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Jones on the sidelines

Former players talk about rivalry

By Michael Butler

After Thursday night, Reeltown head football coach Matt Johnson will have a distinction that belongs to just one other individual. He will become just the second head coach of Reeltown or Tallassee to have played in a Reeltown/Tallassee game as well as served as head coach in the rivalry game.

Jared Jones is the other to have done so a Tallassee player and head coach. There are others who have served as assistant coaches and played. For instance, two current staffers have played for one team and now coach for the other; Reelown's Will Solomon and Tallassee's John Mask.

Johnson was a linebacker and offensive lineman on the Reeltown teams that played Tallassee from 2000-02. The Rebels won all three of those games.

"The game has always meant a lot to me," Johnson said. "I had family on the other side along with lifelong friends who I grew up with. Reeltown did not have youth sports when I was coming up so if you wanted to play youth baseball or football you played in Tallassee.

Johnson with Reeltown mascot Rufus promoting the return of the rivalry in 2020

"Starting when I was five, my spring and summers were spent playing baseball in Tallassee. Of course my dad was always a coach, but I also grew up getting coached by Tallassee men like Keith and Kim Peters, Isaac Williams, Bob Clayton and many more. It built a strong bond leading in to the days where we became opponents instead of teammates."

As for the "Battle of the Tallapoosa" as a high school player?

"It’s a very unique game. One that I have many memories of and one where emotions would fly. I have memories of when we beat Tallassee in 2000 and I was one of the first players to jump on that wall under the scoreboard, and my senior year the game was like 6-0. I also believe I may have got in some trouble with coach (Jackie) O'Neal in that game for getting a personal foul. There are lots of memories and great times associated with the game."

Jones was a lineman for Tallassee from 1984-86. He was the head coach of THS on the sideline across from Johnson in 2000 and 2001 prior to Phil Lindsey's arrival in 2002.

The first game ever in the series was also Jones first as a sophomore player in 1984, a game he remembers vividly still to this day.

"I just played on special teams as a tenth grader," Jones recalled. "In that old locker room we had, I can remember me and some of the tenth graders standing up on the stalls and trying to look out of the bathroom window. At 5:15 in the afternoon, you could hear the cowbells and the Reeltown fans coming in and hollering. I was like, 'Why is everybody here so early?' The game didn't kick off until 7:30 back then."

As a first-year player, Jones played only on kickoff returns and punt returns.

"My job was always rush the punter and make sure he punted it. They had three upbacks. I think the punter was Douglas Thomas. Bell, Simmons and Greathouse were the three upbacks. Coach (Duane) Webster decided this little dude No. 51 is going to rush the punter. Everybody else is setting the wall to their sideline. We're going to fake punt right at No. 51 which was me right at 160. Those three guys absolutely obliterated me. Chris Vaught came up and made the tackle. It was like 4th and 13. They didn't get it.

"I got to the sideline and Bruce Dean and Will Solomon said, 'You alright?' I'm like, 'Yeah.' That's my memory of that game."

Tallassee won the first meeting 36-21. The score was spraypainted on the train trestle near O'Daniel Bridge near the south entry to Tallassee on Highway 229.

"Earl (Piner) had a great game, 17 carries - 190 yards. I had 14 carries -170 yards, two touchdowns and an interception," running back Solomon Rivers said. "A lot of people don't know it. That's the most carries I ever had in one game. In the wishbone everybody carried it. I really didn't carry it a whole lot of times, but pretty much when the game was on the line I was the go-to man."

Tallassee and Reeltown were tied 15-15 at halftime, but Tallassee pulled away in the end.

"We ended the game on the 2-yard line," offensive lineman Trey Taylor said. "We could've scored again. I was all for the fumblerooski. Let me run it in. The coach said don't score on them."

Tigers quarterback Shane Yankey said there was a debate between players before the final play.

"There was about to be a riot in the huddle," said Yankey. "Everybody wanted to score."

Taylor added that Bruce Wilbanks was most adamant.

"Bruce Wilbanks said, 'Score! They're going to run it up next year.' The next year was 35-0 Reeltown."

Weaver with Duane Webster in 1987. Reeltown was 20-6. It was the only head-to-head meeting between the two coaches. Webster hired Weaver at Tallassee in 1972.

Duane Webster, who coached at Tallassee and Reeltown, was at Reeltown in the early years of the rivalry in the 1980s.

"Marc Rice approached me about playing," said Webster. "Then Steve McCord came on board as coach."

The loss in '84 was Webster's lone defeat against his alma mater in the series.

"I was 3-1 against them," he said.

And, how about the return of the rivalry this year?

"A game like Tallassee will pay Reeltown's athletic program for the year. I hope things don't get out of hand. That's what happened the last time. Fans got too involved. I hope it works out because it's good for both schools."

Keith Tuck played a major role in one of the most memorable games between the programs in 1987. He scored the only touchdown in Tallassee's 9-6 victory, breaking Reeltown's 20-game win streak. However, he was injured the week before against Lanett.

"I was getting tackled and a guy came up and horse collared me. He pulled me back over my right ankle. I sprained that thing pretty bad," Tuck said. "We had Reeltown coming up. You're talking about the biggeset rival in the state.

"That Saturday morning I was at the gym icing to get ready. Coach (Carl) Stewart (said), 'In order for you to be ready to play in the Reeltown game, I'm going to have to come and pick you up every morning at 5 before school.' I told him that I would be ready. I was at the front door waiting on him every morning."

Tuck's touchdown in the Reeltown game was an 83-yard run.

"When coach Weaver called that 28 sweep, I saw a hole and hit (it). I knew it was over," said Tuck. "I saw two guys. One was Larry Foye. I knew he didn't have a chance of catching me. The fastest guy was actually my first cousin, Kenyattie Silcott. He had an angle. He and I were closely matched in speed, but when you match speed with energy, (a) will to win and to die for your cause then that was definitely the position I was in that game. There was no catching me."

Tallassee players strike a celebration pose after their victory over No. 1 ranked Reeltown in 1988

The Tiger Tracks Yearbook had an article on the THS win.

"The Tallassee Tigers did exactly what they had to do Friday night to beat the Reeltown Rebels. Full of desire, the Tigers played the best game they could."

The victory came before 3,000 fans according to the Tiger Tracks report. Tallassee's win ended Reeltown's 20-game win streak. The streak is still the longest for Reeltown to this day.

"I knew nobody was going to leak that I was hurt," Tuck said. "We were all I hyped. I knew I had a job to do. I knew they were going to depend on me, especially with them coming off of a state championship."

The win in '88 led to a new tradition for players after wins on Saturday mornings at the East Tallassee Cafe.

"We met wearing our jerseys," Tuck said. "We ate breakfast."

Mike Segrest talked about how big that win was and still is in his eyes.

"I have a lot of great memories from playing football and baseball at Tallassee including two baseball state championships," Segrest said. "The two highlights of my senior year were beating the defending state champion Reeltown snapping their winning streak and catching the final out in game three of the state championship on a double play with a one-run lead. If I had to go back and choose between the two I don’t know which one I would pick. I’m glad I don’t have to. The Reeltown win was the highlight of my football career at Tallassee."

The 1991 game pitted two undefeateds. Both squads were 5-0. Reeltown was ranked No. 2 in Class 2A. Tallassee was No. 4 in Class 4A. The Rebels dominaed in a 28-0 shutout in Reeltown.

"I had a hernia, so I had to have surgery and missed some practice that week," THS coach Woody Weaver said. "I'm sure that had an effect. Sometimes you run into a buzzsaw and a team is a little more prepared than you think they're going to be. We just didn't play a good ball game that day."

Tallassee assistant Carl Stewart has family ties with Reeltown. Jackie O'Neal is Stewart's brother-in-law.

"Jackie's a competitor," Stewart said. "We grew up together, fished together. We both wanted to win."

Stewart commented on rumors that Tallassee did not play to win in the 1991 game.

"They played a tremendous game," he said of Reeltown. "My nephew Corey was the quarterback. Going back and looking at the film, he may have had one bad read. Everything they did was perfection."

Tallassee mayor Johnny Hammock was a player for Tallassee under Weaver in '91, but he could have been wearing blue instead of purple.

"I grew up on the Tallapoosa side with a lot of the players that played for Reeltown," Hammock said. "I lived in an area where I could've gone to either one. Half of the kids on my street rode the bus to Reeltown. Half of them went to Tallassee. My mom worked at the bank on Barnett Boulevard played a key factor on where I started school at Reeltown or Tallassee."

"I could've been at Oak Heights Grocery to get a bag of chips or a Coke or at Hilltop Grocery. I can remember some of the coaches from Reeltown trying to recruit me."

The ties run deep in this matchup, maybe none more than with the Ledbetter family. CJ Ledbetter played quarterback at Tallassee under coach Phil Lindsey in the 2000s. His father played for Webster at Reeltown in the 1980s.

"I was a waterboy until sixth grade," Ledbetter said. "I always said I'd probably play at Reeltown. My dad helped coach there and my youth league team too. My uncle scored the first touchdown on the field they play on now. I had another uncle win a state championship there. My granddad played at Reeltown when they were the Rattlers and never won a game."

Ledbetter was good friends with Reeltown's L.A. O'Neal coming up. Like Ledbetter, O'Neal played quarterback. He was a senior on the 2001 Rebels team that won the state championship under his father Jackie O'Neal.

L.A., who is now a coach at Pike Road, said the Tallassee/Reeltown game is on a level comparable to a championship game setting.

"The atmosphere of the game is one of great expectations, electricity and excitement. The fans are invested as much as the team. This game is for bragging rights for a whole year. Records are out the window. Classifications have no bearing. Friendships can wait until after the game.

"This is going to be a knockout, drag out, hard-fought game that echoes for years to come. I want all the players to enjoy the moment and leave it all on the field. Go Reeltown!"

Johnson (left) with Duane Webster (center) and Jackie O'Neal
Photo by Suzannah Solomon Wilson

Johnson spoke about the matchup for 2020 that is finally just days away.

"We have to prepare and treat it like any other game but also knowing the magnitude and all that our players are experiencing at the same time. I have a massive amount of respect for Mike Battles and his staff and how he approaches the game. I know a lot of his players and I feel the same way.

"They seem to have an extremely talented team this year with many guys returning from last year. I’ve known the Ellis (family) my whole life and (Tyler) does a really good job at quarterback. He has a high ceiling and a very strong skill set for what he does over there.

"I think it will be a great game. I know our guys have been busting their tails just to get an opportunity to play this season and so have theirs. With all the emotions surrounding the fact of just having the opportunity to have high school athletics combined with the emotions and energy surrounding this game, I think it’s a recipe for great high school football. We just hope that we can hang in there with the depth and numbers that they have. I think I can speak for Mike and myself when I say excited will be an understatement for both of us if we can get to Aug. 20 with everything we have all had to go through these past few months."

1300 WTLS/106.5 FM will broadcast live with a simulcast on Spectrum Channel 340 and the TuneIn app. Live video streaming and archived footage will be on Tallassee Times TV through YouTube. Air time is 6 p.m.