When he walked into a sports memorabilia shop at the Macon Mall on Tuesday, Julian Burnett was the epitome of a cautious, careful shopper.
A man on a mission, he was searching for the perfect purchase.
After all, the item he was buying had to live up to a set of carefully crafted guidelines: It had to be an article of clothing; it had to be a highly visible item; and perhaps most importantly, it had to contain the colors and logo of his new favorite college football team — Georgia Tech.
“When I went to pay for it,” Burnett said, “the guy at the register asked me if I was going to Georgia Tech next year, and I said, ‘Yes.’ Then he said, ‘You must be that linebacker. They just got done talking about you on the radio.’ ”
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The moment caused him to break into a grin that was rivaled only by the smile on his face Wednesday afternoon at Westside when he placed his signature on a national letter-of-intent to continue his football career at Georgia Tech.
Donning his purchase — a blue and gold tie adorned with tiny logos of the Yellow Jackets’ mascot, Buzz — the high school senior made his college intentions known in front of more than 100 of his classmates, football teammates and family.
Meanwhile, less than 20 miles away, his longtime rival, Northside senior defensive tackle Abry Jones, grabbed a bright red hat with the unmistakable black ‘G’ logo of Georgia and placed it on his head as an equally excited crowd gave him a thunderous ovation at his high school library.
Competitors on the gridiron the past four seasons, the two Middle Georgia stars will be continuing their rich rivalry once again this fall, only this time they will do so on the college level.
Taking part in an annual tradition in November, the pair will take part in one of college football’s most storied rivalry games when the Bulldogs face the Yellow Jackets.
Winner of three straight games in one of Middle Georgia’s top high school rivalries the past four seasons, Jones, a 270-pound defensive lineman, already got the trash-talking started.
“He’s going to Tech, I’m going to Georgia, but I’m going to try my best to make sure that Georgia-Georgia Tech rivalry goes the same way as the Northside-Westside one,” Jones said at his signing ceremony. “They never beat us.”
With Burnett’s signing event occurring two hours after Northside’s festivities concluded, the Seminoles linebacker had time to prepare a response.
“Playing against Abry for the last three or four years has been an experience,” Burnett said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for him. He’s a really good player.“But as far as me wanting him to beat me for another three or four years, I’m not going to let that happen. I’m going to do everything in my power to end that streak that he had and put it in my hands.”
During their high school careers, Jones’ Eagles beat Westside three consecutive times between 2005-07. Appearing in the same GHSA region during those years, Northside and Westside met regularly during the regular season. Playing in different classifications this past season, the teams met in a preseason exhibition game but did not meet during the regular season.
In the 2007 meeting — a high-energy contest put on in front of a packed house at McConnell-Talbert Stadium — there was much more on the line than usual. With Westside in the midst of a late-season push, Northside played the role of spoiler, beating the Seminoles 22-12, before rolling to a 15-0 record and a second state title.
During Jones and Burnett’s college careers, however, this new rivalry doesn’t seem as if it will be quite as one-sided.
Under first-year head coach Paul Johnson this past season, Georgia Tech snapped a seven-game losing streak to rival Georgia, beating the Bulldogs 45-42. With their unique option offense, many college football experts believe the Yellow Jackets could enjoy similar success against the Bulldogs in future seasons.
“I hope that (Jones and Burnett) will represent our area and you guys (in the media) will want to cover them,” Northside head coach Conrad Nix said. “It’s just like (Wednesday). You saw all the red and black and all Georgia stuff here, and it motivates them to want to be associated with it and actually form a rivalry. I think Georgia Tech did a good job coming back and winning this year, so that fuels that rivalry a little bit.”
While Jones will be the only Middle Georgian enrolling into Georgia as a freshman next fall, Burnett will be joined by two others.
Fitzgerald’s Jemea Thomas will come to Georgia Tech as an A-back on the offensive side of the ball, and Washington County linebacker Brandon Watts will join the Yellow Jackets’ defense.
“It’s uplifting for the whole Middle Georgia community and everyone around here to have all these signings because for a couple of years, we didn’t have that. There’s been years in the past recently where no one went anywhere,” Burnett said. “So from going to having no one go to school to having people going to the schools that we’re going to, it’s just a big jump and a big opportunity for all of us to take advantage of, and that’s what we’re all going to do.”