Follow the bear tracks – they’re fading now, but you can still see hints of paint on South Street. Follow them past small houses, past the old hair salon, through the stoplight, down the hill, past the water plant, to Wallace Shelton Stadium.
Mount Airy High School teachers work the ticket stand – students get in free and most people buy season passes, but there are visiting parents and the random college student that need to pay the $5 entry. Rock music from the intercom mixes with the marching band’s drums.
It’s a Friday night in Mount Airy, and the Granite Bears have a home football game. Football isn’t just something to do on a Friday night in a small town. It’s the only thing to do. From the time you can throw a ball to when you’re teaching your kids what offense and defense is, Friday night lights are something that never change.
Someone sells navy blue sweatshirts emblazoned with the phrase “Respect Tradition” close to the entrance. No one is in the stands yet – everyone is visiting with one another.
The $200,000 digital scoreboard was put up this summer. As the players prepare to run out, a video of the team pumps up the crowd. There’s an overhead view of the four captains driving through downtown Mount Airy – or “Mayberry,” as it is affectionately known.
The video ends with a photo of a grizzly bear and a boisterous roar. The players run out, bumping chests as they race to the sidelines.
The captains – Ian Holder, Ryan Edwards, Tanner Jackson and Grey Tucker – walk to meet the referees for the coin toss. They hold hands as they cross the field.
Winston-Salem Prep starts on offense. Cheerleaders fly into the air, the crowd collectively raises its hands, aaaaaaaah, kick, hands down, game time.
Mount Airy High is 8-0 in 2017, with two regular conference games left after tonight. Several players are standouts this year – especially wide receiver Donovan Greene, who is being flown to the University of Notre Dame tomorrow. While several players stand out, the team itself is cohesive. It is what happens when you have the same teammates since you were in elementary school.
Few families are in the bleachers yet. Everyone tends to arrive at once. Parents aren’t the only spectators – there are grandparents, students, band moms and folks from around town. The kids on the field may not be their sons, but they are their boys.
“We’ve been watching this group of boys and this same crowd for six years,” Becki Buffaloe said. “And they’re good kids.”
Buffaloe is Grey Tucker’s grandmother. Every Friday, she and her husband, Merrick, drive from Raleigh to watch the Granite Bears play. Buffaloe, a history and current events teacher at Wake Christian Academy, will follow her school’s game on Twitter while sitting in the Mount Airy stands.
The family has no ties to the town itself – Todd and Conni Tucker moved here in 2009 for Todd’s new job. It was snowing when they arrived. Almost as soon as their car pulled in the driveway, Grey and his sister Anna Kate started sledding with some of the kids in the neighborhood.
Eight years later and Mount Airy football is a family affair. The Buffaloes sit with Todd’s mom Linda, as well as Conni’s sister and her sons who are here for the game. Anna Kate will join them when she gets back from her tennis match.
Ian Holder runs down the field to score the first touchdown of the game. The crowd cheers. A video of him tossing a football back and forth plays as Robert Brown makes the extra point. The band begins the fight song, the cheerleaders dance and the crowd yells “Go Big Blue!”
Last season was different. It was the first year without athletic director and assistant coach Donald Price, who passed away from pancreatic cancer in June. He had been a part of the Mount Airy football program for 23 years.
“Last year was a special year, an emotional year,” head coach Kelly Holder said. “For the team, and for the whole school really.”
Holder kept the #ForPrice banner in the trunk of his car until just a few weeks ago.
Grey Tucker says the loss was monumental, but it made the team closer. It fueled their drive as a team – every game was #ForPrice, from the first game against Starmount High School to the state playoffs.
Their season came to an end in the West regional championship – one step away from the state championship game.
While the memorial ribbon painted on the field is no longer there, the team preserves Price’s memory in other ways.
“Someone was wearing pink cleats tonight, and Coach Price would not have liked that,” Grey said. “He’s probably turning over in his grave right now.”
The team remembers him at practice too – no one should be showing off, no one should be taking away from the team. It’s part of Granite Bear tradition.
“This is the way we’ve always done it, and this is the way it’s going to be,” Grey said.
The game is 50-0 at halftime.
“You end up feeling sorry for the other team more than you do for Mount Airy,” Linda Tucker said.
The family debates the required score to start the “mercy rule” – is it 45? 50? (It’s 42 points over the other team, according to the NCSHAA). This isn’t the first time the rule would be enacted this season – it would be the third time in a row.
The halftime show is postponed so there can be a ceremony to recognize the Little League teams. Boys in their own navy jerseys walk on to the field with their parents. In a few years, they’ll be the ones with the faces on the scoreboard. Their jerseys may change, but the team stays the same.
“It’s like you’re a little super star,” Grey said of being a Mount Airy football player. “You go to Lowe’s Hardware and people will say ‘You did good at the game the other night.’”
Coach Holder is recognized during this time for overseeing 250 games as head coach. He coached both of his sons during this time – first Logan, now Ian.
“I was one of those who didn’t know if I’d come back or not,” Holder said. “But it’s just a great place to raise a family. It is Mayberry.”