In a few years Johnson City and Elizabethton will evidently be reconnected by a Tweetsie Trail that will transform travel from two rails to two wheels.
Of course, many of the cities’ teenagers annually make their mark on history by putting the pedal to the metal while hoping for a blowout on a collision course.
Science Hill hosts Elizabethton on Friday at 7:30 p.m. for the Cyclones’ debut in Kermit Tipton Stadium, a fitting venue for this border war. Tipton, best known for coaching Steve Spurrier, threw a touchdown pass to Raymond Webb for a 7-0 win against Elizabethton in 1939. Tipton, along with such standouts as All-Southern Region player Jack Osborne, Vincent Darden and Arthur “Bud” Kelsey, led Plowboy Farmer’s ’Toppers to a 20-1-1 record during the 1939-40 seasons.
After seeing a mock funeral for Farmer which Elizabethton staged in 1940, Osborne was so emotional that he took the opening kickoff 91 yards for a score and followed that with a 75-yard TD run on his first carry from scrimmage.
Cyclones were angered at the sight of Science Hill quarterback Tommy Sholes in the mid-1960s. Sholes was an Elizabethton resident who transferred to Science Hill after his freshman year.
The Hilltoppers were 18-2 with Sholes. He rushed for a touchdown and passed for a TD in Science Hill’s 34-14 victory in 1966, and rushed for two touchdowns and passed for two TDs in a 39-13 victory in ’67.
“I remember Steve Grindstaff and some of the Elizabethton people calling me ‘The Traitor,’” Sholes said when he was elected to the Science Hill Hall of Fame in 2007. “It was all in good clean fun. Steve was a good-sized defensive lineman, and he was a little scary. He’d get up there and growl.”
Fans were frightened when Elizabethton’s Eli Bradley and Science Hill’s Zach Thompson were knocked unconscious at Steve Spurrier Field in 2009. Both players left the field in an ambulance. Senior quarterback Ryan Thomas rescued the Cyclones squad, tallying 166 yards of total offense and scoring three touchdowns in a 23-14 Elizabethton victory.
Science Hill cut the deficit to 16-14 with 5:05 left in the third quarter when Daniel Norris adjusted well on sophomore quarterback Justin Snyder’s fade pass. Hilltoppers coach Scott Smith said Norris essentially requested the play during a timeout.
“D-No called it,” Smith said after the game. “He said, ‘Throw the ball. I don’t care what it is, I’ll catch it.’ … He said, ‘Coach, go with the fade and I’ll catch it. I promise.’ And (receivers coach Jeremy) Bosken goes, ‘He’ll catch it.’”
Norris recalled his play-calling with a chuckle last week — some two hours after signing with the Toronto Blue Jays.
“Coach Smith had called a timeout and he was asking, like, what we should do and Justin was saying stuff,” Norris said. “And I was like ‘Throw me the ball.’ He was like ‘What do you mean?’ I was like ‘Throw me a fade to the corner of the end zone and I promise you I’ll catch it.’
“It was something inside of me. I knew I was gonna catch that ball no matter what. Sure enough, he threw it up there and it just kind of floated into my hands. … It was kind of crazy.”
Smith raved about Norris’ potential as a quarterback when he arrived before his freshman year in 2007. But it was hard to argue with having another athletic southpaw, Issac Kinley, taking shotgun snaps when Norris was a sophomore. Kinley, now a junior cornerback at Carson-Newman, rushed 22 times for 126 yards and two TDs in Science Hill’s 28-21 win at Elizabethton in 2008.
Elizabethton coach Shawn Witten made his mark on the series as a player. Witten scored four touchdowns during Elizabethton’s 49-12 romp at home in 1998. He returned interceptions 34 and 43 yards for scores, rushed three yards for a TD and moved from quarterback to receiver long enough to catch a 24-yard touchdown pass from Andy Curtis.
“It was such a great stage to perform on — big crowd, the teams and players disliked one another, games were early in the season, weather was great, best Friday nights,” Witten said in former Johnson City Press sports writer Jamie Combs’ 2008 book Bordertown Showdown.
Witten’s Jim Thorpe-like performance helped Elizabethton atone for a 25-10 loss the previous year in, you might say, a two-in-a-million matchup. New Orleans Saints nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin, then a Hilltoppers linebacker, had 11 tackles and a fumble recovery in the victory, and Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, a sophomore, had four catches totaling 47 yards for Elizabethton.
Jason Witten helped send his grandfather, Cyclones coach Dave Rider, out in style in 1999. Witten caught two TD passes in Elizabethton’s 56-20 rout at Steve Spurrier Field.
The visitors have won three straight in the series. “Big” Ben Campbell clocked the Cyclones last year in Elizabethton. The 6-foot-5, 215-pound Campbell, a freshman at Austin Peay, launched a 69-yard punt which led to the Hilltoppers’ first touchdown and set up the second one with a 26-yard reception on a late 4th-and-9 in Science Hill’ 14-7 victory.
Some Hilltopper or Cyclone is bound for glory Friday, running toward rivals like a locomotive and making tracks into history.