When Aiken High takes the field Friday night at Hagood Stadium, its game against Greenwood will be its last non-region tune-up before league play begins in Region 4-AAAA.
The region opener for the Hornets is at arch rival South Aiken for the yearly meeting between the city's two football teams.
That series will soon reach its 40-year anniversary. Before that, though, there was just one Aiken High School. And on fall Friday nights, there wasn't anywhere else to be.
"It was what you did on Friday night. Everybody came to the games. This town shut down when we played on Friday night," said Jim Hanna. "It was like ... when you go to a Spartanburg or you go to a Dorman, you go to a Summerville. Everybody knew us. It was all about us on Friday night. And it really wasn't all about us. It was all about who we were getting ready to pound on."
Hanna played for Aiken High's final teams before the split, and he was part of some successful seasons under head coach Eddie Buck. He was also part of a group that made it known that a game against Aiken was going to be a dogfight against a physical, athletic bunch of Hornets.
"We expected to win every night, and it didn't matter who we were playing," he explained. "The one thing that you knew when you played Aiken was that you were gonna get hit, and you were gonna get hit every play, and you were gonna get hit all night long. And we were any time, anybody, any place, we would play anybody."
Aiken High's 1978 team was one of the school's finest, a team that was ranked as high as No. 2 in the state during an undefeated regular season. The Hornets won the Region 3-AAAA title and finished at 11-1. And they were a team that expected to win the state championship, Hanna said, before losing a second-round playoff game to Greenwood. That game was such a rough-and-tumble affair that Hanna wasn't sure they'd have been able to beat Irmo the next week, anyway – Greenwood didn't.
That team had already beaten Greenwood that year in a game no one outside of the Hornets' locker room had given them a chance to win. Instead, they ruined what was supposed to be legendary coach Pinky Babb's 300th victory and kept their unbeaten season rolling.
Hanna, a junior tackle on that team, said the core group of players had played together since they were little kids playing rec ball. They had grown up together and played other sports together, and they were – and remain – really close. That's what Hanna said made the team so good.
Of course, it didn't hurt to have plenty of talent. Hanna was an All-County pick as a sophomore in 1977, and he was a Shrine Bowl selection as a senior before a four-year career at Wofford. He anchored a line that included Kim Alexander, an eventual four-year starter at The Citadel, and future NFL star William "Refrigerator" Perry. Hanna added that Wendell Moore played at defensive end before playing at Western Carolina.
Hanna described what he called "an interesting phenomenon" relating to the '78 team: Of 11 defensive starters, nine scored a touchdown during the season and two players had more than one. The team's aggressive style led to plenty of turnovers, and Hanna housed one against Lugoff-Elgin.
"We ran an inside stunt, and I took the handoff and ran 75 yards for the touchdown," he said. "Wasn't worth anything the rest of the night; I was tired."
Hanna said the then-245-pound Perry was "built like a Greek god", and both became starters following a loss to Georgia powerhouse Butler in 1977. It was then that Jimmy Hanna and Anthony Perry became known as Jim and William, respectively.
The name changes were Buck's doing, Hanna said. He explained that the coach told him Jimmy was a boy's name and Jim a man's name, so it was time to make the switch. And he said Perry had been going by Anthony, his middle name, before Buck started calling him by his first name.
"It was a lot of fun (playing for Buck). He really did a great job of motivating us," said Hanna, who volunteer coached under Buck for a couple years after finishing college. "We also knew, though, that if we were stuck on the corner somewhere and didn't have a way to get home, Coach Buck would get us home. He was always there for us, and he always really took care of us as young men. ... He genuinely cared about all of us and still to this day does."
But back to Aiken-South Aiken.
The upcoming city rivalry is an intense one, but Hanna was part of a spirited rivalry he said was much deeper: the Hornets' with North Augusta, a football program with a very rich history that had spent previous years picking on Aiken High.
"It was huge. It was almost like a Carolina-Clemson rivalry. But it wasn't almost – it was. And that goes way, way back," he said.
The '78 team moved to 10-0, capping its undefeated regular season, with a win over North Augusta in its new stadium – the Yellow Jackets had previously played at Lions Field. In that game, Aiken jumped out to a 20-0 halftime lead and held on for a 23-14 win.
"What ended up happening was, Myron Bell picked off a pass at the end of the game and ran out the clock," Hanna said. "As soon as you hear the horn hit, he took a knee. When he took a knee, two guys from North Augusta hit him.
"And, of course, you know what ensued after that. And it was a donnybrook," he laughed. "But that was just kind of the way the rivalry was. They didn't like us. We didn't like them, and that was that."
Hanna described a college-like atmosphere at Aiken High games, one where he said the relationship between the student body, fans and team was "incredible". And he said that playing for Aiken High in the late 70s was like a movie, where everyone in town knew, recognized and cheered on the players.
"The town was behind us. We had support that was just incredible," he said. "It was a very, very special time here."