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Fulton, Mexico to battle for Highway 54 sign, pride

Fulton, Mexico to battle for Highway 54 sign, pride

October 19th, 2010 in News

Two separate instances sum up the Fulton-Mexico rivalry for Hornets head coach Pat Kelley.

For a native of one of the two towns, there's no question of who your school loves to beat the most and why so much pride is taken in their defeat.

And though Kelley has lived in mid-Missouri for the better part of 30 years, when he first started coaching at Fulton as the leader of the freshman football team, the deep waters of the almost century-old tussle didn't really sink in with him instantaneously.

Then in his first game on the sideline as the coach, the Hornets beat the Bulldogs 8-6 in what seemed like a run-of-the-mill kind of game to Kelley. But word had traveled.

"The next morning as I was getting ready to go out to school, my neighbor said something about the game and he said, 'You know if you beat Mexico, it doesn't matter what you do for the rest of the year,'" Kelley recalled. "So you kind of know."

Then after he had ascended to the varsity head job, Kelley attended a coaching conference. He was approached by a peer and coaching legend in the state of Missouri, Jefferson City's Pete Adkins.

"I was talking to him and he asked me if I was the head coach at Fulton," Kelley said. "And I kind of looked at him funny and he said he was from Mexico and he just wanted to know how I had done against them."

Adkins, who coached Jefferson City to 10 state championships, knew of the rivalry and the two schools that are separated by about 23 miles of road. The two teams lock up for the 119th time tonight at Robert E. Fisher Stadium in what has become known as the Highway 54 Bowl, an annual game that reads like a classic sibling rivalry.

There's no bad blood boiling over on either side. But nothing can leave you at peace for a full calendar year (or four weeks in the case of the 2009 season), than beating that team from just up -- or down -- Highway 54.

If Pat Kelley is considered a spring chicken -- by most standards -- to the intricacies of the Highway 54 rivalry, then think of Darrell Davis as ... well, whatever is the opposite of a spring chicken.

The recently retired Fulton athletic director is a second-generation Hornet. His older brother, the late Roger Davis, was a former Fulton High School principal and the gymnasium is named in his honor.

Darrell Davis' parents were also Fulton alums from the early 1940s.

His big brother was eight years his senior, so Davis grew up on Fulton football, specifically when it came to playing the Bulldogs.

"It's one of those rivalries where towns are close, the demographics are the same and it's a good rivalry," Davis said. "It gets heated, but once the dust settles, it's a good rivalry."

Fulton won the first-ever football meeting between the two schools, 19-14 in 1920. The Hornets lead the overall series 62-50, with another six ties. All of the games have been competitive, all of them hard-fought.

Sure there have been blowouts on both sides, but those aren't the games anyone remembers. Emphatic victories are nice, but it's the close wins -- or losses -- that really stick.

The 2001 meeting comes to mind for Davis. Mexico was led by standout receiver-safety Dedrick Harrington and was just flat-out physically imposing, according to both Davis and Kelley.

Harrington would sign with Missouri the following season, but until then, Kelley had but one request of his team.

"Dedrick was a phenomenal player and we told our kids to just make sure that you hit him, and hit him hard," Kelley said.

He meant that to everyone. Including defensive back Russell Gillette, a player so diminutive that Davis felt "I'd be lying if I said he was 160 pounds."

Still, Gillette was running neck and neck down the Mexico sideline with Harrington on a fade route early in the game when he laid a lick on Harrington that really set the tone for the game.

Up 28-23 late in the contest, all the Bulldogs needed to do was run out the clock to preserve the victory. However, a fumbled option pitch by Mexico was recovered by Fulton, leading to a late touchdown and a 30-28 win by the Hornets.

"Mexico came out on the field and they were just a huge team, but our guys came out there and stepped up and beat them," Davis said.

If snatching that win from the Bulldogs felt good, then the 2009 meeting(s) between the rivals left Fulton feeling shortchanged. After a 14-6 Mexico victory in week eight, the stars and the two teams' playoff brackets aligned.

The Bulldogs hosted the Hornets in a sectional playoff game, marking the first time the teams played twice in one season in 30 years.

Before school classifications and conferences, these two would regularly play twice a season as independents. But never had the two squared off with playoff implications.

"The game was played at Mexico last year and it was just a tremendous environment," Davis said. "It was just a huge crowd, a lot bigger than the regular-season one."

And the two teams treated the crowd to a tug of war with more than just town bragging rights up for grabs. The Hornets scored a touchdown with less than 2 minutes left but came up short on a two-point conversion attempt, losing another close game 14-13.

For a lot of years, nothing more than town pride was on the line for these two teams and Mexico had that much more by getting a season sweep over the Hornets. They also got to keep the most recent addition to the Highway 54 rivalry.

These two teams have played for so long that you'd think some sort of hardware was on the line. A football, a phone, an eatery coupon. Something, right? Wrong.

"It was a good rivalry, but we just felt like it needed something else," Davis said.

So the two administrations put their heads together to come up with something to sweeten the pot. Just about everything had been thrown around. Then-Mexico athletic director Charlie Lind threw out the idea. Highway 54 separates the two teams, so why shouldn't a Highway 54 sign go to the winner?

One call to MODOT later, and the two teams had their trophy. And for the first two times that the sign was up for grabs, it stayed in Mexico. But with a 24-21win in 2004 marked the first time the Hornets got to go home with the hardware. And it stayed there for the next three seasons.

"We keep it in our locker room and there's a spot that hasn't been painted where it has gone in the past," Kelley said. "So we'd like to get it back to cover up that spot and we're going to work our hardest to do that (Friday night)."

So in a season in which both Fulton (0-6, 0-4 North Central Missouri Conference) and Mexico (3-3, 1-1) aren't exactly setting the world on fire, the two can throw that out to battle over street signs and pride.

A sibling kind of dispute if ever there was one.