ALTON, Mo.– Ask any parent, student, teacher, or regular spectator and you’ll learn: the rivalries formed between small-town, high school football teams are just as serious as any in the big leagues.
Of course, this isn’t exactly news to Dr. Eric Allen. He’s been superintendent of the Alton R-IV school district now for years, and with only four schools in the area surrounding his, the competition is that much more intense.
Legend has it, back in the ‘50s, finding someone brave enough to officiate games between the Alton Comets and their rival Thayer Bobcats was almost impossible. The rivalry is said to have run THAT deep.
“There’s going to be some sweat, blood, tears, and emotion and pride when you’re wearing your school colors,” Dr. Allen told Ozarks First on Friday, a day everyone on campus is encouraged to wear their best Comet-blue.
Oddly enough, Dr. Allen’s comments come on a day when he’s wearing what must be the brightest-green shirt he owns. It is unmistakably the same shade of green donned by those in Thayer.
Back on September 28th, assistant Thayer football coach Bryan Tate died suddenly while he and his family were driving up to Quincy, Illinois. Tate suffered what has only been described as a medical emergency. He was 26 years old.
“I just… can’t seem to make it real,” his surviving wife, Angela Tate, told Ozarks First.
Angela, a third-grade teacher in the Alton school district, is also sporting a bright, Thayer-green shirt. Though for her, it’s not so out of the ordinary.
“I grew up in Thayer,” she explained, adding that it was there she met who would eventually be her husband, back in 2001.
“Once a bobcat, always a bobcat,” she laughs, but there couldn’t be a truer statement to sum up the life of her late husband.
Before earning his role as an assistant coach, Bryan Tate was a player for the Thayer Bobcat football team (the only football team in the surrounding four-school area).
His coach back then, Billy Webber, is still head coach today.
“It’s been a tough week,” Webber said Friday. “But it’s a healing process that’s going to take a lot of time.”
Webber remembers Tate as a coach who knew the football program inside and out thanks to the young man’s time as an offensive lineman. Though, as good as he was on the field, Webber says Tate may have eventually been an even better coach.
“He did everything you told him to do and then he did the extra stuff,” he says.
After her husband’s death, Angela watched the loss impact not only her immediate family but also those neighbors she and her husband had grown close to over the years; folks like Coach Webber and the Bobcat football team.
Then, she watched the wave of support ripple out further than she ever expected.
On the Friday following a loss she’s still working to understand, Angela saw parents, students, and teachers in her district trade their Comet-blue for Thayer-green; Each in a bright emerald shirt emblazoned with the same message of support: “Coach Tate Strong”.
Some of the shirts vary. Some say “#BobcatStrong” and others just have Bryan Tate’s face on them.
Worn by any member of the Alton school district, they might as well say “We’re more than rivals”.
“It’s been amazing,” she told Ozarks First. “Even seeing parents… wearing shirts honoring him. It’s just been so great.”
Alton doesn’t have a football team.
But don’t think that means they root for their green-clad rivals from the other side of the county by default. Rivalries are, again, a very big deal in these small communities.
But you know what’s a bigger deal than an on-going competition? Being a good neighbor when it counts.
It’s a lesson nobody had to teach the town of Alton.
It’s why on Friday, after a major loss, Thayer’s already walking into its next game a winner.