Swatting Them Away

EAST DUBLIN – High school football kicked off here the third week of August highlighted by two distinctive things about football in rural Georgia – community pride and gnats.

On a night where community was celebrated as much as anything else and bug spray should have been offered at the concession stands, East Laurens topped West Laurens 21-14 in a four-quarter, highly-competitive pre-season scrimmage.

The two schools split all the students in rural Laurens County. But both live in the shadow of the other school in Laurens County – Dublin, which is one of the few schools in Georgia run by a local municipality. The Fighting Irish have also been very good on the gridiron, having captured four state titles in school history. East and West Laurens have combined to win two region titles in their football histories.

There is a city-county dichotomy here that seems unique and therefore complicated.

And while the city-county struggle here may be complex at times there was very little complicated about East vs. West on this night. The two schools, considered rivals by some in attendance, combined their cheerleaders before the game at midfield – with both sets turning together towards each side of the stadium and chanting for their side. It was a sign that Laurens County wasn't east or west – it just was.

"Let's go Falcons!" All cheerleaders turn. "Let's go Raiders!"

It was odd to say the least, but in a world where win-at-all-cost mentalities often overshadow (and almost always out scream) others it was a nice gesture to see.

The pleasantries ended for the coaches as soon as the ball was kicked off because the game featured many predictably pre-season-like follies high school fans have come to expect in August.

"We had about three bad plays in the first half," West Laurens head coach Stacy Nobles said. "We just made too many mistakes tonight to win. The good news is that it is a scrimmage. But we don't like losing in anything – whether it is tying shoes or whatever."

An offsides here, a procedure penalty there, the pigskin laying naked on the turf all too often--it was tit for tat, but West Laurens' mistakes cost them the game.

Busy and relentless was one way to describe Georgia commit Johnny O'Neal's activity as well as that of the local insects at the game. Who was more active: West Laurens' O'Neal or the gnats swarming my body while watching on Falcon Field? The gnats were all in my face; O'Neal was in the face of the Falcons.

It was a real competition, but the gnats never gave up – O'Neal had to leave the field when the West Laurens' offense came on to try to score. And even he had to deal with them when he left for the sideline.

"You try to get used to the gnats, but it's the country around here," O'Neal said with a grin on his face. "You just have to keep swatting them away."

Kind of the way O'Neal would slap blockers away from his path to the ball.

O'Neal was most effective after the south Georgia (or middle Georgia… depending on who you are talking to) sun gave way to the sticky night air. By then the gnats had either become lazy or retired for the night.

Meanwhile, O'Neal's work seemed to be best at night, which was when his team needed him the most. With West down 21-14 in the fourth quarter, O'Neal had a three-yard tackle for a loss on first down on consecutive drives. Both times the Raiders forced a three-and-out.

"He was disruptive. A lot of times we just couldn't block him," East Laurens head coach Gary Morton said after the game. "He was a lot bigger than the person I would send out there to block him."

The 6-2, 230-pound O'Neal forced three fumbles during the game – recovering one of them.

"Johnny is going to be around the ball. The bad thing about it was that the fumbles that we created tonight--we didn't recover enough of them," Nobles said.

An official overruled one stripped fumble by O'Neal. The official missed the call. O'Neal had a slew of tackles on the night, one of which stalled the Falcons' efforts to score near the end of the first half when he slammed into East Laurens' quarterback Terrell Free from behind and jarred the football loose.

"That could have been a scoop and score," Nobles said.

But it wasn't meant to be – kind of like me learning how to deal with the gnats.

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