Ring's the thing: Gwinnett programs load up on increasingly gaudier rings

— After opening a display case in his Suwanee office, John Upchurch pulls out two particular rings that make a point.

One is Buford High School's 2010 state championship ring. The other is a Super Bowl champion ring worn by Dallas Cowboys like Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin.

Sitting side by side, the rings don't look too different to the naked eye. Sure, one costs around $300 and the other, complete with real diamonds and precious metals, can cost in the $10,000 to $15,000 range.

But visually, there isn't much difference, which is why high school football players covet the rings so much.

"There were zero state championship rings in the "470s and "480s as far as high school championship rings," said Upchurch, whose Scholastic Images Balfour company has produced 15 of the 16 football state championship rings won by Gwinnett teams. "But because we have a metal that costs less than gold, the stainless steel metals, there's a high school ring that kids can afford to purchase. Now that's what they play for. They love to earn a ring and emulate the stars of the NFL."

Given the size and look of the rings, they often do.

Big and wide with plenty of flashy jewels, the keepsakes don't exactly go unnoticed when they're worn in public. Though most players don't wear them regularly, keeping them on display until special occasions, they are quite the conversation piece.

Strangers can't help but look, just to see what exactly this person won to get a ring so gaudy.

"I was in and out of airports this summer and you'll always catch a few eyes looking down," said Brookwood senior Nick Tompkins, who earned his jewelry last season for the Class AAAAA champion Broncos.

For Brookwood, last year's ring was something new and special. The coaches had a ring from 1996, but the players were toddlers the last time the Broncos won a state title.

That newness is a contrast to what happens at Buford. The Wolves have won seven state championships since 2001, including four in a row. Most players currently in the program have multiple rings to commemorate titles.

That doesn't curb the excitement of getting a new ring every year.

"It's awesome," Buford senior Kurt Freitag said. "It's what you work for. When you get it, you've always got something that signifies all the hard work you put in. Every ring has something special about that particular season."

Head coach Jess Simpson designs the Buford rings himself and keeps them a secret until the season-ending banquet, where the players see them for the first time. Other schools let a few seniors have some input on the design, but generally it falls on the coaching staff to pick the style.

Simpson doesn't work for Balfour, but he's got a pretty good display case of his own with varying ring styles. The wooden box, a Christmas present from his wife, holds nine rings, seven for Buford titles and two from Simpson's playing career at Auburn, with vacant holes to put seven or eight more rings.

"I said, "4Sweetie, that's ridiculous. I don't think we're going to fill that up any time soon,'" Simpson said of the currently empty spots in his case. "That's the thing about it. There are a lot of guys who are great coaches, probably better than me, and they never got to win one. Just to have what we've had here for the last 10 years, we've been blessed and very fortunate."

Buford is Gwinnett's Lord of the Rings with seven all-time, with Parkview's four (1997, 2000-2002) close behind. Brookwood has its two, but Peachtree Ridge (2006) and Wesleyan (2008) are the only other Gwinnett schools to claim a state title in football.

Buford actually has an eighth title it won in 1978, back before state championship rings were the rage. But the Wolves fixed that a few years ago, purchasing rings for the "478 team and honoring the players and coaches with a ceremony at a home game.

Parkview is nearly a decade removed from its last football title, but head coach Cecil Flowe still sees the Panthers' rings regularly on the fingers of former and current assistant coaches, as well as past players.

"Oh yeah, I wear them," Flowe said. "I'm very proud of them. All my coaches still wear them, even the ones that are gone because it's a keepsake, No. 1. And No. 2, it sort of reminds you of a group that accomplished some real special things."

Gwinnett's infatuation with state championship rings isn't limited to football. The county racks up titles in every sport from basketball to swimming to cross country, and each team is rewarded with the coveted rings.

It's good for business for Upchurch, whose Balfour branch made more than 1,200 rings for state championship teams and athletes in the area during the 2010-11 school year. The rings he helps design get more impressive by the year.

"At the beginning, it was just a big ring with a school-colored stone in the middle," Upchurch said. "With all the technology that came along and all the tools and dies being used, there can be more detailed cutting and we're able to add all the bling to the tops without increasing the cost."

That said, the rings aren't cheap.

The football rings mostly cost in the $250 to $300 range and are typically purchased by the individual athlete. The Georgia High School Association has rules that govern championship rings, allowing schools to purchase rings for their athletes as long as the amount is $250 or less. Any amount beyond that is paid by the athlete.

No matter the cost, the state ring is a must for Gwinnett's championship football players. They worked hard for the rings and they display them proudly.

"It was nice to finally wear it," said Tompkins, who got his ring along with his teammates during a ceremony at Coolray Field. "I wore it for three weeks straight after I got it, but now I keep it in a case and only bring it out for special occasions. It's something to show your family and show your kids. It's something I'll always keep."

Staff writer Brandon Brigman contributed to this story.