Chris Easterling|The Independent
MASSILLON Marcus Wattley hadn't even been hired as McKinley's head coach last year when he first had the rivalry with Massillon mentioned to him. In fact, it almost seemed like the Tigers were as much a topic of conversation to himin those early days as the Bulldogs themselves were.
Wattley, though, found out why soon enough.
"It's funny, I tell people all the time, The Game kept coming up during the interview process," Wattley said this week. "When I got hired, it came up in the first meeting I ever had. I was like, 'Why are we talking about all this stuff now? It's six months away.' Then you get to the game and you're like, 'Oh. That's why.'"
The "why" for both Massillon and McKinley arrives for the 131st time this Saturday afternoon at 2,at Paul Brown Tiger Stadium. It may be earlier than normal,by roughly a month,and it may have a significantly smaller crowd, by almost 90 percent, than normal.
None of that will remove the one thing that arguably the greatest rivalry in high school football carries with it every time it's contested. That's the gravitas and emotion of a heavyweight fight for all of those involved. No one may feel that more than the individuals who are at the top of the organizational chart for both programs.
In either community, the results of that one Saturday afternoon can dictate perception as much as reality. Those who make winning the game a regular occurrence are lauded; those who don't, well, it become like a scarlet letter.
"The weight of The Game is heavy, and it's heavy all the time," said Massillon coach Nate Moore, whose team has won the last four in the series. "You can either, you know, pray for lighter burdens to bear, which you just need to tap out and not show up. Or you can pray for the strength to bear the burdens that you're given. The Game is heavy. You have to learn how to deal with that."
It's a lesson that both coaches had to learn, in many ways the hard way. Both Moore and Wattley suffered losses in their first appearance in The Game, and both could easily point to a play or two which literally separated victory from defeat.
Moore's debut in 2015 saw Massillon take a 28-23 lead on Dakota Dunwiddie's interception return with 3:50 remaining. Three-and-a-half minutes later, the Tigers were on the wrong side of a 30-28 loss thanks to Dominique Robinson's heroics.
Wattley's debut a year ago ended up a wider margin, with Massillon winning 24-14. However, with three minutes left, McKinley had the ball at the Tiger 17 trailing by three, but a fourth-down pass was batted down ending McKinley's last, best chance to win.
Moore's debut was followed up by four consecutive wins. Wattley has his first chance to rinse away the taste of defeat Saturday, as well as learn from the experience of that game.
Wattley was a veteran of Akron's "Holy War" between St. Vincent-St. Mary and Hoban, as an assistant and then head coach of the Irish. Yet, that didn't prepare him entirely for what awaited him.
"I tell people, whatever you think your rivalry is, this is that on HGH and steroids together because it's just so different," Wattley said. "I think what makes it so special is that we're so close, the tradition's so back and forth. It's two towns, you're stuck with each other. You can't Google McKinley and not find something about Massillon. You can't Google Massillon and not find something about McKinley. For me it was, you're trying to prepare and you're trying to prepare, but you don't realize there's a lot of stuff that comes up that week that doesn't come up any other week or in any other rivalry I've been a part of."
That, however, is part of the growing process a coach must go through as they grow in The Game. It's a balancing act that doesn't limit itself to just one week a year, but exists all 365 days.
It's there in the dead of winter when the teams are just starting their offseason training. It's there in the heat of August when they're just starting their preseason practice.
And it's most certainly there at 2 p.m. on the Saturday of The Game.
"You've got to perform under that pressure," Moore said. "You can't minimize it. You can't pretend it doesn't exist. It's there and it's heavy. You have to play great football with that and in spite of that. You have to play with great strength of will and great strength of character."
Reach Chris at email@example.com.
On Twitter: @ceasterlingINDE
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