Annual 'Rivalries' game last shot at fun

In the Brookwood fieldhouse, an assembly of Gwinnett County coaches stood around laughing Thursday afternoon.

The assistants as well as Team Small head coach John Small had opted out of an afternoon in the cold rain practicing for tonight's Rivalries of Gwinnett All-Star game at Peachtree Ridge, choosing instead for about an hour of meetings before sending the players home for the evening.

The coaches were leaving as well, but many lingered talking about practice, football and the pending game. But mostly they chatted with each other, joking and laughing.

"The camaraderie amongst everybody is really great," Small said. "It's a fun week."

And it's been a few weeks for most of these coaches since they practiced for a game. And the same goes for the players. Save the Norcross players on Team Small and the Buford players on Team Simpson, headed by Wolves head coach Jess Simpson, time has passed since they last strapped on helmets and pads. The Blue Devils and Buford players are still in game shape, both reveling as newly crowned state champions.

But for all, practice this week was in shorts and shoulder pads. A nod to the half-serious nature of tonight's game.

"It's always a fun week to get kids from different schools and the coaches from different schools get to work with one another," Small said. "It's good to see the kids come together during the week and not just hang out with their buddies from their school, but watch them build a relationship with guys from another school that they've been competing against all year."

This game has become an annual event in Gwinnett and returns to Friday night for the first time since the first year. And just like that year, it's going to be cold. But that comes with late-season football, be it a playoff or showcase all-star game.

As the players filed out of meetings at Brookwood, they all shook hands with the assembled coaches, many of the senior-only players wearing their Rivalries of Gwinnett hoodies.

"It felt too good to put the helmet back on," said Lanier's Marty Sanders, who met most of his teammates for the first time this week. "As long as you get to put the helmet back on and have fun, that's all that matters."

Small agrees even as he minimizes his role as the team's head coach. And it's fun for both the players and the Gwinnett coaches who face each other as foes from opposite sidelines most weeks.

"I think there is a respect amongst everybody because everybody knows what everybody is dealing with," Small said. "You are all in the same boat.

"You pull for each other when you are not playing them. Being out here this week with them, you get to build a relationship with them on a different level. It's fun."