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The season within a season – ‘Backyard Brawl’ captures the essence of Pennsylvania high school football

“I really love high school football,” said John Franco, Tyrone Golden Eagles head football coach for the past 14 seasons. “I love Pennsylvania high school football specifically, because it’s one of the great passions that we have.”
Next Friday night’s 70th annual “Backyard Brawl” between Tyrone and the neighboring Bellwood-Antis Blue Devils kicks off the 2008 high school football season in Blair County. There is a mere seven miles of roadway that separates the two blue-collar communities.
The teams began the rivalry back in 1939, after the old Bellwood High School became Bellwood-Antis the previous year. Tyrone won the inaugural game 32-0. Since then, the Golden Eagles have maintained a dominance over the Blue Devils with a 45-25-1 overall record.
Just over the last few years, a “Backyard Brawl Trophy” became an added fixture to enhance the highly anticipated rivalry game. Tyrone has defeated Bellwood-Antis the last five years by a combined score of 132-32, with the Blue Devils being shut out each of the last two seasons.
Not only has Tyrone shut down the Blue Devils, Franco and his players have not been kind to nearly any high school football team that’s in the way. The Golden Eagles are riding a 32-game regular season winning streak, suffering only three losses the last three seasons – all in the District 6 Class AA playoffs.
The Blue Devils haven’t been short on success either. Head Coach John Hayes has enjoyed 28 years of it. While at the helm at Bellwood-Antis, Hayes has compiled a career record of 227-81-2. His team is coming off of back to back District 6 Class A championships in 2007 and 2006, were runners-up in 2005, and champs again in 2004.
But, with all that recent success, Tyrone has been one hurdle the Blue Devils have not been able to clear.
Franco on the other hand, who has amassed an impressive 144-29 career record at Tyrone that includes a AA state gold medal in 1999 and a runner-up trophy in 1996, has guided his Golden Eagle squads past the Blue Devils 11 out of 15 times.
Bellwood-Antis limped through a tough 2007 schedule with a 5-4 record, but wound up in the PIAA Class A Eastern Quarterfinal game before losing and finishing their remarkable season at 9-5. Tyrone ended with a 10-1 record, suffering a sole loss in the District 6 Class AA Semifinal game to Central Cambria.
Now it’s 2008 – both teams have loads of talent, high expectations, and two coaches who know what to do with talent and expectations.
Franco and Hayes both understand the importance of the “Backyard Brawl,” not only in terms of bragging rights and respect, but also the simple fact that the game opens up the season. For Franco and the Golden Eagles, the Blue Devils are the first of a string of tough opponents this year.
“It’s a great way to open because it gets you focused in the pre-season,” said Franco. “It forces you to focus and get to work.”
Focus is something Tyrone will need in 2008. After the brawl, the Golden Eagles hit pads consecutively with Huntingdon, Central Mountain, and Clearfield, with Philipsburg-Osceola and Saint Mary’s ahead on Tyrone’s schedule – all Mountain Athletic Conference (MAC) foes.
Franco said that winning the game against Bellwood is sometimes harder than losing, because the team has to prepare and bring that same intensity and focus into practice for the following week’s opponent.
“This is probably the toughest regular season schedule since I’ve been here,” noted Franco. “This is going to be as tough as a challenge than any team had that I’ve coached.”
Hayes and the Blue Devils get their biggest regular season test with Tyrone. The Inter-County Conference (ICC) participants play a primarily single A schedule this year due to conference affiliation, so the “Backyard Brawl” becomes even more significant for Bellwood-Antis.
“It’s something that’s been going on for a long time – it’s expected,” said Hayes. “The kids, the community in Tyrone and Bellwood-Antis, it’s almost anticipated at the turn of the calendar year.”
He added, “It’s one game on our schedule, but it’s big. There’s bragging rights and it’s very important for motivation for our kids.”
Hayes, like Franco, realizes that winning a game like the brawl can have the same effect as losing when so much focus is put into one game.
“It’s either a terrible let down if you lose, but even on the winning side you have to make sure you rebound,” stated Hayes. “However, it’s much better to come off with a win. It’s like a one game season, then you have to rebound for the rest of the season.”
The Blue Devils have rebounded well in the past after Golden Eagle defeats, which speaks volumes to the coaching of Hayes and his staff. Franco and his squads have ran the table three consecutive years before tripping up in the district playoffs, and that success also shows the value of great coaching.
Both coaches have an aura about them that brightens their success. Their humble nature and appreciation for the game reflects back on the players they have coached through the years. The “Backyard Brawl” highlights two of Pennsylvania high school football’s most storied coaches and programs.
“I think every community should have a game like we have,” said Franco. “I tell the kids they should feel honored to take part in a game like this, because it’s a special thing, win or lose – it’s a great event.”
He continued, “The players are very competitive and the community is too. It’s a great way to open the season.”
Hayes added, “There are other big rivalries throughout the state, but in central Pennsylvania this is big. There’s so much hope coming into this one, and our kids and fans get motivated.”
“I think both communities have been truly positive and supportive,” said Hayes. “Our success the last couple of years makes that easier, and the kids are appreciative and realize that. This game itself is just a part of that, it gives the fans a chance to come out and express it as a community.”
As far as the actual football that will be played on Friday night, neither coach was going to make any bold prediction besides that it will be a great game. Hayes said that both teams are very balanced, with both losing major contributors, but having talented kids back.
“Big breaks have played a part in the outcome of the games the last few years,” said Hayes. “Tyrone has played well and taken advantage of the opportunities, so hopefully we can do that this year.”
The “Backyard Brawl” features two state-wide respected football programs coming off of successful seasons, ready to clash once again on opening night. Aspirations are high and the talent has re-loaded, and both teams are locked in for championship runs.
The Tyrone and Bellwood-Antis community, players, and coaches make the brawl what it is today. All the rumors, gossip, and predictions end at 7 p.m. Friday evening at Gray Field, where for one night a group of high school kids from two small towns become bigger than life itself in so many people’s eyes, both young and old.
“Even if you’re not a Tyrone or Bellwood-Antis fan, there’s not a better game to come and see,” said Franco.