Rhea County’s Golden Eagles will attempt to snap a two-game losing skid against Baylor’s Red Raiders when the two local prep powers collide in the 2016 football lid-lifter Friday, Aug. 19 at Heywood Stadium in Chattanooga.
Last season’s 35-27 nail-gnawer at Bill Horton Field saw Baylor to jump to a three-touchdown advantage in the first half before Mark Pemberton’s never-say-die “Birds of Prey” battled back to make a game of it with a patented Rhea County rally to pull within eight points at game’s end.
That was the first time that Rhea County and Baylor had met on the gridiron since 2000 when the red shirts came away with a 37-20 triumph.
The Golden Eagles hold an 8-4 advantage in the series that began in 1979 with Baylor edging an upstart Rhea County squad 15-7 in a thriller at Evensville. A year later, Butch Morrow guided the locals to their first-ever victory over the Red Raiders in a 7-6 defensive honey near the base of Signal Mountain.
Midway through the 1981 campaign, Rhea County again got the best of the “Preps” with a 14-0 shutout at Eagle Stadium. Four weeks later, in front of a packed house on the Baylor campus, Rhea County’s Charles Benton produced one of the most dramatic scoring plays in the annals of Golden Eagle football history.
With Baylor a scant two minutes away from eliminating Rhea County in the opening round of the state playoffs, Benton fielded a booming punt over his shoulder at the Eagle nine-yard line. A couple of “bake and shake” moves left a trio of Red Raider defenders grasping at air as Benton darted toward the sideline and hotfooted the remaining 80 yards for the game-tying touchdown.
So stunned were Baylor’s coaches, players and fans at the abrupt shift of momentum, that Rhea County needed just a couple of snaps on it’s next offensive possession – less than a minute later – to wrap up the miraculous 14-7 win on Jamie Pankey’s 33-yard burst right up the gut.
Rhea County rode that wave of emotion all the way to the state title contest at Vanderbilt’s Dudley Field three weeks later. Alas, a possible state championship slipped away in a narrow 3-0 loss to Nashville Overton.
I mention that particular Rhea-Baylor contest for a couple of reasons. The first being the fact that the first round triumph was Rhea County’s initial playoff victory in the history of the school. The Golden Eagles now proudly boast 29 state playoff wins including seven in the past three seasons.
Secondly, that same Charles Benton, who was an instant Golden Eagle hero on that frosty November evening 35 years ago, is now an assistant coach on Mark Pemberton’s staff. No doubt Benton will share some of his thoughts from that late autumn thriller with the current Eagle squad before they race onto Baylor’s artificial surface come Friday night.
Rhea County and Baylor have met in the playoffs just twice since 1981. The Red Raiders eked out a 28-26 win in 1991, and the Golden Eagles gained a bit of revenge the following season by virtue of a 21-14 victory.
None of the other 11 clashes featuring Rhea County and Baylor have quite matched the excitement of the 1981 playoff tilt.
Then again, Friday’s 13th renewal of the storied series could well find its way into Golden Eagle gridlore much as it did in just the fourth meeting between the two football giants all those years ago.