Paws and Claws or Pause and Clause?

Former student-athletes weigh in on Hewitt, Clay rivalry

I saw a post on Twitter last week that said, “Give me a horror story from your specialty in five words or less.” 

I replied, “No more Hewitt vs. Clay.” 

For the longest time, covering Trussville and Clay and their athletics teams was my specialty. I went to the city council meetings and spent time inside the schools. I was around the football programs more than anything else. Now the games aren’t played. 

The football teams haven’t played since 2015, and in early 2018 all athletic contests against Hewitt-Trussville were canceled by Clay-Chalkville for at least the next two years, likely due to the decision of Hewitt-Trussville not to play Clay-Chalkville on the football field. 

The short Twitter interaction from last week got me thinking about what was once one of the best high school rivalries in the state of Alabama, and how it no longer exists. After all, aren’t we all thinking of games gone by during this coronavirus pandemic? 

But to think about the lack of a rivalry now and if — when? — it will ever make a comeback, it’s important to revisit its genesis.

Former Clay-Chalkville player Art Smith breaks free against Hewitt-Trussville in 2014. (photo by Ron Burkett)

In September 1992, an eight-millage property tax increase was approved in Trussville, a measure that could generate $9.6 million each year. There was debate at the time over Trussville breaking from Jefferson County Schools and forming its own school system. After about a year of planning and discussion, Trussville remained with Jefferson County Schools. The millage increase that was approved remained and helped to ease overcrowding in Trussville schools. 

In April 1993, it was announced that Jefferson County would build a high school instead of an elementary school in the Hewitt-Clay-Chalkville zone. The project was made possible by the eight-millage property tax increase and included building a high school and middle school in the Clay-Chalkville area to serve students who would have otherwise been routed to Trussville schools. The plan called for the two schools to be completed in two years and would reduce enrollment at Hewitt-Trussville High School from 1,234 students to about 1,029 students. The new Clay-Chalkville Middle School would be fed from Chalkville and Clay elementary schools, reducing enrollment at Hewitt-Trussville Middle School from 1,107 students to 834. 

By 1995, the Jefferson County Board of Education had given the Clay-Chalkville community a $750,000 line of credit toward developing athletic fields. The old Shades Valley High School steel-frame football stadium was transplanted and re-erected behind the newly constructed Clay-Chalkville High School, which cost considerably less than building a new stadium. The leftover funds went toward other fields, such as baseball. Clay-Chalkville High and Clay-Chalkville Middle schools opened for the 1996-97 school year.

Hewitt-Trussville and Clay-Chalkville played for the first time Oct. 30, 1998, and the new Cougars won, 10-3. Clay-Chalkville won again in 1999, 35-14. The next three games in the series, all Hewitt-Trussville wins, were decided by a touchdown each. 

The next four in the series, between 2003 and 2006, were handled easily by Clay-Chalkville. The Cougars outscored the Huskies 127-30 over those four seasons. Hewitt-Trussville won in 2007 and 2008, and the latter was the Huskies’ last on-field win in the series. Clay-Chalkville won 31-15 in 2011, but the Cougars later had to forfeit that victory, and eight others, for playing an ineligible student-athlete.

Former Hewitt-Trussville guard Cayla Dillard dribbles against former Clay-Chalkville guard Kristian Hudson. (photo by Ron Burkett)

Clay-Chalkville won three games against Hewitt-Trussville by a combined 11 points in 2009 and 2019, including a 7-6 playoff win. The Cougars rolled in the four games between 2012 and 2015, outscoring Hewitt-Trussville 219-87. That’s an average margin of victory of 33 points. Those games weren’t exactly close. 

Officially, Clay-Chalkville leads the all-time series in football 13-6, but the Cougars really have won 14 of the 19 games. 

While I don’t have the all-time records for the other sports, do the records even matter? These schools are separated by hardly a push of the gas pedal. Families who once thought their kids would attend Hewitt-Trussville ended up at Clay-Chalkville. Students go to the same movie theaters and restaurants, and they fill up at the same gas pumps. They date each other and, in some instances, hate each other. I had Clay-Chalkville people mad at me for calling it the Paws and Claws game, and not the other way around. A Hewitt-Trussville supporter shouted at me on the phone once for running a photo of Clay-Chalkville baseball players celebrating a home run on Hewitt-Trussville’s field. It’s more than a scoreboard. This is a rivalry. 

“When I was a kid I looked forward to going to Jack Wood Stadium for that rivalry more than anything,” says a former Hewitt-Trussville football player. “That game even in youth ball was a game I loved to play every year. It never mattered who the ‘better’ team was. It was always a dog fight.” 

It wasn’t just the game itself, the blocking and running between the white lines. It was in the streets, on Parkway Drive in Trussville and on Deerfoot Parkway in Clay. It was in the metal bleachers at Cougar Stadium and in the red-back seats at Jack Wood Stadium. It was a carnival-like atmosphere.

“The environment was something you could not make up,” says a former Hewitt-Trussville athlete who played football, basketball and baseball. “It was unbelievable. As an alumni I still get butterflies thinking about the matchup. As far as the rivalry I think it should be played because that’s what everybody in the state wants to see, regardless of win, lose or draw.”

Some former student-athletes feel differently, including one who played linebacker at Hewitt-Trussville. 

“I don’t see it doing much good for either program,” he says. “It’s like Auburn leaving the SEC and still playing Bama. It wouldn’t matter because of the different classifications. I think it was a distraction from the region we needed to win. The rivalry was great, but to the players I didn’t see it meaning as much as it did to the people around the school.”

A scene from a Clay-Chalkville at Hewitt-Trussville baseball game. (photo by Ron Burkett)

This player remembers playing Clay-Chalkville and feeling like it was a “waste of a week because they had nothing to do with our region or playoff implications.”

A former Clay-Chalkville player feels much differently, likely because he was a part of Clay-Chalkville teams that did not lose to the Huskies. 

“There is no reason why adult and politics should take away such an amazing memory for the kids in those towns,” he says. “I played against Trussville four times in three years as a varsity player and I can remember almost everything about every game. I will be telling my grandkids one day about how amazing those memories are. Especially because I never lost to them.”

All these years later, and shade is still thrown. That’s a rivalry. 

“Imagine Alabama and Auburn not playing against each other because the adults in charge get in the way,” the former Cougar continues. “The schools are less than two miles apart from each other and you decide not to play each other? Money makes the world go around and the week of the Paws and Claws game brings both athletic programs plenty of money. The programs depend on that money to make their programs better.”

Another Clay-Chalkville alum, who spent his high school athletic career on the baseball diamond, says the rivalry was incredible to be a part of, and no matter the sport it was the game to be circled on the season schedule. 

“It is hard to beat waking up early on the morning of the football game and loading up in everyone’s trucks to go flagging down Trussville-Clay Road,” he says. “All week leading up until the game, we would have Twitter arguments about which team was better but that was all for naught every time because Clay would run away with the game by the beginning of the third quarter.”

Former Hewitt-Trussville guard Jarvis Calhoun goes against former Clay-Chalkville guard Hasan Abdullah. (photo by Ron Burkett)

More shade. 

“This rivalry was far more than sports, though,” he continues. “These schools hated each other and wanted no part of the other school. It made for an awesome high school experience being able to participate in games against Hewitt because you knew the atmosphere and environment was going to be top notch. It’s a shame these students today don’t get to experience the best high school rivalry in Alabama.”

The last Paws and Claws — or is it Claws and Paws? — football game I attended was in 2014, a 59-28 blowout win for the Cougars, who went on to secure their second state championship. It would be easy to look at that final score and chalk it up as simply another game that wasn’t close. But if you really look at that first half, it was almost a preview of what could have been in recent years. 

In its brand new stadium, Hewitt-Trussville went up 7-0 four minutes into the game. Clay-Chalkville scored minutes later to tie the game. The Huskies took a 14-7 advantage on its next drive. The Cougars answered, and Hewitt-Trussville reclaimed a 21-14 lead a handful of plays later. Clay-Chalkville then tied the game at 21, the halftime score. It was back and forth and explosive. Big plays were made all over the field. Student sections hollered at each other across a glistening green turf. It was what rivalries were all about. And then, after one more game 365 days later, it was over. 

Who knows what would have happened in the ensuing years since. But can I offer you a prediction? I think we were set up for the best Hewitt-Clay matchups in the rivalry’s history. 

The Huskies posted matching 11-1 records in 2016 and 2017. The Cougars posted a 6-5 mark in 2016, but followed that by going 11-3 in 2017, 12-2 in 2018 and 10-3 in 2019. Hewitt was 8-4 in 2018 and 6-4 in 2019, the latter record largely due to a mass of key injuries. Both teams had explosive offenses and playmaking defenses. The talent was there on both ends of Deerfoot Parkway. The consistency in the coaching staffs was, too. We may have seen a 48-45 thriller. Maybe the first overtime in the rivalry’s history. Someone may have sealed their local legend status with a big play late in the fourth quarter. Maybe someday we will see those things. Who knows? But for now, with 2020 schedules already released, we know we will have to wait at least one more year.

Former Hewitt-Trussville quarterback Zac Thomas scrambles against Clay-Chalkville in 2014. (photo by Ron Burkett)

“It is embarrassing the two teams do not play anymore,” says a former Clay-Chalkville player. “If it’s about the kids, then they need to play.”

That’s what it’s all about, at least in my narrow-minded estimation. Not a Pause on a rivalry for whatever reason, Hewitt-Trussville, and not a Clause to not play in any sport until the football games begin again, Clay-Chalkville. 

It’s not about Pauses and Clauses. 

It’s about Paws and Claws. Or Claws and Paws. 

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