Max Ackley knows just as much as anyone about what the Austin-Decatur football game means.
His family bloodline probably runs orange, but the Decatur High senior was covered in red and black paint for the renewal of the River City rivalry Friday night at Ogle Stadium.
“This game means I can talk big if we win with my grandmother and dad, because they went to Austin,” Ackley said.
Ackley’s grandmother is longtime Austin teacher Alice Ackley. She was known before retirement for her school spirit.
On the other side of the stadium, Austin Willingham, painted in Austin black and orange, agreed with Ackley: The rivalry is alive and thriving.
An enthusiastic, but smaller-than-usual crowd of about 12,000 watched the Black Bears win 34-17, marking Austin’s first two-game winning streak in the rivalry since 1982-84, when the Bears won three straight.
The humid night featured students painted in their colors or wearing “Beat Austin” or “Beat Decatur” shirts. Students either were focused on the field or enjoying the social occasion just to hang out.
“We’re all friends until it’s Austin-Decatur week,” Willingham said. “We couldn’t be friends this week, but we’ll go back to being friends after tonight.”
Parents at the game said the rivalry still seems to mean as much to their children as it did when they were in high school.
“It’s as big as it ever was,” said Steve Garner, a 1977 Decatur High graduate whose two children attend Austin. Prior to the game, he warned his son and friend not to talk too much after the game if Austin wins.
Marty Adams, a 1989 Austin graduate, has a sophomore son at Austin. He said Austin parents seem to be more involved, so the students followed suit.
“This is the first time in a long time I’ve seen Austin excited about football,” Adams said.
Willingham said Austin spirit has grown deeper since the deaths of classmates Nicholas Sawyer and Bailey Robinson in December. The couple was killed in a car wreck on the same night as an Austin-Decatur basketball game.
“We’ve grown a lot closer, like a family,” Willingham said. “And there’s such school spirit. Today’s pep rally was crazy.”
The spirits were just as high for Ackley on the Red Raider side, where he said, “If you’re willing to cheer, you can stand up front. If not, you have to sit in the back.”
Ackley said the tradition of body painting begins as a sophomore. “Freshmen are not allowed yet to paint,” he said.
Garner said this was the first time in years he can remember Austin entering the game as the favorite.
“But you never know in a game like this,” Garner said. “It’s a lot like the Alabama-Auburn rivalry. The favored team doesn’t always win.”
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