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Fueled by tradition, Carver-Spencer rivalry is ‘more than just another game’ for Columbus

‘Tradition’: Robert Sanders discusses what the Heritage Bowl means to him

Spencer head football coach Robert Sanders discusses what the historic Carver-Spencer Heritage Bowl game means to him. Sanders' father, Robert "Pete" Sanders, was the first football coach at rival Carver.
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Spencer head football coach Robert Sanders discusses what the historic Carver-Spencer Heritage Bowl game means to him. Sanders' father, Robert "Pete" Sanders, was the first football coach at rival Carver.

Spencer receiver Malachi Morris does not hate anybody on Carver’s football team.

He grew up playing football with several of its players, most notably receiver Ja’Cyias Credle, and played AAU basketball with Tigers running back Khiari McCoy. They’re “family,” Morris says. That is, until the first whistle sounds and the Heritage Bowl kicks off in front of thousands of onlookers.

“Then, when the last whistle goes and we’re lining up on the 50-yard line to shake hands, we’re (a) family again,” Greenwave linebacker Jakobe Smith said. “We’re back to nothing but love.”

That is, in a nutshell, what the Heritage Bowl is all about. It’s a massive event that rivals a college football atmosphere, centered more around history than actual on-field hatred, spanning five decades of competition.

A.J. McClung has hosted games ranging from Georgia-Auburn to the Peanut Bowl. The Heritage Bowl takes things to another level.

Last year served as Carver head coach Corey Joyner’s first Heritage Bowl experience, which the Tigers won 17-10 after trailing 10-0. He was stunned at the turnout, and said the attendance looked anywhere “between 15,000 and 20,000.”

Sanders, then-athletic director at Spencer, left his house an hour before kickoff last season. He planned on arriving around kickoff. He missed the entire first half.

“The whole Columbus is going to come out to see this game,” McCoy said. “Everybody is going to be at that game. There’s a lot of fire in that game. Carver, Spencer. Spencer the enemies, Carver the enemies.”

A local rivalry, ingrained in tradition

Ask any of the players or coaches on the Carver and Spencer football teams what the Heritage Bowl means. They’ll all give the same answer: tradition.

That’s the story of this historic rivalry, which first kicked off in 1962 and has featured 56 games since its inception. However, Carver-Spencer is not a typical rivalry.

Festivities for the annual contest usually include an alumni fish fry and the Heritage Bowl breakfast, which took place last week.

“It’s something people look forward to,” Joyner said. “It is something that people come from miles and miles away just to see that game. Great time to have it on Labor Day (weekend), so maybe a lot of people can come and attend it.”

Sanders’ father, Robert “Pete” Sanders, was the first head coach at Carver. The rivalry, he said, is “all he’s known.” Friday night will serve as Sanders’ first Heritage Bowl as Spencer’s head coach, but he knows exactly what to expect.

That doesn’t mean the pre-game butterflies will go away any time soon.

“At that time, either you went to Spencer, or you went to Carver,” Sanders said. “It’s like a college atmosphere. There’s going to be 20,000 people at the game. The Georgia-Auburns, the Alabama-Auburns, all that stuff, this is what this game means.”

Underdogs and high expectations

Spencer’s coaches and players know they’re the underdogs. They’ve won one Heritage Bowl since 1998 and have not won back-to-back games in the rivalry in more than 20 years.

Carver has dominated the overall series, with 43 wins to Spencer’s 12 wins, and resides in a classification (Class 4A) two levels above the Greenwave (2A). Spencer last won in 2017, its first win in the series since the late 1990s. But the underdog role is one the Greenwave enjoy.

“We like being underdogs,” Morris said. “But when people realize that you’re not the underdog once the game starts, it helps change their minds, ‘cause everybody can play well when they’re in there.”

Pull back the rivalry curtains, and the Heritage Bowl has become just another game for the Tigers. They’ve won 19 of the previous 20, and all but one — last year’s win — by double digits. Dell McGee, Dremail King and Joe Kegler, three of Joyner’s predecessors at Carver, left the program with perfect records against the Greenwave.

Both teams enter the contest off close losses. Spencer gave up a late touchdown in a 20-14 loss to Columbus, while Carver lost a close one at Harris County, 28-26, a contest in which Harris County played without its starting quarterback for most of the game.

McCoy said the Tigers feel like they “let the whole city down” by losing to Harris County. Sanders wants to see improvement from the Greenwave’s close loss to Columbus.

Carver might be the more talented team. Historically, it is. However, Sanders said to “throw out the records” for this rivalry game, because there’s really no telling which way this year’s Heritage Bowl could go when it kicks off Friday at 7:30 p.m.

Sanders said he feels like the Greenwave are a better team than they were at this point last season, and that players relish being the underdog. Carver hopes to retain its hold on the rivalry, and get back to the high standards it holds itself to as a local power.

“(The Heritage Bowl) has been here a long time, and it’s going to be here after we leave,” Joyner said. “... It’s more than just another game.”

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Joshua Mixon is a reporter for the Ledger-Enquirer. He covers sports (Auburn and preps) and local news, and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America. He previously covered Georgia athletics for the Telegraph. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshDMixon.