The walls inside Ralph Potter's office tell the story of a football coach's accomplished career.
A photo of a teenage Potter, listening intently as his late father Pete is giving in-game instructions, hangs near a doorway. Inspirational quotes — blue letters on white background — from Rudyard Kipling and St. John Chrysostom are displayed just in front of his work desk. Framed newspaper stories declaring his McCallie teams state champions, from the program's first in 2001 through its fourth in 2021, adorn the space behind a couch. Each memento involving the Blue Tornado is trimmed in the school's royal blue colors.
With one exception.
Displayed prominently on a section just behind the veteran coach's desk chair, a single splash of red — an 8-by-10-inch photo of a determined Baylor ball carrier breaking free from McCallie defenders — would seem out of place at first glance. But it is that photo, a tribute of lasting respect hanging inside the hub of the McCallie football office, that both defines Chattanooga's most intense high school sports rivalry and serves as a link between the opposing programs.
Baylor (10-2) and McCallie (11-1) will battle for the TSSAA Division II-AAA state championship when they meet in the BlueCross Bowl at 7 p.m. Thursday on the Finley Stadium turf. By every standard of the storied series, the matchup will be historic as it marks the first time two Chattanooga football teams have met in a state title game.
Although his blood has almost always run McCallie blue — he was a star quarterback for his dad, for whom the school's football field is named, and he is in his second stint as head coach of the Blue Tornado — Ralph Potter actually began his head coaching career at Baylor from 1994-96.
It was during that time that Potter and Chris Richardson, who worked as the linebackers coach at Baylor for those three seasons and for the past 24 years at McCallie, became impressed by the competitiveness and leadership of Jason Green, a tenacious running back and linebacker for the Red Raiders.
"You always hear about coaches having influence on players, but this was one time where a player influenced me and Ralph," Richardson said. "If there was ever a kid who epitomized team player, it was Jason. He would always come up to me after practice to ask if I saw anything he needed to improve on. He was a good athlete who had great character and desire to win and make the people around him better."
During a break from college in 1999, Green returned home to visit friends, even stopping by to have lunch with his former coaches and taking in a McCallie home game. The next night, on the drive home from dinner with friends, Green swerved to miss a deer and was killed in an automobile crash.
The news shook Potter and Richardson to their core.
"As a coach, the hardest thing I've ever had to do was to be part of his funeral," Richardson said. "Kids have their whole life ahead of them, and that's not supposed to happen. I still think of him often, especially during the season and for this game."
Beginning the following season, Potter and Richardson, now working at McCallie, decided to honor their former Baylor player each year by giving Green's No. 17 to the Blue Tornado senior who most closely shared the same characteristics. (Green wore the number during his career at Campbellsville University in Kentucky. He was No. 7 at Baylor.)
"Chris and I just want to make sure we honor Jason by having a high-character kid wear his number," Potter said. "It's been a tradition at McCallie ever since. The first thing we look for is that it needs to be an impact player, somebody with toughness, both physically and mentally. A leader."
In a football rivalry that dates to the early 1900s, there is so much contention between the two sides that Baylor and McCallie don't even agree on the all-time record in their series. The total number of games differs depending on which side you ask: Baylor does not include the 1905 and 1906 McCallie wins because the Red Raiders claim football was only a club sport for them at that time.
For the sake of argument, the Chattanooga Times Free Press has always opted to include those first two meetings, making Baylor's lead in the all-time series 45-43-3.
But of all the numbers that separate them, whether it's the series record or a winning streak by one side or the other, there is one — the No. 17 jersey — that unites the two proud programs.
For 20 years, the list of Blue Tornado players who have honored the unrelenting spirit of a young man who once wore the rival red uniform has included captains of state championship teams and all-state athletes, as well as others who went on to decorated military careers or became teachers and mentors.
It was just moments after McCallie's heartbreaking one-point loss at Montgomery Bell Academy in the 2022 state semifinals that this year's honoree — Carson Gentle, a high-motor linebacker — was told he would be next.
"We were all still stinging from that loss, but before we left the field Coach Richardson came over to me and said, 'You know you'll be wearing a different number next year, right?'" said Gentle, who has committed to the University of Tennessee. "That encouraged me to work even harder all offseason, just knowing it was coming.
"I remember when I learned about how wearing the 17 jersey meant you're the team captain and just thinking what an honor it would be. From that moment, I knew I wanted to work toward being someone who could earn that leadership role.
"To me there's a responsibility that comes with wearing it, and I take it very serious. It's made me become more of a vocal leader to encourage my teammates and remind them every day during preseason workouts that getting to and winning this game was our singular goal."
The 6-foot-4, 250-pound Gentle has lived up to on-field expectations this season. He is the Blue Tornado's leading tackler, and he was recently named a finalist in DII-AAA — along with Baylor receiver Amari Jefferson and Lipscomb Academy cornerback Kaleb Beasley — for the Tennessee Titans Mr. Football award. The winner will be revealed during a Dec. 5 ceremony at Nashville's Nissan Stadium.
"Carson has the same love of the game, same incredible work ethic that Jason had," Richardson said, "so he's been an incredible representative for our team and for Jason's legacy."
Biggest game yet
The past four years, either the Blue Tornado or the Red Raiders have won the BlueCross Bowl in DII-AAA, Tennessee's highest classification for private schools. McCallie won consecutive state titles from 2019-2021, and last season Baylor earned its first gold ball trophy in 49 years.
The past two meetings have been arguably the most exciting in series history, with McCallie's 34-31 home win on Sept. 29 highlighted by five lead changes, a record for the rivalry. Baylor used last year's dramatic fourth-quarter rally for a 31-27 win as a springboard to its title run.
Both of those games, though, were in the regular season.
The teams have met in the playoffs three times, most recently in a 2010 quarterfinal won by Baylor to sweep the season series on its way to a state runner-up finish. They also met in the 1997 postseason, with Baylor sweeping the season series with a first-round win, and in 1974, when McCallie avenged a regular-season loss with a first-round win.
Previous games between Baylor and McCallie at Finley have drawn more than 10,000 for regular-season matchups. There has never been a sellout crowd for any of the state's previous championship games since moving to the college stadium sites, but that could change when Baylor and McCallie square off inside 20,412-seat Finley Stadium.
Besides the game's stakes and rivalry factor, the level of talent that will be showcased by the Blue Tornado and Red Raiders will be another factor in drawing fans' interest. Combined, the two teams have more than 10 players who are either already committed to or have scholarship offers from programs that compete in the Power Five conferences — the highest level of college football.
That list includes Gentle as well as McCallie quarterback Jay St. Hilaire, who has committed to Vanderbilt, and defensive back Marcellus Barnes, who was previously committed to Virginia Tech but has reopened his recruitment and considers Georgia a finalist for where he might eventually sign. Baylor's Jefferson has committed to Alabama, and quarterback Whit Muschamp (Vanderbilt) and tight end Max LeBlanc (Ohio State) have also made public pledges to Power Five teams.
"All of us will go into it trying to act like it's just another game, but it's right in front of us, so you can't deny it's much more special than anything any of us have been a part of," Gentle said. "The rivalry has been going since forever, so it's always emotional, but with all the things surrounding this one, it will make for an even crazier setting.
"To be able to look back one day and say that we were a part of something that has never happened between the two teams or in our city, that's a really big deal for all of us. We're all looking forward to it."