“Don’t matter what they throw at us. Only angry people win football games.”
Who are we without our rivals? In football, the very best rivalries are often between schools which are close in proximity (like Clemson and South Carolina), and have a deep tradition and history of playing against each other (like Auburn and Alabama). Here in the south it’s a bit like a family argument, and everybody takes sides.
In Cleveland County, proximity and tradition hold true for all four of our high schools. I attended Kings Mountain High School just on the other side of Buffalo Creek, so naturally I hated Shelby. The Coach attended Shelby, so he was a Golden Lion all along. When I started dating The Coach, I couldn’t even bring myself to cheer for The Golden Lions for the first few games. He finally told me, “If we’re going to date and be serious, then I need you to pull for my team”. I did, begrudgingly at first, but I’ve come to love his Golden Lion team and the fans.
The weeks when we play our rivals, The Coach tends to stay up later than normal watching film and working on his strategy. I may get in trouble later for saying that, but it’s true. It pushes him to do his best to outsmart that other team, since a year’s worth of bragging rights are at stake. But I think it’s more than that. Rivals in Cleveland County are serious. They produce a brotherly animosity. We can all be friends, unless we’re playing against each other.
I liken our county rivalries to a little competition The Coach and I sometimes have. Occasionally, we sit down to play a friendly game of checkers. It begins innocently enough at the kitchen table with some cold beverages in hand. Laughter mingles with conversation, and we start off in an easygoing way with our game. But…The Coach is masterful with strategy, the tide begins to turn, and suddenly I find myself playing to win. I’m not terribly competitive, so it’s a bit foreign to me to have these feelings of wanting to smash him like a bug over a simple game of checkers.
I scan the black and red squares, and study my moves methodically before taking my finger off the checker to finalize my spot on the board. I force myself to think one, two, three moves ahead to see what opportunities I might be providing for him. The Coach likes to harass me with trash talk during the match. He is used to this feeling of competition and heated rivalry. As for me, it becomes a stressful experience. By the end of the game I’m ready to draw blood. I’ve nicknamed these battles “Checker Death Matches” for their intensity. I can’t stand to lose to him.
I have become a much better checker player by playing these little games with The Coach, much better than I really even care to be at checkers. What is it with these checker matches? Why do I change into this person who becomes so focused and calculating, unnerved and belligerent? Of course I want to win, but more than that, I think I want the respect of my opponent who is clearly better than I am at the game. I think too that I need that sense of accomplishment, of being better than I’ve been before. That’s possibly what all rivalries truly are, a need for respect and acknowledgement of effort (pride and bragging rights are a pretty nice bonus). When it comes down to it, our rivals make us better. They make us work harder than we would without them. To play against a worthy opponent drives us forward and strengthens our resolve.
Rivals aren’t simply reserved for sports, in reality they are everywhere, and each of us face our own rivals daily. Some of us choose to take them on, and we become better people for it. We face them in a difficult boss or competitive coworker, a dream that takes our all, a sickness, a goal we keep fighting to reach, a loved one with an addiction, an assignment that seems too much for us to handle, or a team who truly wants to beat us. Rivals make us stronger than we would ever be on our own. We hate them, but perhaps we should be thankful for them. They can make us better people and better teams if we choose not to let them crush our spirits. They may defeat us momentarily but if we consistently make the decision to get back up to fight another day, they can help make us great. They will give us a sense of accomplishment, and when we defeat our rivals….we feel invincible if even for a season.
I feel grateful, and I think The Coach might say the same, that we have the teams in our county who fight the good fight. We might hate each other on the field, but afterward the brotherhood continues. The Coach talks on the phone with the other county coaches frequently. They are friends. I’ve overheard bits and pieces of conversations, and they all seem to share a deep respect for one another as coaches and people. Personally, I don’t think we would have four state championships if not for those teams we play each year from our own county, those rivals who challenge us to be better, and to play and coach and cheer our hearts out.