There are 279 miles between the end of an unnamed dirt road in Seminole County, Georgia (which turns west off J.Q. Harvey River Road, cuts through a farm and dead ends with a nice little view of the Chattahoochee River) and a bend in the road on Huckabee Lane (which follows along the Georgia border until it suddenly hangs a right into Tennessee to keep from running into Alabama).
Those are the southernmost and northernmost points in a border dispute that will be settled Monday. That’s because Monday is the day of the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T, a contest between the namesake schools of the two states divided by that 279-mile line, Georgia and Alabama.
These two legendary programs have played 68 times. The first time they met on a football field, Grover Cleveland was in the White House. On Monday night, President Donald Trump will be in attendance. Their games have determined conference championships and set the stage for national championships. But never has a national title been determined between them like this, head-to-head. It’s the second-highest stakes in Alabama versus Georgia history. The first? State of Alabama v. State of Georgia, a vicious legal dispute over that same 279-mile border.
Georgia claimed that it owned the entirety of the Chattahoochee, including any and all high-water marks, no matter how deeply into Alabama they might occasionally swell. Alabama argued the border should be determined by the river itself. On May 1, 1860, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Alabama’s favor, forever defining river beds versus river banks. That line between the states became the template for the drawing of borders across the globe.
“It is an imaginary line,” Atlanta humorist and UGA alum Lewis Grizzard once said of the Georgia-Bama border. “But there’s people on both sides who think it’s barbed wire.”
That line is located only an hour and change west of downtown Atlanta, where the title game will be played and attended by people who reside in towns that are split by it. There are at least a half-dozen of these torn townships, from Higdon, Alabama, and Trenton, Georgia, in the north, to Eufaula, Alabama, and Georgetown, Georgia, in the south. Halved hamlets where roads, restaurants and even residences are permanent Crimson Tide versus Hairy Dawg stare downs.
“I grew up in a town divided, there’s no question about it,” Georgia redshirt freshman Prather Hudson explained at championship media day. He hails from the largest of these embattled burgs, Columbus, Georgia (population 200,000). His city is connected via five bridges over the Chattahoochee to Phenix City, Alabama (population 38,000). “Every street in every neighborhood has different team flags on people’s houses and different team stickers on their cars. They wear different-colored clothes. All of it.”
The very first game between Prather’s school and Alabama, played on Nov. 2, 1895, was held on a city park field there in Columbus. Why? Because the town is nearly an equal distance from the campuses in Athens, Georgia, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Georgia, led by head coach Pop Warner, won the rain-drenched contest 30-6.
“Everyone is usually pretty nice about it all,” Hudson continued, catching himself. “Except for maybe a few days a year.”
Like, say, Monday?
“Yeah, it might be a little tense that day.”
“That day? More like every day,” Mekhi Brown, also a Columbus native, said in reaction to Hudson’s comment with a little bit of side-eye.
Unlike Hudson, Brown chose to take one of those bridges west out of his home state, crossing the river to sign with Alabama.
“I got sick of hearing about Georgia growing up. The last place I wanted to go was Georgia,” he said. “A lot of my friends from home, I think they say they’d be happy for me if we win Monday night, but deep down, really, no, they don’t. They will be against me. That’s how it is in our town.”
The sophomore got the attention of a fellow Tide linebacker Markail Benton, who Benton grew up in Phenix City. “Hey man, growing up, didn’t you get sick of hearing about Georgia all the time?” Brown asked.
“Yeah,” Benton replied. “But not as much as I got sick of hearing about Auburn.”
“That’s true,” Brown admitted. “We were closer to Auburn than Alabama or Georgia. We really got sick of hearing about them.”
Wait? Auburn? Oh yeah, Auburn. As in Auburn, the school that’s only 25 miles west of the Georgia line. Auburn, the most hated rival for both Alabama and Georgia. Auburn, which plays both every year, unlike Bama-Georgia, which hasn’t been an annual clash since the middle of the past century. True Auburn fans won’t be pulling for either team in Atlanta on Monday night. They’ll be rooting for a meteor strike.
“Here’s how split up it gets,” Hudson said. “I actually grew up an Auburn fan. I did. But my mom grew up in Tuscaloosa. Her whole family is from there, so they’re all in on Bama. My dad has always been all Auburn. Thanksgivings were never a lot of fun. There were always some heated arguments between the sides of the family. Then I just went made it worse. I went to Georgia.”
Anyone who hears that testimony might feel the urge to call Dr. Phil and invite him to Columbus to help the Hudson household cope with its issues. But chances are he’d never make it that far south. Instead, he’d be counseling the Grant family of Valley, Alabama, a town located 32 miles north of Columbus, right off I-85 South’s first non-Georgia exit. As you come off that exit and into town, the sign that greets you says: “Welcome to Valley, Alabama, where people care and share.”
The Grants do care. So much so, they have decided not to share.
“We have a family agreement to just not ever talk about football,” confessed Bo Grant, a Valley-raised senior defensive back at Alabama. “My stepmother is a Georgia fan. I’m pretty sure she won’t be pulling for me. At all.”
But Dad, he’s an Alabama fan, right?
“No, actually, he’s an Auburn fan. So is my brother. They were not happy I went to Alabama.”
So, um, Bo, does anyone at your house actually root for you?
“Mom. Mom loves Alabama. So thanks, Mom.”
If Grant ever needs a hug from someone who can relate to his pain, that’s a short search in Valley. It’s basically one big, 10,000-person support group, only it’s divided three ways. Ask the right person and you’ll get that hug. Ask one of the other two and it might be a slug.
A call to the mayor’s office reveals that the honorable Leonard Riley, former principal at Valley High, is an Auburn man. This is learned even on a day when he is out of the office, because his assistant, Jan, is quick to explain that she is an Alabama fan: “Thank goodness we take Thanksgiving off in this office because I’m not sure we could be around each other.”
Valley’s sister city is West Point, Georgia, located only two exits up I-85, headed back toward Atlanta. The two towns get along swimmingly, and they should. Thousands of Valley residents make the trip up to West Point every day to work at the massive Kia Motors factory, where fans of Georgia, Alabama and Auburn work side-by-side building Sorentos and Optimas. In the massive parking lots that line the 2.2-million-square-foot facility, their own Kias are fashioned with car flags featuring black G’s, script A’s and interlocking AUs.
“I can always tell who won their games on Saturday by counting the car flags as everyone comes in for work on Monday morning,” a Kia security guard explained from his parking lot booth. “The winners always keep their flags up from the weekend. The losers usually take theirs down until time for the next game.”
West Point contains perhaps the strangest anomaly along the Supreme Court-mandated border. Starting all the way up where Alabama and Georgia touch Tennessee, the border is a ruler-straight southbound line. It’s in West Point that it runs into the twists and turns of the Chattahoochee, but not until it hits the third mile of the river.
So that exacto knife of a line leaves one small, strange, double-humped stretch of the map where Georgia dares to stick its toes over into the Yellowhammer State. It’s on that little plot of earth that West Point defiantly touts its Historic District, an old-school line of antique stores and bars. The shop owners and patrons park their Georgia-adorned trucks and cars along Third Street, like pioneers daring to send up columns of campfire smoke on the edge of the frontier.
“I’m pulling for UGA, of course,” West Point Mayor Steve Tramell said, making very clear that his loyalties lay at home, not across the water with the people who work in his home’s crown jewel manufacturing plant. “I would not consider pulling for Alabama under any circumstances!”
When the border finally does have to be conceded, even that feels like a fight.
A few paces past the West Point Stop & Go and the old, rugged cross in front of Greene Super Drug, a stone marker shows where Jefferson Davis Highway transitions from West Point, Georgia, into Lanett, Alabama, and the edge of the greater Valley area. While Georgia greets incoming vehicles with the classic “Georgia State Line” etched in stone, Alabama has chosen to visibly dominate that granite milestone with a 10-foot-tall reflective green road sign.
Day and night, the signs stand in a perpetual faceoff.
As does the team apparel hanging in the clothing section of the Valley Wal-Mart. “Here,” a woman said to her husband as she snatched a shirt off the Georgia rack and hung it on the Alabama rack to cover up a crimson “16-time national champions” T-shirt.
It was the same at the nearby Timeless Antiques and Flea Mall, where one dealer’s booth is stocked with shelves of old-school Dawgs, Tide and Tigers gear. A leather Auburn “fashion purse” sits next to a bizarre Georgia “party wig” and a couple of rolls of Bama duct tape. All under the watchful eye of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. There’s a creepy old doll in a Bulldogs cheerleading costume and a badly worn Alabama elephant stuffed animal.
“My grandkid says that booth is like one of those ‘Toy Story’ movies,” a well-seasoned salesman shouted over. “When we leave at night it all comes to life and fights like hell.”
But nowhere is the border town standoff more everlasting than in Valley’s Langdale Cemetery. Veterans of every major American conflict since the Civil War are buried there. If you look closely, you will see the headstones of those who fought. You don’t have to look as close to figure out what teams they rooted for. Dotting the rows of stone are the colors of the Tide and Tigers. Tiny flags flapping in the breezes boosted off the river below. Every headstone is pointed toward the Chattahoochee, looking directly into Georgia on the other side. Looking back is the parking lot of a Georgia State Welcome Center.
“You like what we’ve done to the place? You think the football fans rolling through here on Monday will like it?” Linda Adams said as she proudly pointed to the homemade displays that she and coworker Tracy Quinton whipped up for the national championship game. There’s a wreath made of wine corks letting travelers know they can receive a 15 percent discount at nearby River’s Bend Winery on their way to Atlanta. Linda and Tracy greet all comers with a smile, clean restrooms and a wall of brochures. They don’t care what team apparel walks through the door. Their job is to educate us all on the awesomeness of Georgia.
Even though they both live over in Alabama.
Wait … really?
“Can you believe that?” Quinton said, laughing. “But both of us leave our houses in the morning and we drive through that one little part of West Point that’s across the river. So we sleep in Alabama, drive through Georgia, then drive through Alabama again and then drive into Georgia to work.”
Adams laughed, too: “Hey, if you’re gonna live around here, it can get a little complicated.”
Yes, it can. And there is no greater explanation of that predicament than the one that the Alabama to Georgia welcomers have created and placed in the lobby of their workplace: a chalkboard sign decorated with Georgia and Bama balloons and pictures of Uga and Big Al.
It reads: “We might be neighbors … but we ain’t friends. Not when it comes to FOOTBALL! So … Go Dawgs and Roll Tide.”