It was warm and muggy, but that didn’t matter, for opening night is always special for Alabama high school football teams. Walker hosted Cullman at Gambrell/Ki-Ro Field in Jasper, Ala. The rivals battled through four quarters before Cullman rallied from a 10-point deficit late in the game to pull out a heart-stopping 13-10 victory. Too bad the story about the game didn’t end there.
What had been a splendidly played season opener turned into something ugly, something that will carry negative ramifications for the rest of the year. Maybe longer than that.
As the exhausted teams began walking off the field, without the traditional postgame handshake, a Cullman assistant coach, Matt Hopper, walked by the Walker sidelines near the 30-yard line, where a TV clip shows Coach John Holladay taking a step or two toward Hopper and launching a punch with his right hand. The men fell to the ground and battled until separated by other coaches and police. Hopper seemed to get the worst of it, showing a bruised and bloody face and a ripped shirt.
It was another moment where sportsmanship was benched in favor of mayhem. But this flare-up was different. It was two coaches, men who should have known better, and not teenage athletes still learning to control their emotions.
What precipitated the fight remains unclear. What is clear is the quick action taken by the Alabama High School Athletic Association and its executive director, Steve Savarese. Both coaches drew season-ending suspensions. Walker, partially because of a football incident last year, has been disqualified from this year’s playoffs. Each school was fined $1,500.
Earlier in the week, Holladay, who led his team to a region championship last year, had been placed on administrative leave and an interim coach was named. He resigned the next day, ending a seven-year career there having won two-thirds of his games.