RUTLEDGE — In rural areas across the United States, the local school is the focus of attention, a source of pride that residents point to as the centerpiece of their community. That is especially true for high schools in the South where the biggest event in town takes place on Friday nights in the fall.

Grainger High School is no exception to that rule as games under the lights at “The Den” draw people from all across the county to watch their Grizzlies play. That was true as well at the old Rutledge High School before the new palatial Grainger High opened in 2008.

The connection of the community to its local school is seen in the makeup of the coaching staff at GHS as six members of the Grainger coaching staff graduated from Rutledge High School: head coach Chad Tate and assistants Steve Finchum, Randy Holt, David Sands, Rob Sykes and Zach Holbrook. Additionally, the legacy of football in Grainger County is now evident as eighteen members of the 2019 football squad had a family member — father, brother or uncle — play at Rutledge. The importance of community is a central tenant for the Grizzlies’ players and coaches.

It all starts at the top with the head coach. Tate graduated from Rutledge in 1996 and started coaching in 2002 but he says his association with the school goes back further than that.

“There hasn’t been a fall since 1987 when I haven’t been around, or doing something with, Rutledge or Grainger football,” Tate said. “It’s part of who I am and I love it. I know the other coaches on staff here think the same thing because this is a special place. We have had success here and have been a part of some really good football teams. You want to win for your hometown, to win for your school, that makes it more special.”

Tate played for legendary coach Mark Hammer, who roamed the sidelines at the old Rutledge High for 35 years, 18 as head coach. He coached for seven seasons under Hammer, for five under former head coach and now principal Mark Briscoe, and will enter his seventh year as the Grizzlies’ head man this August. He is a product of the Grainger County school system, as well as an employee of it, as his father, both of his uncles and brother all played at Rutledge.

“All four of those guys were team MVPs but I wasn’t so they let me know about that when the family gets together,” Tate said laughingly.

“We are all linked to coach Hammer in some way or in some form. The older I get, the smarter he gets,” Tate joked when recalling the things he learned under his high school mentor. Tate says he is now seeing the second generation of football players coming through the program as he is coaching the sons of men he played with in high school.

“A lot of the guys on this team now, I played with their dad,” Tate said. “When I played, we had some success. When I was a freshman, we were 0-10 but when I was a junior, we won our first playoff game in the history of Rutledge and as a senior, once again advanced in the playoffs. I’ve been on the tough end of things and on the good end of things. Football is special that way because the successes are special and the failures teach you the lessons you need and to be able to do it in your home town is just an awesome thing.”

Another long-time Grizzlies coach who played at Rutledge is assistant coach Steve Finchum, who is a 1991 alum. He graduated from UT in 1996 but started coaching at the middle school level in Grainger County while still in college and has spent his entire career at the place he calls home.

“That was when I realized what I wanted to do for a living,” Finchum said. “For me, I never considered going anywhere else or coaching anywhere else, I wanted to do it at my high school in the town where I grew up and love.”

Finchum is entering his 23rd year as a coach and said the nearness of the school is evident in both fact as well as feeling. “I live three minutes from the high school now, about 10 minutes from the old high school, and this is where I want to be, it’s where my family is.”

Like so many people, Finchum’s childhood was filled with football and the memories are still something he treasures.

“Hopefully, when you graduate from high school, you have a certain love for that place, the school you went to and the town you grew up in,” Finchum said. “My family on my mother’s side all graduated from Rutledge. My uncle played on the first undefeated team there and I had a cousin who was the defensive captain on the next undefeated team in the 1980’s. My earliest memories are of running around the football field and watching those guys play.”

Several members of the current batch of Grainger players recounted how they have been instilled with a love of the Grizzlies program due to their father or other family members.

“My brother played under coach Tate and Finchum and they always tease me about how he ate all my food when I was a kid,” junior quarterback/safety Dawson Holt joked. But the sibling rivalry he had with his brother is a point of motivation for the younger Holt. “It makes me want to push harder because he was a captain and I want to try to be the leader he was. I have been around this program since 2014 when I was a ball boy so I know how it is run and how coach Tate rolls,”

Senior running back/outside linebacker Drake Farrow grew up hearing stories of his father’s exploits on the football field.

“I always hear how good he was and never hear how he messed up. It makes me want to be more like how I’ve heard he was,” Farrow said with a smile. Motivation not only came from his father but from his older brother as well. “Dane graduated one year before I came into high school and I always heard how good he was since he was a pretty good athlete. Dane was really tall but I am not tall at all. I kind of got a raw deal on that part of it,” the younger Farrow joked. “Everyone on the team looked up to my brother so I am trying to fill his position and live up to that.”

Ryan McAnally’s family members who played football have encouraged him to savor the moment in which he is living as a part of the Grizzlies team.

“They are always getting on me about coming to practice and tell me how much I will miss football once it’s over. They tell me to take advantage of every minute,” the senior lineman said.

“These three guys, and a lot of guys on our team, I have watched them grow up because they have been around and as a coach, you want that,” Tate said. “You are around them, see them play little league ball and as a coach, you are excited for them to grow up and be in the program. It’s about relationships.”