Twenty-nine years ago, a white-haired coach jogged across the field to meet an emerging high school football coaching great and his assistant coach.
Since then, theyve shared pickup rides to raise money for their schools, joked again and again about not scheduling each other during their best seasons, and turned out on the sidelines to show support for one another in big games, all the while scheming to beat each other.
Theyll do it again Friday night for the last time.
With Garner head coach Nelson Smith, 55, retiring from coaching at the end of the season and Clayton coach Gary Fowler nearing the end of his career, the game tonight between their teams will mark the end of a nearly three-decade run of games involving Fowler and Smith, coaching rivals and now close friends.
Smith recalls meeting Fowler for the first time and noticing how old he looked.
He had that white hair then, and hes still got it now, Smith said. Of course, we all look a lot older now, and he looks the same way he did in 1985.
When the two schools played in 1985, Garner head coach Hal Stewart and assistant Smith were just starting to build the Trojans into an elite program.
Clayton won that first meeting, 16-7, Stewart recalled, with the Comets play-action passing taking advantage of a Garner secondary that included cornerback Anthony Barbour.
Needless to say, that was the end of Anthonys career as a defensive back, Stewart said. To the benefit of us all.
Barbour became one of the states top all-time running backs, running for more than 3,000 yards and 47 touchdowns two seasons later and helping Garner win the state 4A championship in 1987.
I think we have the same respect for each other, being so close, Fowler said. I remember thinking it would be a two-year deal (with the games in 1985 and 86), and its turned into a 20-plus year deal. That friendship that developed with Hal and Nelson started then, and it has only gotten stronger.
A year later, the two teams played to a scoreless tie. Neither Barbour, then the Trojans tailback, nor Clayton standout tailback James Thorpe played.
A new level of respect came after that game, Fowler said. We beat on each other all night, and nobody could get anything across. It was one of the top-five games Ive ever been in.
Smith said that game was one of the early ones that told him the Trojans were on the right path.
The teams didnt play from 1987 to 1990. Garner went 15-0 and won the 4A title in 1987, while Clayton was a perfect 15-0 and state 2A champion two years later. Cross-scheduling requirements among Wake County schools kept the Trojans and Comets from matching up when they were at their best.
We played a lot of hard and clean games through the years, Stewart said. I think that starts with the respect that the two coaching staffs have always had for each other.
As Clayton grew from a small town to an overflowing bedroom commuter hub, the Comets rose from 2A to 3A to 4A classification. For the past seven school years, the Comets and Trojans have played in the same conference.
While they were playing on much different levels in the 1990s, the two schools continued their early-season games. Clayton saw it as a chance to match up against a bigger, winning program. It was a case of this is how good youre going to need to be if you want to win in November, Fowler said.
Garner played the game for similar reasons, even though the Trojans have long been the favorites in the matchup. (Clayton hasnt beaten the Trojans since 1985.)
One thing about playing a Gary Fowler team, they were always ready to play, Smith said. And it made you make sure you were always ready to play. Playing Clayton consistently over the years has made us a better football team.
But the relationship has grown past the football field, although it remains tied to it.
Smith learned he and Fowler had a common background. Hes a good old country boy like me, said Smith, who grew up in Wayne County. Its like it was going down to the end of the road and talking to your neighbor every time I talk to Gary.
As the years have passed, their conversations have become less football-centric. Its more talk about family and everything else than Xs and Os, Smith said.
We worked our butts off to beat each other every time we played, but in the end, its still a game, said Fowler, who grew up in Johnston County. It reminds me whats really important in high school athletics.
After Friday night, what are you going to be able to talk about if youre only concerned with winning? If all youre concerned about is winning, youve missed the most important part of athletics.
Two weeks ago, Clayton played at home against South Johnston. The Comets had lost two straight games in the last minute.
As the game started, Stewart came walking onto the Clayton sideline. Soon, he was right between Fowler and Barbour, who is now Claytons offensive coordinator. He was there to show support.
I was there out of my love for and respect for Anthony Barbour and Gary, Stewart said. I knew theyd lost two close games to start the season and were struggling. I know how much Anthony always hated to lose and what those losses did to them. Ive had those same sleepless nights.
That same week, Fowler made his usual weekly call to Smith, just to check in, to make sure things were going OK and maybe get a little early-season scouting report on other teams.
He was riding me, Smith said of the call. I hadnt been talking to him as much this year since I became athletic director. Theres a lot more things for me to do around here.
There was football chat, then a little football coach/athletic director logistics talk (Fowler has been Claytons athletic director for more than two decades). Then on to more important matters family updates.
When I talk to Gary Fowler, Im talking to a true friend, Smith said. Its the old days in my mind and Im down at the end of the dirt path, talking to my neighbor. Just two guys going through the same things, trying to figure out the best path to take.