West Knoxville's Football Rivalry Keeps Tradition Alive in a New Era

Scene & Heard: Slices of Life From Knoxville's Neighborhoods

Part of a Series

Scene & Heard: High School Football

Slices of life from Knoxville's neighborhoods: north, south, east, and west.

In this sixth edition of our ongoing series, we visited high school football games in each part of Knoxville to record what we saw, profiling the scenes and lives that help define our city.

It's not called the Battle of West Knoxville for nothing.

Bearden High School's big concrete football stadium is packed to capacity, and maybe even just a little past that, for the Bulldogs' annual showdown with the Farragut Admirals. Nearly every other piece of available space is occupied, too—around the entrance, under the stands, on the track, on the small grassy expanse that runs around the north end zone. And every single one of these 5,000 people is a partisan, decked out in either the home team's maroon or the visitors' silver and blue. Some are more partisan than others, of course, ranging from the parents in the middle of the stands quietly waiting for their third-string son to make it onto the field to the wild guys on their feet on the front row with their faces and bare chests painted. But something is at stake for almost everyone here. It's just crowded enough, loud enough, and charged with enough significance to add a little bit of tension to the early-October night.

For years, this game was the biggest match-up on either team's schedule, and could define a season. Back in the 1960s and '70s and '80s, games like this mattered most—more than overall records and district titles, anyway, maybe even more than a spot in the playoffs. A win against a rival could salvage the most miserable season. Two things have changed that: East Tennessee football has gotten serious over the last decade as Maryville, Alcoa, Austin-East, Fulton, and even Webb and Catholic have become perennial contenders for state championships; and the mercenary instinct that has taken over college and pro football is taking hold in the high school game, making district standings and playoff berths count more than old-fashioned rivalries. (The redrawn district lines from a few years ago also helped erase the impact of traditional rivalries.)

There's still some echo of what this game used to mean. The size of the crowd is one indication, and the school spirit has a particularly vicious edge: Farragut cheerleaders have a gruesome chant about "dog meat," and Bearden fans have printed up maroon T-shirts decorated with an image of a can of "Admiral Chow." (Never mind that the joke doesn't quite work. It still illustrates the passion that accompanies this game.) Armed security guards keep the stadium strictly segregated—strictly enough that at least one Bearden student is ejected after lingering too long on the wrong side of the border. That rigorous enforcement goes back to 2009, when three Farragut students, including a football player, were accused of vandalizing the Bearden stadium just days before the big game.

And it certainly feels like a big game. It's being broadcast locally as part of a weekly rivalry series on MyVLT, and every television time-out features the kinds of carnival commercial promotions—a placekicking contest, one of those phonebooth-size boxes that swirls money around—that were once limited to the Super Bowl and minor-league baseball. Ex-University of Tennessee/New York Jets quarterback Pat Ryan, now a football commentator on local TV and radio, is watching the game from the track, and some morning radio and TV personalities recognize Bearden students for winning a recycling contest. But the money and media presence also highlight how the game—this game, specifically, but high school football in East Tennessee and probably everywhere else—has changed, and how brand-name shoe contracts, TV exposure, and college recruiting rankings have eclipsed beating that one team you hate as what matters most.

Besides all the heavy cultural analysis, though, there's one other simple fact that has diluted the prestige of this match-up: Farragut dominates it.

The Admirals come into this year's game with a nine-game winning streak in the series, which takes some of the rival part out of the rivalry. It's neither accident nor coincidence that Bearden's stadium, as electric as the atmosphere is during the first quarter, is almost evenly divided between blue and maroon.

The game itself is yet another mismatch. It starts badly for Bearden—Farragut recovers a fumble at the Bulldogs' 18-yard line on the opening kickoff and scores its first touchdown in the first minute. Bearden hangs tough for the first half, but in the second the Admirals' offense grinds the Bulldogs into the grass and dirt. The final 34-14 score doesn't reflect how one-sided the last 24 minutes are. Farragut seemed to have the ball almost all the time, and every time they had possession their offense, equally productive on the ground and in the air, seemed like it was marching straight for the end zone. Punctuate that kind of control with big plays, like Jacob Johnson's 54-yard run for a touchdown on the second play of the second half, and there's not much drama. Bearden's offense was effective when they had the ball—a long drive that stalled with no points inside the Farragut 20-yard line in the first quarter might have made a huge difference—but they just couldn't get it away from Farragut.

As the season has played out, the loss has taken on some additional sting. Farragut was 6-1 after beating Bearden, and ranked third in the News Sentinel's high-school rankings. The team lost its next two games and slid down to 12th, in danger of missing the playoffs. Bearden has limped to a middling 5-5 record, right in the middle of District 4-AAA and barely making it to the postseason.

But Farragut has at least one consolation headed into the offseason: At least they beat Bearden.