LINCOLNTON, Ga. - Edwin Drinkard, 82, never dreamed it could happen - not in a million years.
"Georgia's a big place," he mused. "To have a state football championship with teams 17 miles apart - well, it just doesn't happen."
Despite such odds, Lincoln County's Red Devils square off tonight against their perennial archrivals, the Washington-Wilkes Tigers, for the state's Class A championship.
The neighboring teams have played each other intermittently since 1922, with rivalries so fierce that unruly behavior canceled some of the contests.
But in all those decades, nothing compares to what's in store for those lucky enough tonight to pile into Buddy Bufford Field in Lincolnton.
"I hear people say we're going to have 10,000 people," Mr. Drinkard said. "Wouldn't surprise me if we did."
The game, which pits the 11-3 Red Devils against the 12-2 Tigers, has been the talk of both towns.
"It's all you hear about," said 83-year-old Allen Goldman, who spends his afternoons chatting with friends at Jip's Sit-A-Spell, a downtown hangout for old-timers.
Mr. Goldman's experience with the rivalry goes back many decades.
"I was on the football team when we played Wilkes in 1939," he laughed. "We played hard, and they beat us seven to nothing."
Could that be a harbinger of this weekend's contest?
"Don't think so," he smiled. "Remember, we already beat them once this year, and we can do it again!"
That Oct. 14 contest yielded a 20-13 Red Devil victory, but that means nothing to townsfolk a few miles down U.S. Highway 378 in Washington.
"Yeah, it'll be a good game, and we're going to win - plain and simple," Eleanor Washington said, pausing from a shopping trip on Washington's Courthouse Square.
Across Wilkes County, windows were adorned with signs of support for the Tigers.
At Miller's Bistro, where the usual daily special is Miss Linda's Smothered Chicken, the chalkboard offered a different message: "Go Big Blue! Show 'Em What We Can Do!"
Boots Gunter, a Wilkes County merchant who owns Kettle Creek Arms, is looking forward to the contest, which he said caps a rivalry that is almost historic in its scope and tenure.
"I used to drive a milk truck over in Lincoln County back in the '60s and '70s, and it was a big rivalry even back then," he said. "It's as big a deal as high school football can be."
The game is at 7:30 p.m., and Lincoln County Commission Chairman Walker Norman predicted it will be the largest crowd ever assembled in Lincoln County.
"We've got every off-duty deputy working, and some extra folks too," he said. "We even have about a dozen state patrolmen coming to help."
Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119, or firstname.lastname@example.org.