PINSON — I’ve waited seven years to write this story, and I hope I get it just right.
I have wanted this game for so long, an intra-ZIP-code tilt between the team with the terrorizing defense anchored by the future SEC defensive tackle against the clicking-on-all-cylinders offense led by the future — most likely — SEC quarterback.
I wanted to write about so much more than just the game. I wanted to write about these communities, their people, and what they went through when I covered their tense city council meetings, spoke to their creative writing and journalism classes, and cringed through the words I typed about school lockdowns and teachers arrested for inappropriate relationships with students.
So, here goes.
I became a local news editor here in November 2010, covering Trussville and Clay. Not long after, Pinson was added to that coverage area.
I covered a lot in Pinson, good and bad.
I sat for a couple hours on an uncomfortable couch with an old man in a house on Main Street, talking about the weather records he kept for more than six decades. I wrote about crashes on Highway 75 and Highway 79 that took young lives.
I wrote about an upstart public library that won a grant for a 3-D printer and asked people to come fill out Valentine’s Day cards to be delivered to kids at Children’s Hospital. I covered robberies, burglaries, stolen utility trailers and methamphetamine trafficking.
I watched as a middle school principal was duct-taped, literally, to a hallway column by giddy students who paid one-dollar bills for twelve-inch strips of tape to raise money for office operating expenses. I was yelled at over the phone by the wife of a man I had written about. He had been charged by the sheriff’s office with a horrible, unspeakable crime against children.
I wrote about Pinson Valley High School’s unique art class, which put on a special effects performance one night that both thrilled and horrified me. It was great. I also typed words about a coyote attacking a Dachshund, and a hit-and-run involving a car and a three-hundred-pound pig. Seriously.
I put words in newsprint about a silver pot that cooked a Guinness World Record number of butterbeans. I also had the unfortunate task of reporting on a Pinson church, among others, vandalized with red spray paint scrawled across its front doors.
You’ve had it all, Pinson. Good and bad.
And now your Indians, 14-0 for the first time ever, will play for the Class 6A state championship at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa against Wetumpka. Another first, and potentially the best story to ever come out of your town.
I spoke to a former Pinson City Council member just hours before kickoff. He was ready.
“We are fortunate to have the buzz in our community,” he said. “We’ve never played in December, never won more than nine games in a season. To be able to play your No. 1 rival in this situation is what lifetime memories will be made of for the players, the fans and community. Sometimes just believing in yourself can lift your town, and today Pinson believes.”
Pinson had reason to believe, despite a slow start.
The Clay-Chalkville defense had a lot to do with that. The Indians led 10-7 at halftime, and scored 27 second-half points to win 37-7. Junior quarterback Bo Nix completed 24-of-34 passes for 256 yards. He threw three touchdowns and was intercepted once. Senior Khymel Chaverst rushed 16 times for 123 yards and two touchdowns.
I asked Pinson Valley head coach Patrick Nix if this game was what high school football was all about — two great teams, separated by just a few miles, playing in the December cold.
“Absolutely,” he said. “The kind of atmosphere it was, you can hardly hear what’s going on on the field with everything going on. It is absolutely what it’s all about. Overall a very clean game against two passionate rivals, teams that on paper and proximity don’t like each other a whole lot but respect each other greatly. I think you saw that in the play and how it was handled tonight.”
I asked Clay-Chalkville head coach Drew Gilmer, a Pinson Valley High School graduate, the same question. It was as if the two head coaches consulted each other on the answer.
“This is what it’s all about,” Gilmer said. “This is what makes it fun. You need two teams like us, so close together, to get to play in an environment like this. It’s good competition. We get after each other a little bit but we have a lot of respect for one another. They do a great job, and we wish them all the luck.”
But before Pinson Valley plays Wetumpka for the blue map Dec. 8 at 7 p.m., we must cover the dynamic between Pinson and neighboring Clay, at least in terms of what I covered for a few years.
I was mostly drawn to both schools’ athletic teams, particularly football. There has been a lot of crossover. Gilmer spent one year as a volunteer coach at Pinson Valley, his alma mater. Cougars offensive coordinator Jon Clements had the same position at Pinson Valley for three seasons. Gene Richardson, on the Clay-Chalkville staff, was the wrestling head coach and an assistant football coach at Pinson Valley for years. Chris Mills, a Clay-Chalkville High School assistant principal, previously served as the offensive coordinator and soccer coach at Pinson Valley.
Pinson has its own ZIP code — 35126. It shares that with Clay, which, due to not having completely set city boundaries, does not have its own. The Clay Post Office came close to shutting down in 2013. When purchases are made from online retailers that require a ZIP code to be entered, some of that revenue goes to the cities with the ZIP code listed — Pinson, and in some cases, Trussville. Clay misses out.
In 2014, Clay-Chalkville High School debuted a swanky new artificial turf football field, which came to be from a partnership between the city and Jefferson County Schools. The city ponied up a couple hundred thousand dollars for the project. Meanwhile, the field at Pinson Valley High School’s campus was overgrown with weeds in some places, just spots of dirt in others. Pinson missed out.
That same year, 2014, Clay-Chalkville went on to complete an undefeated season and won the Class 6A state championship. It didn’t come without struggle. Prior to the season, a promising linebacker died suddenly. A running back’s mother died in the middle of the season. The Winn-Dixie on Old Springville Road closed, an enormous tax revenue hit for the city. The Cougars’ team captain and stellar running back tore his ACL in the playoffs.
That was a lot to overcome. As a city, as a school, as a team. But Clay-Chalkville did it.
Now it’s Pinson Valley’s turn. The Indians have defeated their rivals from Clay three times in a row now, after the Cougars reeled off wins in the first ten matchups. A state championship, especially in football, brings so much positivity to a school, a community.
Just ask Clay-Chalkville High School Principal Michael Lee.
“The significance of a successful athletic program in a school and community is a vital factor in a healthy school environment,” Lee said. “Athletics, along with strong academics and the arts continue to be the backbone of a school and the thing that brings us together in our communities.
“Friday night football is powerful and means so much to so many people. Often times it brings people with nothing in common together. An AHSAA state championship brings pride and a sense of belonging to your school and citizens in the community. It also brings state and national notoriety to your school and the other great programs such as band, cheerleading, and school news groups that other students participate in. The relationships, opportunities and benefits are profound.”
These communities and schools are the real winners from Friday’s Class 6A semifinal game at Willie Adams Stadium, as Lee stated. A packed facility, a tremendous sense of pride, neighboring cities pitted against each other — this is what high school football is all about. And you carried yourselves well, Pinson and Clay.
“The memories run deep with Pinson,” said a former Clay-Chalkville player who was at Friday’s game. “Also, it was fun because everyone always knew everyone. It’s basically the same town. Same ZIP. Same type families. Now that Trussville doesn’t play Clay this has become the team kids look forward to.”
Bring it home, Indians. Regardless of this heated rivalry, I’m willing to bet those you share a ZIP code with will be pulling for you.
I will be, too.