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Cookeville comes alive for TN state football championships

11:41 AM, Nov 30, 2012   |    comments
Ensworth fans cheer for their team — and its star, Corn Elder — against Memphis University School during their Division II-AA championship football game Thursday at Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville. / The Tennessean
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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.

Evangelical 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 Saturday.

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 championship games.

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 Texas.

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 state.

"There are bigger cities and newer stadiums, but this is a good fit for us right now."

Indeed, 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 toes.

"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.

"Our 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.

"There are 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.

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