You Know I’m Right: Will Vikings-Titans football rivalry fade away?

by Chris Hunt

Friday, Nov. 5, will be the eighth time in 10 seasons that Hopewell and North Mecklenburg football programs have played each other in The Battle for the Shield game. The winner of the season finale between the crosstown rivals takes home the Shield of Victory, a symbol of the confrontation. Hopewell has won the past three encounters, but regardless of team records, the rivalry seems to always attract a large crowd.

This will be the fourth Shield Game I’ve covered, and I still think it’s the best football rivalry in northern Mecklenburg County. And don’t even get me started about their basketball games. Even so, I’m sure everyone has heard the saying “All good things come to an end.” Call me a pessimist, but with so much change in the Lake Norman area, I’m worried that phrase might pertain to this game some time in the near future.

And that would be a shame because since it began in 2003, the Battle for the Shield has created some jaw-dropping stories. Let’s just say I’ve had plenty of material to write about over the past few years.

In 2008, a soon-to-be arrested Hopewell student piloted a Cessna 172 Skyhawk single-engine plane that buzzed over Thunder Valley three times and dropped a football signed by the Titans football team on the field. In 2003, Hopewell student Randall Griffith made Shield Game history with an unforgettable run the length of the field – without any clothes. He was arrested, too. One year later, there was so much electricity at the game, it must have blown a circuit because the lights went out at North Mecklenburg’s brand-new football stadium, canceling the game.

But there wouldn’t be much to talk about if these games didn’t deliver on the hype, too. Former Hopewell star Chris Gilbert’s 79-yard gallop in 2005 and North Meck standout Daryl Vereen’s 254-yard, three-touchdown performance in 2006 still haven’t been forgotten. Rashard Fletcher’s 42-yard touchdown pass that skipped off the hands of two Viking defenders for a decisive Hopewell touchdown in 2007 will forever be remembered as the Immaculate Deflection.

What’s more, both Hopewell coach Chris Rust and North Meck coach Mike Bradley have at one point in their careers served as head coach for the other program; Rust coached North Meck in the mid-90s, while Bradley built the Hopewell program from scratch before being replaced by Rust, who was on his staff. After four seasons as a defensive coordinator at North Meck, Bradley’s in his second season as the Vikings’ head coach. Both coaches are good friends, but you’d be crazy not to think Bradley really wants to improve his 2-7 record in the Shield Game. Rust holds the edge with a 5-4 mark, also as an assistant and head coach.

This year’s contest should be another head-turner. Hopewell enters the Battle for the Shield with twice as many victories on the season as North Meck, but you never know what could happen, especially with the underdog Vikings playing at home. This year’s game is also spiked with playoff implications: North Meck needs a fourth victory to be eligible for the postseason, and Hopewell could use another win to improve its bracket position.

“Both teams are desperate for a win,” said Bradley. “If they lose, they could be one and done in the playoffs. If we lose, we don’t deserve to go to the playoffs.”

And yet with such a great game ahead, it still feels like the final scene of a really good action movie.

For nine years, the Shield Game has been the best football ticket in the Lake Norman area. But since then, Hough High and Lake Norman Charter have started football programs, splitting up the talent pool that was once shared almost exclusively by Hopewell and North Meck.

Private school Davidson Day also is hoarding plenty of talented football players and could make a big impact on the football scene next season. SouthLake Christian’s football team is back on track with a playoff season.

I wonder, with so many schools in our area; will the Shield Game hold its swagger years from now? I asked that very question this week and got conflicting results. Some older players think this year’s showdown will be intense, but they are not sure what the rivalry will mean after they graduate.

North Meck’s school borders now reach down into north Charlotte, collecting many young players who once appeared headed to West Charlotte. The Vikings only have five former West Charlotte players on this year’s varsity squad, but the junior varsity program is loaded with players from north Charlotte.

Many future Vikings will live closer to players from West Charlotte instead of Hopewell. Then again, it’s not like the Lions considered the Titans good friends, either. West Charlotte and Hopewell have played some intense games settled on the gridiron, too.

Even Bradley, a soon-to-be 10-year veteran of the Huntersville turf war, isn’t sure what the future holds.

“I don’t think anyone knows how the demographics and school border changes will affect the rivalry,” said Bradley. “The rivalry was so intense because the kids knew each other so well. They grew up together. They went to church together; they played little league together.

“Two to three years from now, West Charlotte could become one of the teams’ rival, but I don’t know if down the road, anyone can answer that.”

As for me, I’m not sold that the Shield Game will remain the same. I’m worried that with so many Cornelius-based Titans and Vikings moving north to attend Hough, three teams might hurt the Huntersville rivalry. Huntersville and Cornelius share too many restaurants, grocery stores and local high school hangouts for Hough not to squeeze in on the action. Of course, the Huskies will have to win a few games against the Huntersville teams to enter the conversation, but once they do, the Vikings and Titans won’t be able to stare each other down as intensely for fear of what’s behind their back up north.

That would be too bad because I’ve enjoyed the Shield Game rivalry over the years. I have to say that, for once in my life, I hope I’m wrong.

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