Long live the Pioneer (from last weeks issue of KnoxFocus.com)


It’s my favorite week of the high school football season. This Friday night my alma mater will travel north up U. S. Highway 11W to face their oldest and most respected rival. While older records are sketchy, it is believed that the Gibbs Eagles have faced the Rutledge Pioneers more times in their history than any other foe. And this week the two longtime adversaries will meet for the final time


Things are changing in Grainger County. The tomato capital of the world is experiencing its greatest era of economic development and population growth.


Consequently, plans for a new high school surfaced several years ago and after considerable debate, ground was broken for the new facility along 11W between Rutledge and Bean Station. It was a necessary move. Rutledge High School has been long overdue for major renovations for some time. The building itself is too old, too small; the athletic facilities are, well…too old, too small. The construction of a new high school in the county was not only sensible it was inevitable. But there was a problem.


Grainger County is bordered by the Holston River and Cherokee lake on the east, and the Clinch River and Norris Lake on the west. It has only two high schools – Rutledge on the east side of Clinch Mountain, and Washburn on the west. The extremely rural, sparsely populated west side of the county makes for a very small, single A sized high school at Washburn.


The original thoughts of the county fathers were to close Washburn and build one big new high school. They would call it Grainger. A nickname would eventually follow – the Grizzlies. Grainger Grizzlies. Kind of has a mountain ring to it. Of course there are no Grizzly Bears east of Clinch Mountain or east of the Rocky Mountains for that matter – but details like that aren’t important here. It’s a catchy name. But there was another problem. The mountain itself. The whole reason for having two high schools in the first place was to avoid the expense and potential danger of transporting students across Clinch Mountain from the Washburn side to the Rutledge and Bean Station side. There is only one road connecting the two sides of the mountain south of 25E and I wouldn’t recommend it for a school bus.


So Washburn is staying open, at least for now. Following that decision a new debate arose over the name – and nickname – of the new high school. I mean if Washburn is staying open, why not call the new school Rutledge? It seemed like a sensible idea. You’d have thought. Now you might think an outsider from northeast Knox County like me has no dog in this fi……oops! Sorry, bad analogy. You might think I have no stake in this situation. I beg to differ.


I love high school sports. They represent the purest form of amateur athletics. And not only do they involve loyalties that are close to home, but we also know the players. I mean we really know them. Not just their names, but their families, their brothers and sisters, where they go to church, who their girlfriend or boyfriend is.


High school sports are truly home to us. And for me, Rutledge High School has always represented a slice of home that I couldn’t help but covet just a little. It is without question one of East Tennessee’s great small town high schools. Growing up just a mile from the Grainger County line I had an abundance of friends and neighbors who were Rutledge fans and graduates. They were just good, down to earth, honest, hard

working people. I don’t mean to stereotype, but in my experience with Grainger County folks that has been the rule rather than the exception. They were proud of their school – with good reason.


Rutledge High School has produced some of the best athletes ever to come out of Middle East Tennessee. Some you’ve heard of – some you haven’t. Major leaguer Phil Garner played his freshman season of baseball at Rutledge before moving to Knoxville to attend Bearden. UT basketball legend A. W. Davis drew crowds from all over East Tennessee to the tiny Rutledge gym in the early 1960’s. But those might not be the best two athletes ever to wear the Rutledge blue.


Most Grainger County folks will tell you that the greatest Pioneer athlete of them all was a guy named Shorts Wolfenbarger. A better baseball player than Garner even. Of course if you want to test Shorts’ skills yourself, you could get him on the golf course for a friendly wager – but I wouldn’t advise it.

Older Gibbs fans might remember the name George Blankenship. A versatile athlete with lethal quickness, Blankenship led the Pioneers to a one point, come from behind victory over Gibbs in 1969. My dad, an assistant on Ken Sparks’ Gibbs staff, often tells about closing his eyes in the press box as Blankenship carried a two point conversion in to beat the Eagles. He couldn’t watch the inevitable.


I’m having a hard time myself. It is almost unthinkable to me that Gibbs and Rutledge will never meet on the football field again. Not to mention the basketball court or the baseball diamond. The football series has been the most competitive and evenly contested of any in Gibbs history. This Friday will be the final time that both communities actually gather to watch the Eagles and Pioneers do battle. Or so it seems.

The Grainger County school board did revisit the issue of the new school’s name after deciding to keep Washburn open. But the “progressive” faction prevailed and the name Grainger Grizzles was retained.

I suppose by calling the school Rutledge they would have offended all the good taxpayers in Bean Station. Let’s see, what are those people called again?

Umm….oh yeah….Rutledge graduates.


As for me, I guess I’ll just hold on to the many memories I have from my favorite series. I’ll never be able to forget being dominated by Ralph Adams’ Rutledge teams of the early 80s, and how Gibbs turned that around in the late 80s and early 90s. I’ll remember Todd Atkins’ amazing hurdle of a Pioneer defender in 1995, giving Gibbs a 7-6 victory. I’ll sure never forget Derek Cole nailing not one but two 41-yard field goals in the final seconds last year to give the Eagles an improbable win.


Those are but a scant few of the countless memories I have of games against Rutledge. Maybe this Friday will produce yet another before the series ends sometime around 10 pm in the east. That’s a memory I’d rather not have.


But I suppose next fall things will continue on much as they have for more than half a century. Gibbs will play its first game against the Grainger Grizzlies and most of the same folks will gather on their respective sidelines.


Gibbs and Grainger. I guess I’ll get used to it. But I’ll miss that guy in the coonskin cap. I’ll miss the name of my favorite little mountain town. I’ll sure miss that Pioneer.  (I keep telling you that Claiborne County was the first team to be Pioneer as can be seen in my mothers 1930-1931 Pioneer Annual anyway – Joe Payne)