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Listen | The Game: Friday night lights in Haywood County

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Haywood County is warming up its Friday night lights for the biggest game of the year. Pisgah High School will travel to Tuscola High School’s C.E. Weatherby Stadium for their annual football showdown.

When the rivals face off this Friday, it’ll be the first since Canton’s paper mill closed after more than 100 years in operation this June. Mill closure or not, the rivalry remains.

We traveled to Canton to discuss the rivalry and to hear passionate people talk about football. We went to ask if the game would mean more this year in light of the mill closing. I assumed one thing, and as usually happens, I walked away with a different answer.

Listen to the story below.

Click here for full audio transcription

Caroline Parker: Haywood County is nestled in western North Carolina, among the southern region of the Appalachian Mountain range. The two largest towns in the county house the two district high schools – Waynesville is home to the Tuscola High School mountaineers, and Canton, home to the Pisgah High School black bears. 

It’s a healthy rivalry, and exactly what you’d expect from two high schools that share a district and sit eight miles apart. 

They’ve been pitted against one another since 1922. And the rivalry grew even larger in 1966, the year the district consolidated. The county went from having seven community high schools to two. Those two schools that remained and took on all Haywood students? Pisgah and Tuscola. Ever since then, Haywood county residents have been a house, or rather county, divided. The record currently sits at 32 wins for Pisgah, 26 wins for Tuscola, and one tie.

Danny Miller: You grow up wanting to be a Pisgah bear or a Tuscola mountaineer. It is the perfect storm. You have a county that is very competitive and has a great athletic history. You have two high schools. So naturally, you’re gonna have a strong rivalry. And it extends beyond football into all the sports, but Haywood County is a football, mad county. So it is, in my opinion, it’s the biggest event in the county all year.

Caroline Parker: That’s Danny Miller. A lifelong resident of Haywood County and a Pisgah bear through and through. We’ll get back to him a little later. 

Both team mascots pay homage to the region’s history. Black bears live in the protected forests surrounding Haywood County, and mountaineers are a historic group of westward-moving pioneers who settled into the Southern Appalachian region in the mid 1800s.  

The Tuscola Mountaineers, or mounties for short, and the Pisgah black bears meet once a year on the football field and to this community, the game is everything. 

This rivalry has gone by many monikers – The Mill vs. The Hill, The Paper Bowl, The County Clash, but most people just refer to it in the simplest way – It’s The Game.

These are people of our state’s rural west. More isolated than our urban or suburban residents due to their peaks and valleys, but also more self-sufficient. Adaptability is necessary for this kind of living. 

Chad Upton, wears many hats in his community. He is a principal at an elementary school in Buncombe County and the play-by-play voice of Pisgah football at WPTL radio. He loves where he grew up, and believes they are a community oriented county, caring of their neighbors no matter how far down the road they live.

Chad Upton: I would like for everybody to feel this way about their community. When I introduce myself to people, I’m so proud of that. I often will tell them my name, and instead of what I do, which I’m certainly proud of, I tell them where I’m from. Because that matters so much to me, and so much to us. 

Caroline Parker: The area, as you can imagine, is rich in timber. At one point, it was home to a flourishing paper industry. For over a century, there was an operating paper mill in Canton, with a conversion factory in Waynesville. 

The Canton mill employed generations of Haywood families, and its workers were part of the largest union in western North Carolina. 

It is so woven into the fabric of the community, that Canton came to be known affectionately as Papertown. Though the mill closed earlier in 2023, it still sits in the center of Canton, and is the backdrop of where the Bears play football, at Pisgah’s Memorial Stadium. The football players don red and black helmets with the phrase “mill town” centered at the forehead – no opponent will mistake where the Bears come from. 

I traveled to Canton to discuss the rivalry, to hear passionate people talk about football. I went to ask if the game would mean more this year, in light of the mill closing.  I assumed one thing, and as it usually happens, walked away with a different answer. 

Let us start the story with the Pisgah Black Bears home opener at Memorial Stadium.

It was August 18th, the Friday before the first day of school for Haywood County students. The Bears have a tradition of walking together from the fieldhouse at the high school, down the hill, over the Pigeon River, toward Memorial Stadium. These players haven’t been able to make that exact walk for a home opener in over 800 days.

You see, Tropical Depression Fred in 2021 destroyed their field. Flooding devastated the town, and landslides in the community of Cruso wiped out homes. Six people lost their lives during the storm. 

This, coupled with the closing of the town paper mill, meant the first game was going to feel a little different than some had before. 

It was a perfect night for football –  a packed stadium with not a cloud in the sky. The governor had come for the coin toss. The mill whistle which used to sound three times a day had recently been affixed to the Bear scoreboard. 

Directly outside the stadium, musicians had gathered under a pavilion for Pickin’ in the Park. Banjos, mandolins and guitars riffed off one another, in a perfect display of Southern Appalachian entertainment. 

The Bears played the Brevard High School Blue Devils. When the home team scored, the mill whistle sang in celebration.

The Bears long awaited return to Memorial Stadium, ended in a win, 24-10.  It was a homecoming for the football team and the Canton community. The season had just begun, and the big game was eight weeks away.

Danny Miller is someone who has been on every side of Pisgah black bear football. 

Danny Miller: I attended Pisgah High School and graduated in 1976. Played on the football team, a state championship team my last year. Left here and went to college came back in 1988 or 89, to coach and teach at Pisgah. Played in the game, coached in the game was an athletic director, later returned to his Pisgah as principal and for 10 years was there and got to principal the game so I’ve seen it from about every angle possible.

And over time, a lot of people have contributed to keeping that rivalry alive and healthy.

I think it’s the biggest one in western North Carolina. But everybody has their rival. Everybody thinks theirs is the biggest best, they just don’t realize that ours is the biggest and the best.

If you wanted to rob a bank in Haywood County, that’s the night to do it. Because everybody, and all law enforcement. Anybody who’s everybody is that game.

Caroline Parker: Being a player or coach for the rivalry is one thing, but working in administration during the game, especially when your team is hosting, is a different beast altogether Miller tells us. 

Danny Miller: If you’re the coach of the team that loses two games in one year or four games in two years, just because they had better players than you had, you’re probably going to be job hunting.

Well as an athletic director, you’re just tickled to death you get the home game, because it’s probably a $70,000 gate. So you fund your athletic program, mostly from that game. Cause you put 10,000 people in a stadium that holds 5,000 people. There’s no walking room, there’s no standing room.

You couldn’t run the programs they provide here, without that game. You just hope for good weather. It has been postponed a time or two and played on a Saturday night or Monday night simply because financially if your gate’s cut in half because it’s pouring the rain, you’re looking at two lean years financially. So there’s lots of thought that has to go into those kinds of things. 

Caroline Parker: Danny Miller’s daughter, Lori Fox, not only grew up with a Dad as a coach, but eventually came to work in administration at Pisgah herself. You could say education is their family business. 

Lori Fox: My dad was a coach at Pisgah starting when I was in third grade. So getting to spend summers there, the    field was grass at that time. And I can remember an old Ford tractor with a real mower, you know, mowing the field, and spending time in the field house. And after the game on Friday nights, it was a huge deal to get to run out on the field and give your dad a hug. And I just really can’t remember a time the Pisgah Tuscola rivalry wasn’t a part of you know, our community, it dates back for so long. 

And on Saturday mornings when I was little, I would get my yellow legal pad and be helping, grade films. And I can still remember names and numbers from way back in the late 80s and early 90s. And so, just all of that and how it created an identity for the people of Canton, it was just really cool.

Caroline Parker: Miller and Fox both agree, the rivalry doesn’t just exist on the field. It spills over to other sports and in academics. The competitiveness is mutually beneficial to each school, and creates a strong district.

And the statewide data released for the 2021-22 school year by the Department of Public Instruction backs that up – Haywood County Schools is ranked 7th among 115 school systems in academic performance.

Lori Fox: Well, I think it’s something that people talk about and look forward to year round, especially on the football side. But there’s a rivalry that was created there a long time ago. And it’s very well established across all sports. And even academically, I can remember when DPI would release test results. Tuscola was the first school that we would go to at Pisgah and look at their data to see if we had beat them or not. So you know, football is probably the biggest, but it definitely reaches every sport, every academic, data point, everything that you do at both schools. I think you’re always looking to the otherl.

Danny Miller: I see lots of principals who feel like they have to choose between athletics and academics. We took the side of we want to embrace this and move this competitive spirit in the academic arena. And I think both places are much better off because the other place is there.

Caroline Parker: I now return to the reason I came to Canton. To ask – with the loss of the Canton paper mill, do you think this year’s rivalry game against Tuscola is going to mean more for Pisgah? 

It’s the question I assumed I knew the answer to, but I should have given more stock to the history of this region. 

Lori Fox: I don’t think we are over the mourning of losing the mill. There’s still grieving going on there. But I do think we have reached a point where we are beginning to look forward to the rebuilding process. And I think this game is indicative of just people’s spirit here. It’s gonna be a tough fight. It’s gonna go down to the last whistle being blown. And just the grit and resiliency that you experience in a football game, like this is what you see, from all the people in our community.

But I also think it will be a time of just to our communities coming together as one county after we have experienced such a devastating loss. Even though the mill’s in Canton, it has definitely impacted our entire county and the people here on both sides. So I think it will be a coming together of communities.

Danny Miller: Well, I think this is an event of its own. It will be a night that everybody can forget some of those troubles. Because that week is just you’re either a bear or you’re a mountie, and there’s nothing in between.

Caroline Parker: Here’s Chad Upton again.

Chad Upton: If it is true that so much about our identity is tied into our high school and into the existence and the lineage behind the paper mill. In losing one, does the other sort of take on even more gravitas? And I think it certainly can. So it’s hard to say how much more meaningful it will be because it just seems like it’s so meaningful already, you know, to to even add to it, I can’t even imagine.

Caroline Parker : For that night, it’s about two teams and a century old rivalry. It’s also about a singular event – the game. I went in thinking the Bears with Mill Town emblazoned on their helmets were going to march onto the field, feeling the stakes were even higher because their town has been through so much. But in asking that question, I realized the game can’t mean more, when it already means the most. The closing of a paper mill is but one chapter in the rich history of this region.

Southern Appalachian people were pioneers who made due with what they could, and carried on in spite of any challenges. The residents of Haywood County embody that identity still – whether they are a Bear or a Mountaineer. 

This was a production of EducationNC. Our organization was established to be an independent source of news – providing data, and analysis about education for the people of North Carolina. In short, we tell the stories happening in our state’s classrooms and involving our state’s students. Thank you to the people of Canton for continuing to talk with us and let us tell their stories. You can find all of our coverage at

We’ve reported on the closure of the Canton paper mill since it was announced on March 6, 2023, including a series of audio stories released in June 2023 that looked at the loss of the mill through an education lens. In the Power of Papertown, we talked with the superintendent, educators, principals, the mayor, and more to learn how those in the schools were feeling about a new and uncertain future.

One thing every conversation eventually turned to was the big football game — Pisgah vs. Tuscola. Listen to the story to see what we learned.

Behind the Story

Caroline Parker is from Franklin, Virginia, the proud product herself of a paper mill town. She reported, produced, and narrated this story.

In this story, you heard from Danny Miller, a retired Pisgah High School principal; Lori Fox, the current principal of Haywood Early College; and Chad Upton, the principal at Leicester Elementary in Buncombe County.

Music was from Canton residents who played at Pickin’ in the Park and were kind enough to let us record.

The artwork for this story was created by Lanie Sorrow.

Caroline Parker

Caroline Parker is the director of rural storytelling and strategy for EducationNC. She covers the stories of rural North Carolina, the arts, STEM education and nutrition.