Maryville High School’s football team won its 60th consecutive game last Saturday night at Middle Tennessee State University, with it the school’s the fourth consecutive Class 4A state championship.
With the win, Rebel seniors Brent Burnette, Aaron Douglas, Tyler Clendenen, Stephen Shiver, Todd Hollingsworth and the rest capped their Maryville careers an unblemished 60-0.
The Rebels equaled Alcoa, Class 2A champion the day before, in becoming the only Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association teams to win four consecutive titles. The 4A crown lifted Maryville above Brentwood Academy for the most state championships overall with 11.
Gaudy numbers though they may be, there’s one more out there.
Shelbyville Bedford County Training Academy never lost a game between 1943 and 1950, a run encompassing an 82-game unbeaten streak. There were, however, four ties.
The Fighting Tigers won 64 straight before absorbing the first one. With five consecutive wins to start next season, Maryville will stand alone as the best that’s ever been, winning 65 in a row.
“And when they catch up with us, I hope I’m still here,” former Bedford player Sam Abernathy said.
Abernathy, now in his early 80s, played end on the Tiger team that got the streak started. Bedford was an all-black school in the days before integration. Bedford and Shelbyville’s all-white Central High School didn’t play each other, except on Saturdays, with only the players taking part.
“On Saturdays, we’d get together with all the white players and play,” said Abernathy, who now lives in Nashville. “We had a lot of fun. It made them better and it made us better.”
Those were tough days, Abernathy said. The Tigers ran the single wing, a punishing four-man backfield without a quarterback. Helmets didn’t come with facemasks.
“You didn't have a facemask on,” Abernathy said, “so, if you’ve got your teeth now, you’re in pretty good shape."
To say Bedford was dominant falls well below the mark, former Shelbyville Times-Gazette sportswriter Bo Melson said.
Melson graduated from Shelbyville Central in 1952, shortly after the Bedford streak came to an end. He knew the Tigers well.
It isn’t the streak Bedford put together that’s impressive, Melson said. It’s the numbers they compiled over the course of the seven-year run.
“To be honest, a lot of years they had the best players in the state,” Melson said. “They went a long time without being scored on.”
The Tigers shut out 52 consecutive teams between 1943 and 1949. Three of those years, as documented by a local television station special, Bedford didn’t allow an opponent to cross midfield.
“We had some good ball players,” Abernathy said. “We were about two- or three-deep at most of the positions. We had tough, good tacklers and good receivers. Most of our backs were 200 (pounds).”
Talent withstanding, keeping the streak up and running wasn’t easy.
“It’s hard to win that many in a row,” Abernathy said. “It’s hard to win 15 in a row. It’s hard to win that many in a row if you’re playing against babies.”
Shelbyville native James Cooley grew up idolizing Abernathy and the Tigers. Cooley graduated from Bedford in 1956. The streak was over by the time he reached high school.
When the Tigers finally lost during the 1950 season, they were still pretty tough, Cooley said. During the final year of the streak, no one got any closer to the Bedford goal line than the 20-yard line. Abernathy, Cooley said, was a one-of-a-kind talent.
“I actually saw him catch the ball with his legs,” Cooley said.
Cooley, 73, watched on television as the Rebels overwhelmed Maplewood, 28-13, inside MTSU’s Floyd Stadium. He’s followed Maryville the last couple of years as its neared the record. He’s impressed.
“I find it hard to believe that Maryville would be able to break (the record) because they play some tough competition,” Cooley said. “They must have a really good coaching staff and they (the Rebels) must listen to them.”
If Maryville reaches the threshold of No. 65 next season, Cooley said he plans to attend.
Abernathy said he owes a lot to late Bedford coach E.C. Finley, the man responsible for the bulk of the streak. Finley, who passed away in the early 1990s, was a tough disciplinarian, he said.
“You had to be in at night,” Abernathy said. “We practiced hard every day.
“In order to play, you had to pass. We had a rule if you didn’t pass that week, you didn’t play.”
The streak taught Bedford players many things, Abernathy said, one of them humility.
For years the Tigers begged Finley to schedule a scrimmage with the football team at nearby Tennessee Tech. Thankfully, Abernathy said, their coach never listened.
“You always want to do silly things like that in high school,” he said. “It would have taken about five seconds to find out, ‘Oh, Lord! We’re not ready for this.’”
Like Cooley, Abernathy said he’d like to be there if Maryville breaks the record. Even if the Rebels do, it’ll still be some time before anyone approaches Bedford’s unbeaten run of 78-0-4.
Then again, no one, including the Rebels, thought anyone would get this close to 64 in a row.