Jackson High School Athletic Director Pat Stevens deserves credit for planning, organizing and coordinating all the related activities and for the foresight to see a full year ago that this would indeed be a happening worthy of being celebrated with special activities and plans. The history of the game, the deep-seated spirit of the rivalry and its importance to the two school-district communities, were all recognized as being worthy of a celebration type of approach. The “extras” included a pregame Skull Session in the high school gymnasium, commemorative tickets, special presentations and awards and special procedures put in place to handle a larger-than-usual crowd.

Regardless of what would have happened on the football field, this was truly a night to remember in Jackson County.

WHAT HAPPENED ON THE FIELD – On the field, the Ironmen prevailed by a 23-6 score, but the underdog Rockets came to play and the game was very competitive from start to finish. It appeared to me that overall it was a hard-fought contest and that both teams exhibited sportsmanship and left the field with respect for each other.

WHAT HAPPENED OFF THE FIELD – No one likes to lose to a neighboring rival and that has certainly been true of the Jackson/Wellston football series since they began playing more than a century ago. That intensity has always been evident both on and off the field – the players and fans are into this game. Therefore, community pride and the results on the scoreboard can certainly be intertwined no matter how much we know “it’s just a game.”

I have seen some of that rivalry spirit over the long years of covering local news and sports, and yes, sometimes it has become negative on both sides and there could have been some of that exhibited again by individuals this time around. However, I personally didn’t see any of that negativity on Saturday night. What I did see was a lot of friendliness, congeniality and mutual respect, and an effort to make this final game into a celebratory occasion.

The school districts, the coaches, the players, the bands, the cheerleaders treated each other like neighbors and friends, not like hostile adversaries. The two bands enjoyed a meal together and played a number together during the pregame program. Wellston resident Sharon Brenner came up with the idea to provide a pregame meal for both bands. The Jackson and Wellston fire departments, along with the Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church of Wellston and the Holy Trinity Catholic Church of Jackson jumped on board, along with other community sponsors to make it happen.

Also, the two fire departments joined together before the game to sell raffle tickets for Final Game commemorative banners with the proceeds to be split evenly between the boosters clubs in each school district. The show of unity was further symbolized by the two fire departments parking their large ladder trucks side by side outside the stadium with the banners hanging from atop the raised ladders.

A Facebook post on the Wellston City School District site said it all. In part, it read: “Thank you to all of the Rocket Community for your support last night at the final Wellston-Jackson Football Game. The stands were filled with blue and gold enthusiasm as we cheered on our football team, cheerleaders, and band! The Rocket Pride was alive! It was a great opportunity for our communities to come together. The ending of the 106-game rivalry took place with respect and class! Proud to be a Golden Rocket!”

COULD THERE BE A FUTURE? – While the 2019 Jackson-Wellston game was dubbed The Final Game or The Final Time, nothing is written in stone that the football rivalry could not be revived at some point; although I would not expect it to happen in the foreseeable future, which I will define as 8 to 10 years or more.

Jackson has an automatic advantage due to its much larger enrollment; more students, and a larger pool of prospective players. Moreover, not only is Jackson one of the largest schools in Southeastern Ohio, it also has one of the best football programs. Losing seasons have been few and far between and winning a conference championship and qualifying for the playoffs each seem like realistic goals almost every season. There is an expectation in Jackson to win football games, those involved feel obliged to deliver and the school district and community are invested.

Jackson also has had continuity in its varsity coaching staff with head coach Andy Hall now in his 11th season and supported by a large and experienced staff. Jackson has also been blessed with an outstanding and reliable “feeder system” -- the pee wee and junior high programs -- which annually produce winning records and quality prospects and in larger numbers than most other programs. The support clubs (the Jackson Sideliners Club and the Football Mothers Club) are top-notch. As far as facilities, Alumni Stadium is one of the premier high school football venues in this part of the state.

All this can change and go in either direction in any school district or community. An outstanding head coach, a talented group of players and community support can turn around a football program in a hurry. On the flip side, a  lack of success for a year or two, a downturn in talent, a carousel of coaches, and a lack of community support can bring a program down or keep it down.

If it appears the competitive football playing field is more level at some point with Jackson and Wellston, it would be great for the leaders of both districts to seriously consider reviving this football series. The number one reason would be that the fans want to see it -- the 6,000 or so fans who came out last Saturday night at Alumni Stadium are clear evidence of that. And while financial issues should not drive the decision, the large gate is an important boost to the budgets of the respective athletic departments. Like it or not, that’s a business reality in today’s world as athletic departments have trouble meeting the operational costs and count on support groups and the community to make their budgets stretch.

Whatever happens or doesn’t happen in the future, I believe both teams and school districts were winners last Saturday night. It if was The Final Game, we can all be proud of the history and the night it all ended.