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Native Sons: Two Super Bowl LI opponents are the pride of Carrollton, Georgia

Though they're facing off against each other in the Super Bowl, Atlanta's Josh Harris and New England's Jonathan Jones have one united group behind them: the small football town of Carrollton, Georgia, where they went to the same high school.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Like so many other Super Bowls before it, Super Bowl LI will feature players on both sides from areas around Miami, greater Los Angeles and New Orleans. Unlike any Super Bowl before, though, this one will boast players listing Carrollton, Georgia as their hometown.

Not only does next week’s Patriots-Falcons matchup feature two players from the town of 25,000 people, but both of those players went to the same high school. It’s unclear exactly how many times two players from the same high school have faced each other in the Super Bowl, but it’s certainly rare. (The most recent example is just last year, when Carolina guard Trai Turner played against Denver cornerback Lorenzo Doss, both of whom were graduates of St. Augustine High in New Orleans.)

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This year, we have the Falcons' Josh Harris in one corner and the Patriots' Jonathan Jones in the other. Harris, Atlanta's long snapper for the past five years, is a 2016 inductee into the Carrollton High Sports Hall of Fame who played linebacker and snapper for the Trojans before walking on at Auburn in 2007, where he would eventually snap for the national champions. Opposing him next Sunday will be Jones (no relation to this writer), an undrafted rookie cornerback and special teamer for the New England Patriots. Jones starred on the track team and at corner for the Trojans before following Harris’s footsteps at Auburn and eventually into the NFL.

The two never overlapped in high school or college, but they’ve kept up with one another. Harris sent Jones a text last Sunday night after the matchup was set to tell him congratulations. That will be the last time the two talk until the game.

“The tradition there [in Carrollton] is amazing,” Harris said. “It’s been a successful program long before we got there and it’ll be a successful program long after we’re gone,” Harris said. “It’s a great, great organization, and it’s a fantastic city and fan base to rally around.

“But we’ve got a job to finish. The goal isn’t getting to this game, it’s winning this game.”

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Football in Carrollton is a classic Friday Night Lights story. The town sits about 45 minutes west of Atlanta, near the Alabama border and at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Carrollton High has won seven state titles and seen just five head coaches since 1958.

The school has about 1,300 reserved seats—yes, high school season tickets—each season, and principal David Brooks estimates about 50–60 become available each summer after some football parents see their children graduate. Some years there are as few as 10 or 12 season tickets remaining. Those last few season tickets are sold on a first-come, first-serve basis at the Squire Shop in downtown Carrollton.

“There have been people that camp out on the streets for tickets that go on sale Saturday, get there Wednesday night and start camping out to get in line,” Brooks said. “We would take them water and burgers and coffee and donuts and stuff like that if they were camping out and waiting on the tickets to go on sale. It’s really a special place and they support these kids and football program. It’s a long line of Trojans who are proud.”

Harris and Jones are believed to be the first two Carrollton high products to play in a Super Bowl, but they’re not the first two Trojans to go to the NFL. Former second-round pick Reggie Brown played receiver for the Eagles for five seasons. His cousin, Jamie Henderson, was a fourth-round cornerback with the Jets in the early 2000s. And offensive lineman Ryan Lee bounced around the Saints and Steelers’ practice squads in 2012.

Carrollton High has eighth-grade, ninth-grade, JV and varsity programs, all of which have contributed to the school’s success over the decades. When legendary coach Charlie Grisham led Carrollton, they ran the Notre Dame box. Old-timers today tell new coaches they should implement some of the Notre Dame box if they want to win. In 1986, coach Ben Scott took the program in another direction with power I formation, and then evolved to more of a multiple-formation spread offense. When Rayvan Teague took over in 2002—he coached both Harris and Jones—he brought a double-slot, jet-sweep kind of Wing-T offense that was primarily based on the run. Today, coach Sean Calhoun runs more of a spread offense.

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Jones was a county kid before he got into the city system where Carrollton High is, and he started off playing quarterback in the eighth and ninth grade. However Teague had a couple of other true quarterbacks and didn’t think Jones could win out at that position. So the coaching staff switched Jones to cornerback, where his track skills—he was a 110-meter high hurdle national champion in high school—would help him flourish.

“I said this boy can be a Division-I corner, so I guess I can take a little solace in the fact that not only was he a Division-I corner but an NFL corner,” Teague said. “I don’t think he would have made it playing quarterback.”

In his first season with New England, Jones played mostly on special teams but saw 61 defensive snaps at corner, one pass defense, one forced fumble and 15 total tackles. As soon as Sunday night, the text messages from Carrollton started pouring in.

“There’s people back home who say, ‘I’m pulling for you, but it’s the home team,’” Jones said. “Then you have the people who say, ‘Hey, I’m pulling for you regardless.’ It’s a fun experience just to even be here.”

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Harris was a three-sport standout at Carrollton, where he wrestled and played baseball along with football. He went out for the team in eighth grade, and back then, Teague says, Harris was a “potato-shaped kid” but knew that “his genes were going to make him fast and he’d get taller.”

Harris’s mother is an administrative assistant at the school, and his family is well known around town. The Harris Family is an Auburn family—Josh’s grandfather was on the 1957 national title team—so he decided to go there and try to walk-on to the team. He tried out for snapper the first day of his freshman year and the coaches said they’d call if they needed him. About halfway through the year, that call finally came, and Harris went to the local Wal Mart, bought footballs and practiced snapping again to a friend on the intramural field.

“He made the team, got a scholarship, was snapping at the Senior Bowl and then goes to the NFL. It’s a pretty amazing story,” Teague said. “He snapped the field goal that won the national championship. Now he’s in the Super Bowl. I was talking to his dad the other day and said Josh has that horseshoe that he keeps with him. I don’t know why that horseshoe didn’t work when he was playing for us.”

For all of Carrollton’s history, the Trojans have been in a title drought. They didn’t play for a state championship during Harris’s four years there, and they made it just once during Jones’s time. The school’s last state championship win coincides with the Falcons’ only other Super Bowl run in 1998.

But the Trojans are on the rise. Under Calhoun, the team went 12–2 last year with its only losses coming to the eventual state champs and runners-up. And the Super Bowl runs of two native sons have energized the town in the off-season.

There are no pep rallies or watch parties planned in the town or school for the game yet. Principal Brooks said there’s already been jawing back and forth among students, some of whom are Patriots fans due to their dynastic run, while others are lifelong Falcons fans after growing up down the road.

Teague has since become the assistant principal and athletic director at Westside High just across the border in Anderson, S.C. He plans to huddle up with his family and watch his former players in Houston from home.

“I figure if you don’t have a ticket by now you’re probably not going to get one,” Teague says.

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If there are any words of wisdom or encouragement Teague has for his former players, they haven’t heard them. Teague lives on the lake, and over the summer he got his phone wet and lost all his contacts.

So, once next Sunday and the hype is over and either Harris or Jones has brought a Super Bowl back to Carrollton, maybe they can give their old coach a call.

Greg Bishop contributed reporting to this piece.