To all of you out there who think Smiths Station High is Central High’s biggest rival in football, you are wrong – very wrong. The honor of being the Red Devils’ biggest and also its oldest rival belongs to none other than this week’s opponent Opelika High.
This will be the 76th time the two schools have met on the gridiron to determine – in most cases over the years – the most dominant East Alabama high school football team. Over the years, the winner of this game usually won the area title and earned a trip to the Alabama High School Athletic Association playoffs as the top seeded team when two teams were allowed to participate in the postseason from the same area. There have been 75 years of clean, smash mouth football to enjoy, for the most part. There was a time when the Central High coaches were arrested by the Opelika Police Department for a quick tour of their facilities, but that was way back in the 1960s. Since then, it has been pretty much a clean battle by both teams.
The two schools met for the first time on No. 9, 1928 – the first year Central High had a football team and the 12th season for Opelika High and it showed – when the Bulldogs routed the Red Devils 42-0. The next two meetings were not any better. In fact, they were worse for Central. The Red Devils lost the next two meetings by identical scores of 48-0 in 1929 and 1930. Central claimed its first victory over Opelika in 1932 when it won 7-6. Central’s record against the Bulldogs at that point in history was 1-3. Central’s first coach Kenner Kimbrough was 0-2 against Opelika and its second coach W.F. Darnell was 1-1.
The two teams did not meet again until 1947 when Jessie Thomas Garrett became coach of the Red Devils and it took him six seasons to get the Bulldogs and the Red Devils back on the football field against each other. Over the next 11 seasons, Garrett guided the Red Devils to 10 wins in 11 meetings. Central went from 1-3 to 11-4 against the Bulldogs under Garrett.
Henry Gresham, Central’s fourth head coach, posted a 4-1 record over Opelika. Sam Carter, Red Devils head coach No. 5, was 2-0 and beat the Bulldogs to win the Border Wars area title. The next Central head coach, Jack Ray, went 1-2 against Opelika during his three seasons with the school. Frank Sadler took over the program in 1968 and promptly put a 64-9 whipping on the Central rival. Sadler was 3-1 against Opelika in his four seasons. Pete Jenkins, whose Red Devils won two games and tied one while losing seven in 1972, was 1-0 versus Opelika with a 19-18 victory.
To that point in history, Central and Opelika had played every season between 1947 and 1972. Then the Bulldogs were off the schedule for a year as Wayne Trawick took over as Central’s head coach in 1973.
Trawick’s Red Devils were 12-13 against Opelika over 24 seasons – the two played twice in 1986 with the Bulldogs winning the regular season contest 14-7 and then 14-3 in the playoffs. Ron Nelson became Central’s coach in 1998. Over his 12 years, Opelika won eight times to Central’s four. The 11th Central head coach, Woodrow Lowe, was 2-2 against Opelika. Its 12th and current head coach Jamey DuBose is 3-1 against Opelika thanks to the unbelievable passing accuracy of Bulldog quarterback Jake Bentley, now at the University of South Carolina, in a 27-21 victory over the Red Devils.
Speaking of great performances in the rivalry, I will always remember when I knew Justyn Ross, now at Clemson, was going to be a star. He caught a pass against Opelika and was hit almost at the same time by two defenders without effect. Ross bounced off both and ran for a touchdown. Then there was the introduction of Triandos Luke to the rivalry in 1996 when he caught a long touchdown pass to tie the game in the closing seconds to force overtime. Central kicked a field goal to win 17-14. And then there was a 7-3 loss in 1985 that showcased a pair of Parade All-Americans – Central’s James “Bo Peep” Joseph and Opelika’s Sean Smith. While Central may have lost that one, it went further in the playoffs that year, making it to the second round before losing to eventual state champion Northview of Dothan while Opelika lost in the opening round to Northview. Hopefully, Friday’s game will bring on more exciting memories of the series.
Overall, Central enters this week’s game with Opelika with a record of 43-32-0. In those numbers are 16 shutouts of which each team has won eight games. From 1947 until 1972, a span of 26 seasons, Central went 21-5. With those first four games back in the 1920s and 1930s, Central was 22-8 in the first 30 years of the rivalry. Since then, the Red Devils trail Opelika in the series with 21 wins for Central and 24 wins for the Bulldogs.
That folks is what a rivalry looks like. While Central has the 11-game advantage over the Bulldogs, it came over 75 years.
When the rivalry continues on Friday evening in Opelika at Bulldog Stadium, it no longer matters as far as winning an area title or making the AHSAA playoffs. But, to those who have followed the rivalry for the past 50 years or so, it still matters a lot – believe me. It matters a whole lot.
Mark Clark is a local sports writer for
The Citizen of East Alabama.