TYLER, Texas — If one spends a significant amount of time in this East Texas city, they invariably may find themselves traveling on Loop 323.
The road is one of the primary arteries in town and it lives up to its name. It literally circles inside the Tyler city limits, a route that takes just a shade below 20 miles to fully complete.
For those who want to traverse the entire route of Loop 323, they will pass by a multitude of restaurants, car dealerships, shopping centers and hotels. They will also pass by the two main high schools in Tyler, a city with a population of more than 96,000 people as stated on its city limit signs.
Much like Northside and Southside has been the defining high school rivalry in Fort Smith, so too has the city-wide rivalry in Tyler between John Tyler High School and Robert E. Lee High School.
In fact, there are several comparisons between the two Fort Smith arch-rivals and the two Tyler arch-rivals, which are referred to locally as JT and Lee and is known as the "Rose City Rivalry," as Tyler is referred to as the "Rose City."
One is located on the north side of town (JT), the other on the south side (Lee).
One school's primary color is red (Lee) and the other's predominant color is blue (JT).
One had been the main high school in town (JT) before the other high school was built (Lee), in a time period similar to when Southside opened its doors.
One's mascot is an animal (the John Tyler Lions), and the other's mascot is a human (the Lee Red Raiders).
In a state well known for its obsession with football, one has more state titles than the other, as JT has three championships (one when it was called Tyler High School) compared to one for Lee. But much like Northside has more state titles than Southside yet Southside claims the most recent title (2006), so too does Lee, which opened its doors in 1958, five years before Southside was established.
And starting this season, the biggest game in both Fort Smith and Tyler will share something else in common. For the first time in 40 years, Northside and Southside will face off as non-conference foes.
The Grizzlies and Mavericks are also moving from the traditional regular-season finale in early November to now less than a month away, the season opener on Aug. 27 at Mayo-Thompson Stadium.
For many years from the 1960s on, JT and Lee squared off as conference rivals and that game was also generally the regular-season finale. But starting in 2004, the schools have been on-again and off-again conference rivals.
"It's still a big deal whether or not they're in the same district, but when they're in that same district, it means so much more as far as the playoffs," longtime Tyler Morning Telegraph sports editor Phil Hicks said. "But there's still an intensity, and they have a lot of things surrounding the game.
"They have what they call a 'Pantry Raid,' where they will award whichever school raises the most food for the East Texas Food Bank, and they have a number of things like that. Also when they play, they have the Tyler ISD (Independent School District) Hall of Fame (induction ceremony), and the first year for that was 2013."
This will be the third straight season that the Lions and Red Raiders have met in non-conference play. In recent years, they have faced off in early September on a Saturday night at Christus Trinity Mother Frances Rose Stadium (named after a local healthcare system), the venue located on the western end of the city that is shared by both schools.
Obviously when those teams face off, that means one team’s fans have to sit on the visitor’s side and that school also has to dress out in the visitor’s locker room as both teams share the home team’s locker room.
"There's a lot of intensity for sure; it's like a Texas-OU game or something like that," Hicks said. "But it's always a beautiful setting because of the red and the blue."
However, this year's game has been rescheduled for a Friday night this season, on Oct. 2, as Texas' high school governing body, the University Interscholastic League, delayed the start of the seasons for its 5A and 6A schools as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Currently, JT is a 5A school, while Lee is 6A, the only 6A school in East Texas.
So, now that "The Battle of Rogers Avenue" won't have playoff implications and it will be played in the heat of late summer rather than the chill of early autumn, will the rivalry lose some of its steam?
From the observations of those who have seen the JT-Lee game, it still means quite a bit here in Tyler no matter the records or the stakes. Sort of like how things are in Fort Smith.
"The rivalry, the heated passion, never want to lose to the other school, that will definitely always be there because you see each other consistently on a regular basis," John Tyler football coach Ricklan Holmes said. "You get to know each other very well because you all get to live in the same town, so that passion for not wanting that other one to win is never going to change."
Holmes has been part of the rivalry both as a player at JT and now as a coach, entering his ninth season at the helm of the Lions. Sort of like Northside coach Mike Falleur, who is entering his eighth season and had also played in "The Battle of Rogers Avenue" as a Grizzly player.
"Playing in it as a player and coaching in it, it still feels the same," Holmes said. "I don't want them to win and I don't believe they want me to win, either.
"It was intense (playing for JT against Lee), it was very intense because a lot of those guys I were growing up with, we would play little league football with each other and then once we got to middle school, we went our separate ways and ended up with one going to John Tyler and one going to Lee, so the trash talking started early in the season and depending on who won, it ended late in the season."
Also, much like Northside and Southside, JT and Lee are undergoing current renovations to its respective campuses.
John Tyler's campus is located on the northwest part of Loop 323. Seven miles going southeast on the loop is Lee, which is putting the finishing touches on a brand-new high school building.
Southside's new football coach, Kim Dameron, will get to experience "The Battle of Rogers Avenue" for the first time later this month.
Likewise, Lee has a first-year coach, Joe Willis, who will get his initial taste of the rivalry with JT.
"Obviously, that's a big game; it's the one that's circled on the calendar to start the year," Willis said.
"It's early in the season, everybody's excited about football and obviously, this year, it's going to be a lot of excitement just to get back and get on the field, but certainly that will be a big game between the two of us."
But Willis already has some experience coaching in a big rivalry game.
His previous stop before coming to Lee was at Colleyville Heritage, a school in the Dallas suburbs, and its big rival was from the neighboring town, Grapevine.
Ironically, as Northside-Southside will move to non-conference this season, so too will Heritage and Grapevine after many years competing as district rivals.
"I've heard a lot of good things about (the Lee-JT rivalry), and I've heard about the big crowds just like the one with Colleyville Heritage and Grapevine, so this will be my first rodeo in it," Willis said.
JT leads the current series, 33-30-1.
In addition to the state title won in 1930 as Tyler High School, the Lions also won state in 1973 and again in 1994, highlighted along the way by a memorable, epic and wild playoff win against Plano East.
But again, Lee has the latest bragging rights as far as winning the city's last state title. The Red Raiders did so in 2004.
Along with the state titles, both schools have plenty of tradition and notable players.
JT is perhaps best known as the alma mater of Earl Campbell, the former Heisman Trophy winner at Texas and legendary NFL tailback who helped lead the Lions to that 1973 state title. Another notable ex-Lion was Greg Ward Jr., who played quarterback at the University of Houston and now plays receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Lee boasts alums such as Matt Flynn, who quarterbacked LSU to the 2007 national title, and Brandon Pettigrew, who played tight end at Oklahoma State before being a first-round draft pick by the Lions — the Detroit Lions.
"I think (the rivalry) a lot of it has to do with the legacy of both schools," Holmes said. "Tyler Lee won a state championship in 2004 and before that, John Tyler has had several championships.
"So now that they have a championship under their belt, and they have proven that they can win, it brings a little more fuel to the fire knowing there's two quality teams going against each other now and not just a big brother going against the little brother."
Hicks has seen more than his share of JT-Lee games. One thing he observed is the mutual respect shown by the rivals.
"I will say, they respect each other. ... They hit hard, but I don't really see any dirty play," Hicks said.
"One year, they tied 0-0 which I think Lufkin didn't like it because it knocked Lufkin out of the playoffs. Then in 2000, I remember this, Lee was in the playoffs and JT was not, but they went into double overtime and JT won and they got into the playoffs because of that. Then one year, Lee won 6-0 on a muddy field; that's why they have turf now (at Rose Stadium) and Lee won the district for that."
But like Northside-Southside, the JT-Lee rivalry extends beyond football.
Like the Grizzlies and Mavericks, the Lions and Red Raiders play their basketball rivalry at a neutral site, in this case Wagstaff Gym on the Tyler Junior College campus.
"I actually think the basketball environment may be a little more (intense than football) because it's so loud in there. ... The boys and girls soccer teams (at JT and Lee) are also really good, so the rivalry's pretty strong there," Tyler Morning Telegraph sportswriter Brandon Ogden said.
A common characteristic in the Northside-Southside rivalry has been the various siblings who have suited up for different schools, regardless of sport. Holmes remarked that really hasn't been the case with the JT-Lee rivalry, but the Red Raiders do have one player whose brother played for the Lions.
"That has only really happened one time here because most people, they pretty much stay on the same side and the only reason that happened was because the lines got redrawn and one of those kids ended up going to the other side. ... The kid that plays for Lee now, I coached his brother two years before he went to high school," Holmes said.
Just like nearby schools in Fort Smith like Greenwood and Alma have made strides in growth and population over the years, not to mention athletic achievements, so too has the surrounding towns in Tyler.
For instance, there's Whitehouse, located approximately 10 miles south of Tyler which has received a big boost as the alma mater of recent Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes, the Kansas City Chiefs' quarterback. Other nearby schools like Chapel Hill and Lindale (where Mahomes’ father, former Major League Baseball pitcher Pat Mahomes, hails from) have strong traditions as well.
But in Tyler, more often than not, it still comes down to John Tyler against Robert E. Lee. Or whatever the schools will be called when the two teams square off in football this fall.
Last month, the TISD's Board of Trustees unanimously voted to rename the two high schools due to its respective namesakes' ties to slavery and the Confederacy.
In a matter of weeks, the schools' new names will be revealed, though Willis confirmed that both teams' mascots will remain the same.
Whatever the names, the rivalry in Tyler should remain the same intense game people have known around these parts for years. Whether the Lions and Red Raiders are district rivals or not.
Perhaps that can be the case for the Grizzlies and Mavericks starting this school year as well.
"That's never going to lessen, that's never going to lessen," Holmes said of his city’s rivalry.
"I think one thing I've noticed is the involvement of the fans. I think there's a little bit more involvement in it from a fan standpoint; not the students because the students will always be involved but just that fan standpoint. Everybody's being involved, everybody having a dog in the fight basically."