When Mike Newsome was building one of the biggest dynasties in N.C. history at Butler High School 10 years ago, his Bulldogs would play Independence High once or twice a year, often at Memorial Stadium in Charlotte, often in front of at least 10,000 fans.
Over the years, both teams would be nationally ranked, be state champions, and Newsome was convinced it was the biggest rivalry in the state.
That was until he became head coach at Kannapolis Brown High School in 2011, and got to coach in the Concord-A.L. Brown game, where the winner gets the Victory Bell. Butler-Independence, which still is a powerhouse rivalry with powerhouse talent, has been played since Butler opened in 1997. Thursday night in Concord, Newsome’s Wonders will play Concord’s Spiders for the 86th straight season. The teams began the rivalry in 1924 and have met every year since 1931.
Concord leads the all-time series 48-38-4.
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“It surprised me how much bigger (Brown-Concord) was and how much more it means,” Newsome said. “Because Charlotte is such a melting pot, it isn’t the same people still around who went to Independence 50 years ago, or the same people who went to Butler 20 years ago. But when you have two communities as old as Kannapolis and Concord are, it’s the same people, their sons and grandsons playing. That brings more meaning to the game and to the rivalry.”
In 2011, Newsome won his first Bell Game, beating Concord 31-26. But then his teams lost the next three meetings. He admits those were tough times, losing the game that everybody wants to win almost as much as a state championship. So when Brown finally snapped the streak, winning 26-15 last season at home, Newsome savored the victory.
Long after most everyone had left Brown’s stadium, Newsome and some of his players hung around on the field. Senior Cameron Rogers walked over to the bleachers, long-ago emptied out, held up his helmet and shoulder pads – and he let out the biggest scream.
A black-and-white photo of Rogers, in that moment, sits on the wall of Newsome’s office today.
“You see people in community and they tell you how they played in the game and how important it is for them to win,” Newsome said. “They’ll stop my wife going to the grocery store or to church. It’s just a tight-knit community and people want to win that bell.”
Concord coach Glen Padgett is well acquainted with that desire as well. He was an assistant at Concord for 11 years before becoming head coach at North Mecklenburg from 2002-08. He came back to Concord in 2009 – the year after Brown beat the Spiders 56-6 in 2008, one of the most lopsided Bell games of them all.
In 2009, Concord lost its first six games, but then won six in a row, including a 13-10 win over their rivals.
Back then, the teams played the final regular-season game and were in the same conference, the South Piedmont 3A. But in 2013, A.L. Brown moved to 4A and joined a Charlotte league. The Bell Game was moved to the start of the season. Padgett said that turned the rivalry into a high school football version of the Daytona 500, the NASCAR race that kicks off the season but is considered the Super Bowl of the sport.
But changing the date didn’t change people’s passion about the Bell Game.
“It’s a special rivalry,” Padgett said. “It’s two towns that rabidly support their football teams, and two distinct communities that literally back up against each other. (The Wonders are) always well-coached and always play hard and we feel our kids do, too. Really, we feel there’s a mutual respect there.”
Wertz: 704-358-5133; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr