Hollywood has spent millions -- and made billions -- on the kind of story playing out "north of the Gorge."
We've all been hooked by films such as "Friday Night Lights" or, to borrow another sport, "Hoosiers." Odes to the plucky underdog and his conquering of adversity.
But the storyline of Rabun County's 2017 football campaign is no script, nor the imagination or re-imaging of a professional writer. No, the Wildcats' march to their first state championship game appearance is as breathtaking as the views atop Rabun's own Black Rock Mountain -- and just as real, a reward for countless hours of grueling preparation and attention to detail. (The 'Cats kick off at 7:30 tonight against Hapeville Charter at Frank Snyder Memorial Stadium in Tiger; click here for a complete championship game preview.)
In short this is not a "Cinderella story," and Hollywood is just a hamlet a little further down Highway 441 (check a map of Habersham County).
"We're supposed to be here," Rabun County coach Lee Shaw said. "This is not something that just happened to us. We earned this, and we have a really good team."
The numbers back that claim, as the Wildcats own the No. 1 scoring offense and No. 2 scoring defense in all of Class AA. Rabun also features historically-talented players such as senior quarterback Bailey Fisher (amongst the top 10 in the state's career passing yards and passing touchdowns) surrounded by a bevy of talented playmakers like senior receiver/defensive back Cole Keener (52 receptions, 1,000 yards, 13 TDs; 10 interceptions) and junior receiver/safety Austin Jones (31 receptions, 615 yards, 6 TDs; 125 tackles, 5 interceptions).
This is no squad of pure over-achievers. And while the Wildcats have overcome their share of adversity, they are also a group that made a preseason goal of "state champions" and believed it -- not just dreamt it.
There is something magical, however, in the Rabun air these days. And if any people feel as though they are living a dream it is Wildcat fans, boosters and alumni.
Players and coaches have the tangible effort of practice and games to prove their abilities and championship mettle -- the blood, sweat and sacrifice that paves the way to glory. And while players' parents and coaches' families certainly carry their share of burden, they cannot affect success quite as directly. And fans and well-wishers, meanwhile -- well, they can only watch in hope.
Now those hopes are being lifted up like never before.
It is just the latest historic success for a Rabun athletic program -- the Lady Wildcats basketball team reached last season's Class AA championship game, finishing second -- and it is one that has swept up an entire community. And while the Wildcats' historic march on the field is the logical next step for a program that has been on a thrilling upward trajectory since Shaw's re-connection with his alma mater in 2012, it is how the Rabun community has reacted to that march that is the fairytale.
"This community has never stopped believing, and this is everything the community ever hoped for," Shaw said. "The buy-in they've made -- the momentum has just kept picking up, and it's just special. And it's drawn this community closer."
Drive through Tiger on a Friday night and you can practically feel the optimism. Join the gameday traffic and set foot in Frank Snyder Stadium and it almost smothers you. This is one proud community; and for all the old tales of small towns shutting down on Friday night, locking up shops and restaurants with "gone to the game" signs in the window, in Rabun it is actually happening.
Clayton favorite Mama G's (an italian eatery recently rebuilt from the ashes of a fire) warned customers before the semifinal round that there would be no service past 7 p.m. Employees were headed to the game -- and it was a safe bet from all the red-clad customers piling in a few hours before kickoff that they would be doing the same.
It would not surprise to see the whole of Rabun County shutting down early Friday afternoon. The school is letting out early (1:30 p.m.) to help avert traffic snarls. And if you plan to head that way, an early departure time might behoove you. And with all this game means to those in the stands, it's no wonder.
"An epic event like this can mean so much to people -- there's plenty of people that may have personal or family problems. But for two-three hours they can come here and forget about that and be a part of this amazing thing," Shaw said. "Every one in this community is a part of this. And it's been incredible to watch what it has meant to this community.
"Movies are made about stuff like this."
Come tonight, what happens on the Frank Snyder gridiron will follow a plan set down long ago by a committed group of coaches and players. What happens in the stands and around Rabun, however, will be something worthy of folklore.