HAYWOOD COUNTY, North Carolina – Mark Hyman remembers the moment he wanted to become a Pisgah football player.

He may not recollect the precise game, or even the exact year, but he vividly recalls the feeling.

“I remember standing in the crowd [at the Pisgah-Tuscola game] with thousands and thousands of people hollering,” he said. “I remember seeing fights break out…it was just crazy watching people lose their minds. And I remember, as a boy, being like ‘I want to be a part of this. I want to play football.’”

Hyman did go on to become a Pisgah football player. A lineman on both sides of the ball, he was called up to varsity as a freshman in 1995 and spent the next four years battling it out with the Bears’ bitter rivals that loomed atop the hill – Tuscola – in the annual Haywood County Championship Game.

Or the County Clash.

Or the Iron Bowl.

Or the Paper Bowl.

The game may have too many names to count, but whatever the title, loyalties run deep on both sides.

“My old coach once said that the ‘P’ on the helmet isn’t for Pisgah. It’s for pride,” said Hyman. “That’s what we do, that’s what Tuscola does. We take pride in our team, and we think we’re the best.”

As far as rivals go, the two schools are almost perfect foils.

Pisgah is in Canton, or “Milltown” as it’s affectionately called by locals, because of the paper mill that hums like a heartbeat at the center of town. Tuscola is in Waynesville, a popular retirement and vacation destination that has perhaps garnered a certain ritzy reputation – warranted or not – through the years.

They’re the only two high schools in Haywood County, and they’ve played one another in football every year since 1966 (twice in 1972 and 1974), when both institutions were founded. The series has been absurdly close, with Pisgah taking a 27-26-1 lead last season by winning its fifth in a row. The Bears also lead the all-time point total, 951-915.

Pisgah is in Canton, or “Milltown” as it’s affectionately called by locals, because of the paper mill that hums like a heartbeat at the center of town. Tuscola is in Waynesville, a popular retirement and vacation destination that has perhaps garnered a certain ritzy reputation – warranted or not – through the years.

There are numerous lenses through which to view the Pisgah-Tuscola rivalry. Every former player has a story, and no two tales are exactly the same.

Here are five distinct ways of looking at it.

1. Hyman: “Kids stayed in their own camps”

Canton and Waynesville are only separated by 11 or 12 miles, depending which route you take. But sometimes – especially during rivalry week – it can feel as though they’re worlds apart. That’s somewhat true now, but it was a firm truth back in the mid-90s, said Hyman.

“Kids stayed in their own camps,” he said. “You didn’t date anyone from Tuscola, you didn’t go over there and talk to them. You might work with them during the summer, but that was it. It’s gotten watered down over the years and kids [from both schools] mingle with one another now. And there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just different from my time.”

The intensity of the pregame shenanigans was harsher back then, too. In the week leading up to the big game during Hyman’s senior year, the Mountaineers sent Pisgah three dozen dead roses to express their hate – or at least strong dislike – for the Bears. Hyman didn’t take offense to the prank, though. To him, that just meant “they were ready to play football, and we were, too.”

Hyman does recall hostilities occasionally getting out of hand, however.

“Sometimes fights would break out,” he said. “Not many people knew that. Only the football players, really, and maybe some students. It didn’t get spread around because we didn’t have social media back then.”

Canton and Waynesville are only separated by 11 or 12 miles, depending which route you take. But sometimes – especially during rivalry week – it can feel as though they’re worlds apart. That’s somewhat true now, but it was a firm truth back in the mid-90s, said Hyman.

The onset of the Information Age has perhaps blunted some of the spikier pranks and antics, as students must be mindful that anything they do could end up plastered across the internet. The blossoming of a more sensitive society, as it were, has perhaps ushered in a tamer – though still passionate – rivalry.

At least that’s the way Hyman, who still lives in Canton and works at the mill, sees it.

“Now everyone’s feelings get hurt,” he said. “[Those dead roses] just fueled us. But nowadays, it would make administrators mad, and parents would get mad and everyone would bash one another over social media.”

Jonathan Crompton was Tuscola’s quarterback in ‘03 and ‘04. He went on to play at Division I Tennessee and eventually in the NFL, yet still holds fond memories of his high school days.

From the stories he’s heard, the student bodies were indeed more contentious before he partook in the rivalry.

“When I played, it was nothing like the 70’s and 80’s,” he said. “They knew how to do it, let’s just say that.”

2. Crompton: A Former Outsider Left in Awe

Crompton is no stranger to big games.

As Tennessee’s starting quarterback in ‘09, he played 10 games in front of 90,000-plus people, and four games in front of 100,000 or more. He faced top-ranked Florida in Gainesville, top-ranked Alabama in Tuscaloosa and 12th ranked Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-a Bowl at the Georgia Dome.

He then went on to play three years in the NFL and four years in the CFL.

Even so, only twice during his football career was he left in awe.

A newspaper clipping from The Mountaineer of Jonathan Crompton during his time as quarterback at Tuscola.

“One was running out of the tunnel at Tennessee for the first time,” he said. “The other was my senior year at Tuscola when we played at Pisgah. That one was really special. It’s cool to be able to say that one of your high school games was one of the best moments of your career.”

Crompton began as an outsider in the rivalry, having transferred to Tuscola from Erwin prior to his junior season. But he quickly won over the Mountaineer faithful by going 2-0 against the Bears, beating them 27-0 in ‘03 and 28-16 the next year. Tuscola lost two in a row after he graduated.

He recalls playing in front of 18,000 people in the County Clash, and while that number hasn’t been verified, it’s certainly conceivable, given the fact that attendance for the game is routinely somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000. Crompton, who still lives in WNC, works at Keller Williams and operates a quarterback academy, recalls fans “12 or 13 rows deep at both games” and reminisces fondly about the dedication and creativity of students in the stands.

“It’s flattering to see some stranger in the crowd holding cutouts of yourself and your high school coach,” he said. “And that Tuscola flag is waving, and everyone is going crazy, and it creates a unique atmosphere.”

3. Davis: “It’s important to give your school an opportunity to brag.”

Nowadays, Jim Davis is a zipped up chemistry teacher at Tuscola.

In a past life, 40 years ago, he was a tiny nose guard with the soul of a rabid wolverine.

“My job was to sneak into the backfield,” he said.

Davis, a “good old boy from Haywood County,” as he put it, graduated from Tuscola in 1980 after winning back-to-back games against Pisgah in ‘78 and ‘79. He has the rare honor of being part of the team that kicked off the longest winning streak in the history of the rivalry: 10 seasons, from 1978-87.

When Davis graduated, his brother, Richie, kept the streak alive, helping the Mountaineers to a couple more victories in the early ‘80s. His son, Jake, graduated five years ago and won one of his two games against Pisgah.

“It’s the most important game in a Tuscola football player’s career,” said Davis.

Like Hyman, Davis recalls the game – and the atmosphere surrounding it – being rougher around the edges back in the day. In his final County Clash – a 33-9 victory – a miscommunication between Tuscola head coach Steve Hodgin and the player transmitting the play to the quarterback led to a touchdown pass that smelt of running up the score.

Pisgah head coach John Barker didn’t take too kindly to that.

“Coach Barker had some harsh words after the game,” said Davis. “He was extremely upset, and very much felt like we were rubbing it in. But really it was all a mistake.”

Then there was the sign that once hung in the Tuscola locker room in during a week leading up to the game. Without getting into specifics, it featured some less-than-kosher language and “had some pretty rough pictures on it,” according to Davis.

Jim Davis wearing his Tuscola uniform in 1979.

“When we played, things seemed a little more barbaric,” he said. “There are a lot more moral comments being made about football in general today, and it seems to be cleaning up a bit. And I actually think that’s a good thing.”

Nowadays, during the week leading up to the showdown, he likes to stress the importance of the rivalry to his students, who never knew the rabid wolverine that once dwelled inside of him – and may still.

“I try to make my kids understand that there are a lot of people in Haywood that work with people on the other side of this rivalry,” he said. “So they feel a lot of pride when their team wins. It’s important to give your school an opportunity to brag.”

4, 5. Coaches: “Until you witness it with your own eyes, you can’t fully understand…”

Current Pisgah head coach Brett Chappell took over the program in 2013.

He graduated from Rosman in 2004 as WNC’s all-time rushing leader (5,296 yards) and spent eight seasons as head coach at nearby East Henderson, thus he’s always been in close proximity to the Pisgah-Tuscola rivalry and the mysticism that accompanies it.

However, the game’s immensity didn’t truly dawn on him until he experienced it first-hand.

“Coming in from the outside, I didn’t understand the magnitude of this night until I stepped into the stadium…for the first time,” he said.

Since then, Chappell has done nothing but thwart Tuscola’s dreams, year after year. He reversed a two-game losing streak in his first season and has won all five match-ups against the Mountaineers. Prevailing on an annual basis makes the rivalry extra sweet, but beyond wins and losses, Chappell is just happy that – after years of looking on from the outside – he’s now immersed in a game that means so much to so many.

“It’s a throwback game and it’s something that’s neat to be a part of,” he said. “Our county should be very proud of the fact that we have this rivalry.”

Tuscola head coach J.T. Postell will look to end Chappell’s stranglehold on the series Friday. Though in his first season at the helm, he had been an assistant on the Mountaineers’ staff since 2007.

Like Chappell, Postell said one of his most vivid memories from the rivalry is his initial one.

Tuscola head coach J.T. Postell.

“My first game as assistant stands out,” he said. “I had always heard about the rivalry, but until you witness it with your own eyes, you can’t fully understand how much it means to this county.”

What it means to Postell, Chappell, Davis, Crompton, Hyman and the long parade of coaches and athletes who have suited up on either side over the past half century is tradition, pride and above all else, bragging rights, in a county that perhaps cares more – or at least just as much – about high school football than anywhere else in America.

“It’s the greatest rivalry in the state and, in my opinion, the greatest rivalry in the country,” said Postell. “It means something to play and coach in this game because it’s not just a game, it’s the game.”

Coda: Take off that yellow shirt

Let’s revisit Hyman, who has a daughter that goes to Canton Middle, a feeder school for Pisgah.

Earlier this week, she walked out the door wearing a yellow shirt. Tuscola’s colors are yellow and black.

“It was like ‘what are you doing? It’s Pisgah-Tuscola week!’” said Hyman.

His daughter told him to “give it up already.”

Hyman responded with a firm: “No.”

He’ll be at Pisgah Memorial Stadium early Friday to tailgate. In years past, he’s arrived as far in advance as 3 p.m. for a game that usually doesn’t kick off until 7:30. He started that tradition in the early 2000’s with some family members.

“Everyone is like ‘What are you doing? This is a high school game,’” he said. “But we love it.”

He’ll be out there again this year, along with “50 to 60 people eating with us.” As far as his expectations about how this year’s game will unfold, that pretty much goes without saying.

“We’re going to win, of course,” he said with a snicker.

A previous version of this story, and the print edition, claimed Pisgah and Tuscola played twice only in 1974. This is incorrect, as the teams also met twice in 1972.

This article originally appeared in The Mountaineer in 2018.

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