Xavier Malone, Fulton High School’s freshman quarterback, launches a tight, arcing spiral 30 yards downfield. Kentel Williams separates himself from South-Doyle’s double coverage to make a bobbling, one-handed over-the-shoulder catch along the sideline. The senior wide receiver never breaks stride; within a few steps, Williams has outrun his defenders and is on his way to what appears to be a highlight-reel 53-yard touchdown.
The play, during the Falcons’ first possession of the Kickoff Classic preseason jamboree on Aug. 14, looks like a harbinger of the season Fulton fans are hoping for: Malone, the future of the program, a prodigy who beat out three upperclassmen for the starting spot, connecting on big plays with the veteran Williams, an all-state pick who has won a state championship in each of his three previous years at Fulton.
But a penalty flag on the play interrupts the end-zone celebration. Offensive pass interference against Williams. No touchdown. A 15-yard penalty.
That could be another sign of the season to come: Fulton enters 2015 with a daunting schedule, a freshman quarterback, and new starters at almost every position. Their roster is loaded with talent but lacks depth and experience. After back-to-back undefeated seasons and three straight state championships, could their dominance come to an end?
Not just yet. On the very next play after Williams’ penalty, Zack Dobson takes a handoff from Malone and gets around the left corner, dashing 68 yards, untouched, into the end zone.
No flag. Six points.
Fulton holds on to convincingly beat South-Doyle in the 12-minute preseason showcase, confirming that the Falcons remain a force to be reckoned with. But their toughest test arrives this weekend.
On Saturday night, the Falcons head to Blount County to face the Maryville High School Rebels for the first time in almost 30 years. It’s the most anticipated local high-school football game in years. Fulton and Maryville have ruled East Tennessee football in the 21st century—they have 16 state championships between them since 2000, including the 4A and 6A titles in 2014, and both are strong contenders to repeat this year.
Besides winning percentage, though, the two teams have almost nothing in common. One is a well-funded, industrial-scale gridiron machine from an affluent suburb, run with ruthless precision. The other is an unpredictable but high-scoring powerhouse, built around speed and skill, from one of Knox County’s poorest schools.
It’s a clash of East Tennessee’s teen titans—and a clash of cultures.
Winning Is EverythingGeorge Quarles doesn’t sweat. Even with temperatures in the high 80s and tropical humidity, with the sun hanging high in the sky, the Maryville head football coach appears calm, collected, and in command during preseason practice. Trim and tan, wearing a long-sleeve red Maryville T-shirt and a matching red cap, he looks more like a marathon runner or triathlete than a football coach—an idealized version of the contemporary suburban everyman.
“It’s ironic that his initials are G.Q., because he always looks like he just walked off the cover,” says Marcus Fitzsimmons, the sports editor of The Daily Times in Maryville. “Even when they got down in the state championship game last year, he was probably unsettled inside but you could never see it. He was like, okay, we’re going to do this, this, and this, and let’s see what happens. It was never screaming tirades up and down the sideline. I’ve never seen that from him.”
Quarles’ calm, supremely professional demeanor is a good fit for Maryville, an idyllic city of 28,000 with thriving industry, nationally ranked schools, a distinguished private college, easy access to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and a median household income of $50,000—well above the Tennessee average of $44,000 and significantly higher than Knoxville’s $33,000. Quarles echoes a common refrain when asked what’s kept him in Blount County for 20 years: “It’s a great place to raise a family.”
But there’s something hard and merciless behind Quarles’ composure. It’s reflected in his record. Before he took over as head coach in 1999, after four years as an assistant, Maryville was one of several East Tennessee football powers. In the last 15 years, they’ve become the most successful team in the state’s biggest classification and one of the winningest high-school teams in the country.
In Quarles’ first year, the Rebels lost a close game in the state finals; in his second year, they won the title, and they’ve won nine more since then. Between 2004 and 2008 they compiled a 74-game winning streak, the longest ever in Tennessee. They’re currently riding a 31-game streak. Winning is everything at Maryville these days.
There’s a wall behind the east end zone at Maryville’s 6,000-seat stadium commemorating each of the school’s 15 state championships—1964, 1970, 1976, 1978, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2013, and 2014. They’ll have to make room to fit another plaque if Maryville repeats this year.
“That represents a lot of accomplishment, a lot of history, a lot of tradition and pride,” Quarles says of the championship wall. “I think it can be an intimidating factor for teams that come in and that’s the first thing they see, the number of state championships we’ve been able to win here.”
The Rebels’ afternoon practice sessions are also a reflection of Quarles’ personality—carefully managed and run with military discipline. Repetition is more important than innovation; Quarles’ teams thrive on fundamental skills and teamwork. It’s not a surprise that Quarles is rumored to be a candidate every time there’s a coaching vacancy at the University of Tennessee.
“It’s the most efficient practice I’ve ever seen at a high-school level,” Fitzsimmons says of the Rebels’ workouts. “Everything’s on a schedule, and the only time you see wasted is when the kids are on the way from the locker room to their cars. That’s the slowest part of practice.”
Quarles is indisputably a coaching genius. But part of his genius is his CEO-level management. In addition to drills, offensive schemes, and defensive sets, running a program that rivals some small colleges requires organization and a talent for delegation. (Several of Quarles’ assistant coaches have head-coaching experience.)
It also requires cash. Maryville probably spends more money on football than any other team in East Tennessee.
“We spend quite a bit of money on equipment each year,” Quarles says. “I’m betting we spend $10,000 to $15,000 a year on reconditioning equipment, whether its helmets or shoulder pads. We’ll probably spend that much, at least, on new equipment or replacement equipment. When you buy new uniforms, that’s another $15,000 to $20,000 or so. … It’s not cheap to run a football program. I don’t know how a lot of places do it.”
37-0Rob Black doesn’t really like Fulton’s 37-game winning streak. He’s proud of what it represents, but the Falcons’ head coach knows that it’s not worth much on its own.
“It’s a little bit scary sometimes, from a coach’s standpoint,” Black says. “You’re thinking, are they putting pressure on themselves that if they lose one they’re failures? We’ve tried in the offseason to say, people are looking at your win streak, but a loss doesn’t necessarily kill you. We’re trying to make them understand that and not put pressure on themselves that doesn’t need to be there.”
The last time Fulton lost was in 2012—Black’s second year as head coach, when this year’s seniors were freshmen. It came in the next-to-last game of the regular season, a 30-7 whooping by Alcoa. Then they went on a run and won the state title, beating their last six opponents by a combined score of 287-75. Two undefeated seasons followed.
“I’m not so sure we would win that state championship without that loss,” Black says. “It taught us a lot that week, and I think our guys learned a lot from that game that enabled us to move on into the playoffs and run the table from that point on and win a state championship.”
Black is hard to miss at Falcons practice—he’s well over 6 feet tall and heavy, with a booming baritone drawl and a classic coach’s salt-and-pepper crew cut. He’s always right in the middle of practice, running everything from conditioning drills to 11-on-11 full-contact exercises, directing players as well as assistant coaches. Where Maryville’s practice is defined by its discipline, Fulton’s is characterized by intensity and toughness, and it all starts with Black.
Fulton’s rise to prominence over the last 12 years is a little more surprising than Maryville’s decade-plus of dominance. For all of Maryville’s advantages—money, tradition, facilities—Fulton has a challenge to match it. It’s one of the poorest schools in Knox County, with 78 percent of its students classified as economically disadvantaged. The graduation rate is 82 percent, and the average ACT score is 16.5. (At Maryville, those numbers are 96.6 percent and 23.2.)
Fulton upgraded its stadium and locker room a few years ago, but some of its other facilities are still lacking. The team’s practice field has been improved, too—it’s still called “Rock City,” but it’s been cleared and re-sodded so that the name doesn’t really fit anymore. But now it turns into a quagmire after heavy rain; two of the Falcons’ last preseason practices were held in a parking lot behind the stadium.
But there’s a die-hard fan base in the area. The home stands are packed for most games, and they stay that way even when Fulton routs its opponents by scores of 83-3 and 84-0, as they did against Powell and Bearden in 2014. Attendance is crucial for the program—the North Knoxville neighborhood surrounding Fulton is nothing like the affluent community that Quarles taps for support, and ticket sales pay for equipment, uniforms, and travel expenses.
“Man, our budget, it’s probably a lot different than a lot of schools,” Black says. “We don’t have a huge booster club where I make a wish list and say, hey, can you help us raise the money to go get this and this and this? We live and die off our gate receipts. … We don’t have a whole lot left over every year, I can tell you that.”
Fulton has a deep football tradition that goes back more than 50 years—D.D. Lewis, Ron Widby, and James Yarbrough all went from Fulton to the National Football League. UT All-American Jackie Walker, who was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers but never played in an NFL game, might be the best player Fulton has ever produced. But district rivals Central and Austin-East overshadowed the Falcons during the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. Fulton didn’t win a state championship until 2003, under head coach Buck Coatney. They’ve won five more since then—in 2004, 2006, 2012, 2013, and 2014.
Part of Fulton’s tradition is keeping it in the family. Black is in his fifth year as head coach, but he’s been on the staff since 1992, and he was a three-sport letterman at Fulton in the early ’80s. His predecessor, Coatney, was a Fulton grad. Black’s father, offensive line coach Bob Black, is a 1960 graduate and has been on the coaching staff since 1965—the football field is named after him. Five other coaches on Black’s current staff are also Fulton alumni, including first-year quarterback coach Justin Long, who played for the first Fulton state champs in 2003.
That team, Black says, turned everything around. The Falcons had lost a close state final the year before and weren’t expected to make another postseason run.
“It was neat to see that group of guys, who didn’t have that many returning starters and hardly any experience, coming back to turn around and win a state championship,” Black says. “And then we turn around and do it again in 2004. And then we turn around and do it again in 2006. And we play for it again in 2007.
“And it became the expectation here. Our guys bought into what we were doing. Coach Coatney, who I coached under at that time, took on that challenge of hey, here’s what people expect now. We’ve got to keep this thing going, and we’ve been able to do that from that point on. I guess it just changed the culture of our school and the culture of expectation in this community.”
More to Lose
“All last season, people were talking about how great it would have been if they could have played last year,” Fitzsimmons says. “It’s going to be one of those games—they’ve moved it to Saturday, it’s going to be on TV, it’s going to have a good gate, and a lot of people are going to tune in to watch it.”
It’s something local fans have wanted to see for a decade or more. There was little chance it would happen until this year, though, because neither school wanted to risk an unnecessary loss. According to the old state playoff system, all 10 regular-season games counted for postseason seedings. Win five district games but lose five out-of-conference games and you’d get a low seed or possibly miss the playoffs altogether. A new rule, effective this year, makes non-district games irrelevant, at least for playoff purposes. (Besides that, both Maryville and Fulton often have trouble filling a 10-game schedule, because other schools are reluctant to sign up for almost certain thrashings. Fulton had to travel to Kentucky in 2013.)
“Robbie and I talked a few years ago about the possibility of playing,” Quarles says. “Since then, they’ve had a lot of success and we’ve had success. With the old playoff format, where all 10 games affected your seeding in the playoffs, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to play the best teams. But with the new playoff format, you’re going to have the chance to play better competition. And this is one I think all of East Tennessee has been wanting to see for a while.”
Even though both schools have similar records over the last several years, Maryville is the Goliath in this game. Fulton, playing the role of the underdog, is talented but green, and they opened the season on the road against playoff contender Morristown West.
“Things are a little different this year because of our youth and lack of experience and only bringing a couple of starters back on each side of the ball,” Black says. “I expect us to start a little slower than normal, but I don’t think anybody in the community expects us to not be a state champion. Obviously we’ve got some challenges ahead of us, but because of the way our guys work, they do expect that we have a chance.”
The Rebels play in the biggest classification in the state, 6A; Fulton, a smaller school, competes in 4A. Maryville is also better positioned for a big early-season game, with 11 returning starters, including junior T.D. Blackmon, a top college prospect at linebacker who may be the single best player in East Tennessee, and a relatively easy first-week game at home against Heritage High School. They’re expected to win, which is its own kind of pressure.
“We’re the bigger school, they’re smaller—if we win, we’re supposed to win, and if they win, it’s a big upset and a huge feather in their cap,” Quarles says. “But put all the egos and that other stuff aside and it’s still two good football teams. We’ve got more numbers to choose from but I still think a good football team is a good football team, whether its 4A, 6A, 3A, whatever.
“But we’ve got more to lose.”
Outsized and Outnumbered
A few minutes before kickoff, there are no empty seats. The enthusiastic, almost anxious atmosphere for the Rebels’ opening game against Heritage High School gives the late-summer twilight a sharp edge. The stands are full on both sides, and hundreds of people are lined up behind the fence that runs along the concourse. The home crowd is decked out almost exclusively in the school colors, mostly on officially licensed gear from Nike in dozens of different designs—red T-shirts, gray T-shirts, black T-shirts, performance polos, baseball caps, replica jerseys.
The Rebels file out from their locker room underneath the stands on the home side of the stadium and stream onto the field, passing through a phalanx of students and middle-aged men reaching out for high fives and slapping the players on their helmets. There are so many players that you think the procession might never end—more than 100 of them, in black helmets and brand-new red jerseys and white pants from Nike. They outnumber their opponents more than two-to-one. Before the game even starts, it’s evident that Heritage, like most of Maryville’s opponents, is outsized and outmanned.
Technically, any game against another Blount County school is a rivalry game. And this one should have special resonance, since Heritage is now coached by Tim Hammontree, Quarles’ predecessor as Maryville head coach. But it doesn’t merit much hype—Maryville leads 30-0 at the end of the first quarter, 43-7 at halftime, and goes on to win 57-19.
The Rebels have a couple of big plays early—a 33-yard touchdown pass and a 37-yard scoring run—but they dominate by taking advantage of every Heritage mistake, avoiding mistakes of their own, and methodically moving up and down the field. All the Rebels’ expected stars—Blackmon, quarterbacks Austin Ensley and Dylan Hopkins, receiver Kelby Brock, and running back Isaiah Cobb—contribute to the routine, by-the-numbers rout. The second string takes over in the second half; the stadium slowly gets quieter and fans trickle out during the fourth quarter. In the second half, no one’s really paying attention any more, except over in one corner of the visiting-side bleachers, where Rob Black and the rest of the Fulton coaching staff are taking notes.
Everything That Could Have Gone Bad
Fulton trails 9-6, but nobody is thinking about the winning streak right now.
Malone had been pancaked by the Trojans defensive line after completing a pass for a loss to Zach Dobson. It had already been a rough debut for Malone—except for a 52-yard touchdown pass to Joe Kimber in the first quarter, the Falcons offense was shut down. Penalties and special-teams mistakes kept them buried in bad field position, and Malone looked overwhelmed—anxious, unsure of his receivers’ routes, and surprised at the speed of the game. His passes floated over his receivers’ heads, a sure sign of nerves. He looked like a talented but inexperienced ninth-grader.
The mood at Burke-Toney Stadium in Morristown has been inhospitable, if not entirely hostile. The stadium is old and uncomfortable, the PA is too loud and trebly. The Trojans have ditched their traditional crimson-and-white uniforms for special-occasion black jerseys and pants. The stadium announcer repeatedly mispronounces Kentel Williams’ first name.
As Malone is carted off the field, he offers the stadium a thumbs-up signal. His injury turns out to be minor—“soreness in his neck and back,” according to the News Sentinel account the following day.
A Fulton loss, even one on the road to a playoff contender, will considerably diminish the hype leading up to the Maryville game. And the Falcons have barely been able to move the ball with Malone; without him, the prospect of a fourth-quarter comeback is dim. The upcoming game of the century might not amount to much after all.
But Fulton finds something in the final minutes against Morristown West. An energized defense stuffs the Trojans for no gain on the series after Malone’s injury. With three minutes left and senior linebacker Hayden Willard in for Malone, the Falcons explode for their first significant gains of the second half. Willard hands off twice to senior fullback Chanton Mobley, once for a 44-yard breakaway and then for a 13-yard run into the end zone. (Even that’s not easy for Fulton tonight—Mobley actually fumbles into the end zone, where Kentel Williams recovers the ball for the winning touchdown.)
“We gritted that one out,” Black told reporters after the game. “Everything that could have gone bad, went bad right there. We just had to find a way to get a win.”
The streak is alive—for one more week, at least.
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