”
And, he added, in hard work, talent and commitment, both on the field and in the classroom.
“If we’d not won, we would have been disappointed, but we still would have done our very best,” Pattillo said. “And I think that’s all you can do.”
Many at this school, at least the guys working here, seem to have played high school football. Swain County High School Principal Mike Treadway, a broad-shouldered, burly man whose physical presence dominates his small administrative office, played on Swain’s 1985 state championship football team.
Though Treadway clearly relishes the team’s accomplishment, he said that the real goal here is achievement in the classroom and in other areas of life. And that goes for all of the various students who attend Swain County High School, no matter whether it’s playing in the band, hitting volleyballs over a net, or even catching touchdowns on the field in pursuit of a state championship.
“We’ve only had one fellow leave and make money off football,” Treadway said pointedly.
That would be U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, a standout football player at Swain County High School and, later, at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville before turning pro with the Washington Redskins.
If there’s been one anchor to give weight to the Swain County football program through each of the school’s eight state titles, it’s Offensive Line Coach and Assistant Principal Billy Jenkins. The players and coaches were crowded into his office selecting the ring design.
Jenkins played on a state football championship team in Robbinsville. He has coached for 32 years in Swain County, making him an integral part of every state football championship the school has won: 1979, 1985, 1988, 1989, 1990, 2001, 2004 and 2011. Jenkins just participated in his final game, however, he’ll retire at the end of the school year.
“It’s just time,” he said in explanation.
The ties that bind this school and team are incredible. Jenkins started his job at Swain County in the spring of 1979 when Coach Pattillo was a quarterback for the Swain team, leading them to the school’s first state championship that year. Jenkins has now helped coach Pattillo’s son, Lee, to the school’s most current championship, and coached Principal Treadway to the one won in 1985.
Jenkins is no less thrilled with, or jaded by, this eighth championship.
“It doesn’t get old at all,” he said. “They’re all great. And, as a coach, you want these kids to win one, because it’s something that you never forget, playing on a state championship team.”
If you want to talk high school football in Swain County there’s plenty of options. But one of the most enjoyable is to head to Smith’s Dry Goods on Everett Street, a Bryson City mainstay since the mid 1970s, and a place that doesn’t just smack of local color — Smith’s Dry Goods is local color personified.
Here in the wooden-floored, unabashedly blue-collar store you’ll often find former player David Smith, sporting his trademark Swain Pride ball cap, bellied up to the welcome heat of a big woodstove. He’ll undoubtedly be talking about the latest game — or the upcoming game, or even Swain County football games played several decades ago — while customers shop for items such as work clothes and work boots.
This was a Friday, game day, in Swain County. Smith, along with everybody else in this small town, was excited. Everyone, practically, seemed intent on being at the game that night. Which in Smith’s book is exactly how it should be, and why Swain County is such a fantastic place to live if you are a local football fan. At least, this is the place to live for those fans supporting Swain County football and who bleed the school’s colors of maroon and white, of course.
“The town could just about burn down, and no one would realize it until after the game,” Smith said, only semi-jokingly.
How important is football here in Swain County, where the population stands just fewer than 14,000 residents? The Chamber of Commerce has changed the annual Christmas parade from Dec. 3 to Dec. 10 so as not to conflict with the upcoming state championship game; and here in Bryson City, even the town’s crosswalks are painted maroon and white.
Last Friday night, the Maroon Devils — cheered on by Smith and hundreds of other screaming Swain County fans — played West Montgomery for the right to vie for a state championship. Swain County ultimately won the game in heart-stopping fashion, off the kicking foot of player Evan Sneed, who saved the day and the hopes of Swain County football fans with his 32-yard kick. There were just 33.6 seconds left in the game at the time.
It took Swain’s players most of the game to rally from a near-fatal thumping in the first quarter.
“It was 28 to nothing at the end of the first quarter. We were wondering where our team was at,” said Teddy Green, a sports photographer in Swain County who has been shooting Swain football games for 35 years.
But in an amazing turnaround, the team closed the gap 28-21 by the end of the second quarter.
“By halftime they had the Maroon Machine hitting on all pistons,” Green said. “It was wonderful. It was so exciting. I tell you the truth, it was down to the wire.”
As for Sneed’s winning kick?
“That boy is a hero,” Green said. It was the first game Swain has won via a field goal in at least 15 years.
Football serves as a unifying force that has long knitted the people of Swain County together — the game is more of a passion than a sport here. This is one of the state’s powerhouse football programs, with a total of seven state championships. The last one was in 2004. Now Swain will play for the 1-AA state championship title Saturday against Ayden-Grifton High School, located in Pitt County.
Swain is 14-1 this season, and has won the last 11 games here at home. Swain County Coach Sam Pattillo coaches the team. That Pattillo is homegrown — a former Swain County quarterback now leading the team to victories — makes this team’s run at another state championship all the more sweet in Bryson City.
That’s endeared Teresa Maynard even more tightly to the team, too, though she’s admittedly not a huge fan of the actual sport of football itself. But Swain County football? Now that’s entirely different matter. A horse of a different color — a maroon and white horse — as it were.
“I’ve known Sam all of his life,” Maynard said proudly, taking a brief break from her volunteer job at the Friends of the Library Bookstore to chat. “I keep up with Sam through the newspaper, and with what he’s doing. I would really like to see him go all of the way — we are so proud of him, and of the football team and all of their coaches.”
Maynard, a Swain County native who lived away from the area for a time, knows what a great football community exists here.
“The local people are football people,” Maynard said. “You think Swain County, you think football.”
If you come to Bryson City on a game day, you might want to stop at Na-Bers Drive-in along the Tuckasegee River. If it’s in the evening, you could find yourself dining with many of Swain County’s football players and cheerleaders. There’s a tradition here of eating at the six-decades old restaurant before each home game.
Eating at Na-Bers is considered good luck.
So what do the football players eat? Practically anything and everything on the menu — and plenty of it, said owner Ronnie Henderson.
“I’ve seen them eat hamburger steak, cheeseburgers, all of it,” Henderson said. “They’ll show up in a wad, three or four at a time in one car.”
These days, Na-Bers stays open only from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. There is more restaurant competition in town than in the old days, when the drive-in would serve its trademark burgers and shakes as late as 1:30 a.m. on game nights. The place would be packed with fans and players, all eager to relive the game play by play, in endless and seemingly down to the smallest detail.
“We don’t stay open like that anymore, but we’ll stay open as late as people are here,” Henderson said.
Lance Holland isn’t exactly a newcomer to Swain County, but the owner of Appalachian Mercantile on Everett Street previously lived in Graham County and his daughter went to Robbinsville High School.
The Black Knights in Graham County, even the most ardent Swain County fan might agree, have played some pretty good football of their own. Between 1969 and 1992, Robbinsville High School’s football program won 12 Class 1A state titles. Holland, a former football player in Georgia, cheered them on. These days, however, Holland has caught the fever for Swain County football.
“I certainly am pulling for them,” Holland said while finishing up a smoke outside his store.
This Swain County team, Holland added, is really a good, fun one to watch.
“If you’re still practicing on Thanksgiving, like this team was, you made it pretty far,” he said.
A bicycle shop might not seem like the place to stop and chat about local high school football. But sports are sports, after all, and football in Swain dominates everything anyway, at least during a championship drive — even conversation at the bicycle shop.
Diane Cutler, co-owner of Bryson City Bicycles, has been suitably impressed by football’s uniting power in Swain County since moving here about two-and-a-half years ago. Things were different in her previous hometown, the big city of Raleigh.
“It was hard to have that same concentration of attention there,” Cutler said. “But here, there’s an outpouring of support from the community.”
Down the road, at a new consignment shop in a new small strip mall along the river, local lawyer Elizabeth Brigham was overseeing sales. Brigham helped open the store, and agreed to cover business there on this day. She jokes about this being a “one-stop shop” where Swain County’s finest can take care of both their legal and shopping needs.
How important does she believe football is to the people of Swain County?
“Is there anything else here but football?” Brigham responds rhetorically.
Well, yes there is, of course. But not today, game day, with the team headed toward a possible eighth state championship.
Brigham’s boys didn’t play on the team, though one played a bit of league football, she said. That doesn’t prevent her from appreciating what the game does overall for this community.
“It brings the people here together,” Brigham said. “You can be of a different political mind, a different religious mind, but one thing unifies everybody in Swain County: football.”
Swain County’s bid for its eighth state football championship takes place Saturday, Dec. 3, in Winston-Salem. A web broadcast will begin at 10:45 a.m. The pre-game show and kickoff is scheduled for 11 a.m. Listen to this live audio stream by going to www.ustream.tv and typing “maroon devils network” in the search box.
This little slice of Western North Carolina just landed the big one when it comes to competitive fly-fishing.
The 2011 U.S. National Fly Fishing Championship will be held this spring from May 19 to 22 in Cherokee. In addition to fishing in tribal waters, about 60 of the nation’s top fly-fishing experts will test their angling skills along nearby stretches of water: the Tuckasegee River below Western Carolina University, the upper and lower sections of the Nantahala River, and a to-be-determined area lake.
This marks the first time the competition has been held in the Southeast.
“It’s a really big deal,” said an unabashedly excited sounding Matt Pegg, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce. “This events puts fishing in and around Cherokee on a national stage. It puts us up with the big boys.”
Not to mention the corresponding upward spending bump expected at area hotels, restaurants and shops. Hundreds of spectators from the U.S. and from other countries are expected to attend.
The anglers will be tested in a variety of water — low, high, fast, slow.
“We’re putting them in places where we know there’s great fishing, but they have to be skilled,” Pegg said. “And these guys are the best.”
If, for instance, a raft full of tourists paddles through, or a kayaker drifts by, the competition on the lower Nantahala, so be it, Pegg said. That’s fishing, and so goes on many days the experience of fishing that particular stretch of water.
The tournament organizers and hosts are the N.C. Fly Fishing Team, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Fish and Wildlife Management Department and the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce, with River’s Edge Outfitters in Cherokee a supporter of the effort.
Cherokee is well known as a trout fishing destination, due in part to the stellar stocking of creeks and rivers by its own tribal hatchery. Robert Blankenship, director of the Cherokee fish hatchery and stocking operation, said putting Cherokee on the map as the best fishing destination in the Southeast has been their goal.
They raise and stock 400,000 trout, including trophy-sized, in 30 miles of stream. Compare that to the state of North Carolina, which puts 800,000 trout on 1,000 miles of stream.
“We are putting half that into only 30 miles,” Blankenship said.
Cherokee has gotten a great response from designating a 2.2-mile stretch of the Oconaluftee as catch-and-release, fly-fishing-only waters, a move that has lured new fishermen to the area.
Blankenship agreed it was quite a coup to land the tournament.
“It’s normally held in Vale, Colorado, or Jackson Hole, Wyoming, or somewhere out West,” Blankenship said.
Fishermen watching the nationals might decide to book their next fly-fishing trips here instead, further enforcing the region’s growing reputation.
“It will be good for Cherokee and the surrounding area and the local economy,” Blankenship said.
Another factor that puts WNC on the national fly-fishing map: fishermen from the western counties regularly dominate spots on the N.C. Fly Fishing team, and a couple of them usually go on to claim spots on the U.S. team each year. The tournament held here will determine who gets a spot on that coveted national team this year, said Paul Bourcq of Franklin, vice president of the N.C. Fly Fishing Team of Franklin. Those who make Team USA have a shot at the world team.
Bourcq is one of the big reasons the U.S. National Fly Fishing Championship is coming to WNC. He’s hosting the Southeastern Regional Qualifier for anglers this weekend (Feb. 19-20) with venues on the lower Nantahala, upper Nantahala and Queens Creek Lake in northwestern Macon County. Bourcq said this qualifier would serve to help polish organizational skills the sponsors need to pull off a great national championship competition.
Fly-fishing has long been a hotly competitive and avidly followed sport in Europe, and it enjoys a level of popularity there comparable to that of bass fishing in this nation.
“This will help make the Southeast a destination for fly fishing,” Bourcq said, who added that an angler is only as good as the water he fishes, and in WNC some of the best fly-fishing in the nation can be enjoyed.
If you can read a ruler and measure a fish, then you have exactly the skills necessary to be a judge in the U.S. National Fly Fishing Championship, scheduled for May 19-22 in Cherokee.