David Bruce and Stacey Harden were two young assistant football coaches when they first met during spring practice at Warner Robins in 1991.
The two new coaches on the staff, Bruce and Harden took a liking to one another and bonded before they became full-time teachers in the fall.
As young men with healthy levels of energy, the new friends naturally became competitive in most tasks.
Whether it was playing Nintendo or hitting wiffle balls, the coaches turned everything into a game and both wanted to win.
“We competed in all kinds of things,” said Harden, who is in his second year as the head coach at Perry. “His personality just makes you want to get the best of him.”
Harden will try to do that Friday when his Panthers take on Bruce’s Veterans Warhawks in an important GHSA Region 2-AAA matchup for both teams.
The competitiveness waned through the years, but the friendship stayed solid. Bruce and Harden coached together for five years at Warner Robins, three years at Westside and then six more together back at Warner Robins before they both landed head coaching jobs in January 2010.
Bruce said his first call for assistant coaches would have gone to Harden had he not been in the mix for the Perry job. Harden said he would have “most definitely” offered Bruce a spot on his staff if he had not landed the Veterans job.
“David is a great guy -- he’s kind of crazy -- but he has a big heart,” Harden said. “We’re very close.”
Harden said the friendship makes Friday’s game a little uncomfortable for both teams. Neither relishes the opportunity to play one another, and the stakes are considerably higher this year than they were a year ago when Perry won 31-0.
This year, a playoff spot could be on the line. Last year, Perry won the fourth and final playoff spot out of Region 2-AAA because of an early season win over Mary Persons. Friday’s game might have similar implications.
“For 48 minutes, we’ll hate each other.” Harden said. “I’d rather have (Bruce) on my side than play against him, but that’s not the case. We want each other to win every game but one.”
Veterans (0-3, 0-2 Region 2-AAA) lost to Peach County and Mary Persons, two of the top teams in region play, by a combined 11 points. It played good enough to win both games, but its opposition made a big play or two to earn victories.
“It’s like we’re at the dollar theater, but we only have 99 cents,” Bruce said of losing close contests.
The schedule gets somewhat easier as the season goes on, but the Warhawks would push themselves into a deep hole in the race for a playoff spot with a loss. They set a preseason goal of making it to the playoffs and would likely need help to reach that goal with a loss to the Panthers.
“Our fans are seeing playoff football in September,” Bruce said. “You want to win, because you don’t want to count on other people helping us.”
Perry (2-1, 1-1) lost in triple-overtime Saturday to Mary Persons after leading by 21 points in the second half. A loss this week would push Perry behind Mary Persons and Veterans with region heavyweights Baldwin and Peach County still left on the schedule
“I thought we played pretty good football for three quarters,” Harden said. “For whatever reason, we let up.”
There’s little chance of either team letting up this week. Few coaches in Middle Georgia know each other better than these two. Harden’s offenses and Bruce’s defenses matched up against one another for years at Warner Robins and Westside practices, so both coaches have a pretty good idea of what the other will do. It will come down to the execution of game plans, both said.
“We’ll both try as hard as we can to win the game,” Harden said, “and after it’s over, we’ll go back to normal. It would just be nice to go back to normal with a win.”
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