SUWANEE — Walking into North Gwinnett’s stadium Friday night, fans were greeted with free Wendy’s hamburgers and the Heisman Trophy. Not the actual Heisman, the high school version, but it looks just the same.
And that was just a small part of the festive, carnival-like football atmosphere that is a Bulldog football game. It’s top-notch high school football — surrounded by a fair.
“We’ve got a great touchdown club and they’re so fired up about this program,” said Bob Sphire, whose main concern is what goes on between the lines, like Friday’s 38-0 victory over Norcross. “Some buddies of mine come in from out of town and tell me, ‘This is an event, not a game.’ That’s what this is. They’ve made it a community event.”
There’s plenty for the community to do at North games, whether they want to watch a single snap or not. It’s like a county fair meandering around one of the county’s biggest stadium.
The track in the end zone is covered with more inflatable playthings for children than a Gwinnett Braves game. Virtually every free space in the end zone and around the bleachers is taken up by some vendor, many by local restaurants. A variety of other businesses are mixed in and who can blame them? There are no shortage of potential customers roaming around.
North even has a real Bulldog on the sidelines. Not to mention some pretty good ones playing the game.
Those players don’t get to participate in any of the county-fair style fun on game nights, but they appreciate what they see from the field.
“It’s just great to come out of the locker room and see everything,” North center Manrey Saint-Armour said. “You can feel the crowd. You can feel the energy. You can feel the buzz.”
Saint-Armour, his teammates and coaches are still the centerpiece of what’s happening at North. Without a successful product on the field — one that now sports a Class AAAAA No. 1 ranking and a No. 14 national ranking by USA Today — the fans wouldn’t come out in great numbers.
There would be no need for the vendors to be there. No need for the kids’ inflatables. Wendy’s couldn’t give out 1,000 free hamburgers, they’d be taking some back with them.
No worries with that in Suwanee. North’s undefeated football team keeps rolling, giving its fans reasons to keep coming to the party.
“It is like a college (atmosphere),” Saint-Armour said. “We might beat some small colleges ourselves.”
They just might. And as far as atmosphere goes, many small colleges can’t touch the carnival in Suwanee.
Will Hammock can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. His regular column appears on Thursdays.