Aug. 26 was a day Carol Burkett will not soon forget. In addition to celebrating a milestone birthday, her two sons played football games on national television.
“It’s awesome. It’s unbelievable. It’s surreal,” Carol said from her perch near the top of the visitors stands at Weinman Stadium. “It’s the best birthday present ever.”
Burkett’s plan was for she and her husband, Bill, to watch younger son John suit up for Bartram’s football team against Cartersville (Ga.) on ESPN2, return to their hotel and watch older son, and Bartram alum, Jesse and the rest of the Stanford University football team face Rice in a game that was played in Sydney, Australia and televised on ESPN.
Mother Nature had other plans. Lightning delays meant John’s game kicked off at 9:10 p.m., meaning there was little chance the Burketts would catch Jesse in action for the Cardinal — especially since No. 14 Stanford won 62-7.
“They wouldn’t be where they are without the Bartram Trail coaching staff,” Carol said. “They are men of honor and character.”
The Burketts were joined by Bill’s sister, Judy Newton and her husband Charlie. The Newtons live in Sandy Springs, Georgia, a 45-minute drive from Cartersville.
“Just this chance for Bartram, another state champion is on the schedule,” Bill said. “We love Coach (Darrell) Sutherland. He is such a great example for our young men. This is like a bowl game to start the season. Johnny has seen Jesse in a bowl game. This is his.”
Jesse has played in, and won, the Rose Bowl and the Sun Bowl with the Cardinal. John was not as fortunate on the big stage.
Bartram Trail racked up more yards, first downs and owned time of possession, but didn’t win the one area that counted — the scoreboard. The Bears overcame a 28-point deficit, but lost 52-45 when the Purple Hurricanes defense held the visitors at bay on the final play of the game.
“It confirmed the fight of our guys and their refusal to quit,” Sutherland said afterward. “We break on ‘relentless’ all the time. I feel these guys are earning that term.”
Cartersville scored 52 points, but the Purple Hurricanes will score half a hundred on a lot of teams this season. Bartram Trail will not face a better offense all season and may not see a better quarterback for the next half decade.
There was an initial disappointment in losing, but a pride in knowing they left everything on the field. Cartersville entered the game winners of 31 straight games, many of which were blowouts.
Midway through the second quarter, it looked like the Bears would be another Cartersville causality. The Purple Hurricanes scored the game’s first 17 points and led 31-3 and 38-10 at one point.
To paraphrase what more than one player said beforehand and some coaches were overheard in the press box — “We didn’t come all this way to lose.”
That Bartram Trail tied the game at 45-all midway through the fourth quarter was evidence the Bears made the trip for the exposure, not to get exposed.
Though the 400-mile trek was to play a football game, these were still teenagers. And that means not every second was a serious one. The team drove up on Friday, which allowed them to break bread together in the afternoon and catch an Atlanta Braves game in the evening.
The Bears are such a physically imposing team that more than one person assumed they were a college football team. It happened at Friday night’s Braves game, Saturday’s pregame meal and Sunday’s lunch.
And then they opened their mouths.
Sentences were punctuated with a “ma’am” or “sir” at the end and the wait staff at every restaurant the Bears visited was left with an earnest “thank you” after the Bears cleaned their plates and then their tables behind themselves.
Whether it was loquacious defensive tackle Robby Love, the energetic dancing of linebackers Olivier Pageotte-Andre and Corbein Hagans at Friday’s baseball game, the constant cackling between quarterback Joey Gatewood, wide receiver Xavier Hutchinson and running back Devin Ellison or senior kicker Ethan Dudley boarding the wrong bus, there were plenty of moments of hilarity that organically arose during the Bears once-in-a-lifetime trip.
“That’s two good teams fighting it out,” Cartersville football coach Joey King said afterward. “Really and truly, it could have went either way. We’re definitely fortunate it went our way.”