Laid out late Saturday night on the same ground where Olympians ran and the Braves regularly also-ran, was a sporting feast for more provincial tastes.
The breadth of high school football in Georgia was all there at Georgia State Stadium — nee Centennial Olympic Stadium, nee Turner Field — at the climax of championship weekend. There was, in Lowndes County, the essence of south Georgia and all those communities bound by what their teenagers might do on a Fall football night. Versus, in Marietta, one of the bedrooms of the big city where they’ll rally around a high school team, too, if you give them reason.
Unlike when gatherings of this scale were played at the mammoth downtown roofed stadium, this one did not get lost in the vastness. The bands seemed louder, the fans seemed to matter more, and the teams played just as hard as they would have in any palace. It made financial sense to play here, where the rent was a fifth of what they’d charge at Arthur Blank’s fancy joint. And, once the rains stopped and the clouds broke, the idea of outdoor football didn’t seem so primitive after all.
To the winner of the Class AAAAAAA — the biggest, most A-filled class in the state — the setting at the end seemed downright celestial.
“It feels like you’re on the moon,” said Marietta defensive end B.J. Ojulari, describing the heights of his joy.
Against a Lowndes program that has won five titles since 1980, Marietta and its roster of big-college prospects won its second in 52 years (1967 being its other, in Class AAA). We’re told the Blue Devils are only the fourth Cobb County program to win a state title of any kind — Harrison added to the list Friday.
For a moment, it looked like Marietta coach Richard Morgan might injure himself playing to the crowd after the game, slipping on his first attempt to leap upon a bench and lead the cheering section. But he recovered, gathered himself, and scaled that summit again.
“It means everything to this community. This is such a great place, we get so much support. They love us, we love them. It’s been 52 years, a long time, and they deserve it,” Morgan said afterward.
Marietta broke out to a 17-0 lead Saturday night and then had to withstand a Lowndes rally and some of its own breakdowns on the punt team to hang on to a 17-9 victory.
“Whenever you win something for the first time in 52 years, it ain’t going to be easy,” Morgan said.
The Blue Devils tight end, 6-5, 250-pound Arik Gilbert, is an LSU commit who looks like he can go directly to Mercedes-Benz and help the Tigers in a couple weeks against Oklahoma, finished the night with 11 catches for 147 yards.
But this night, he sounded in no hurry to move onto that next level, wisely marinating in the moment. “That’s what I keep thinking about, how I’m not going to play with these guys anymore,” he said. “It’s been a fun ride with them, watching everybody grow, watching myself grow. I’m going to miss it, definitely.”
Replaying the interviews from the field after the game, all you hear is breathless excitement. Everyone is speaking at 100 mph. Everyone is reminding you know that high school football isn’t only the centerpiece of the small town.
From quarterback Harrison Bailey, a Tennessee commit: “We made history. It’s been a long four years, a lot of struggle, and now we’re champs. And they can never take that from us.”
In the three years previous, Marietta was a combined 16-18, plagued by injuries and by eligibility issues. It had to forfeit all eight of its 2017 victories because of two players who did not live in the Marietta attendance zone and were ruled to be playing under false pretenses.
“After a whole lot of valleys and lots of peaks, we’re coming out on top,” Bailey said
And, lastly, from the coach, addressing the added significance of securing this long-awaited title with a victory over a place and a program like Lowndes: “That’s one of the class programs in the state. They got a lot of state titles, a lot of history. To beat a team from that area of the state with so much tradition, it says a lot about our kids’ heart.”
There was so much satisfaction and emotion to bottle up from Saturday night and keep on the shelf, should it take another 52 years to do this deed again.
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