Chase Fourcade has been staring across the playing field into the eyes of James Tabary for more than a decade now.
The two best quarterbacks in the Southland Conference can hardly remember a time when they weren’t competing against each other.
The 2018 season is expected to be the third time Fourcade’s Nicholls team squares off with a Tabary-led McNeese. Before that it was Fourcade and Rummel against Catholic League rival Holy Cross and Tabary in a battle between two of New Orleans’ most historic preps programs.
For the most part, the series has been relatively even over the years with Tabary taking the 2016 meeting in college while Fourcade claimed victory in the lone high school meeting in 2013 and then again in 2017, when he led the Colonels on a game-winning drive to hit a field goal as time expired.
But the origins of the rivalry have nothing to do with football.
The first time Fourcade and Tabary duked it out was from across a ping pong table at Tabary’s house.
“I whipped his butt every time,” Tabary proudly claims. “I don’t think he’s ever beat me. That’s a little side score I’ve got.”
Rivalry perhaps isn’t the right word to describe Fourcade and Tabary’s relationship. It’s more of an intense brotherly competition.
The two grew up together in New Orleans. Fourcade was close friends with Tabary’s younger brother and spent more than his fair share of days over at the Tabary household playing ping pong with Tabary and future LSU baseball catcher Greg Deichmann. And before he transferred to Rummel, Fourcade was even the water boy for Tabary at Holy Cross as a seventh grader.
To this day the two text several times a week, and whenever they play a common opponent, the friends make sure to share any advice they can about the defense.
And no matter what, they always pull for the other throughout the season — with the exception of one week out the year.
“With James being the quarterback over there and us playing this past year, it just all brings back the old memories of the Catholic League and growing up,” Fourcade said. “I guess you could say the Catholic League continues.”
This year’s game will likely stand as the deciding rubber match in the series. Unless both are fortunate enough to make it the NFL or meet in the FCS playoffs, Sept. 15 in Lake Charles will be the final time they play each other.
The stage is set for what could be their best game yet.
At last week’s Southland media day, Fourcade was named first-team, all-conference as he continues to lead Nicholls through a drastic resurgence that's turned them into a major contender at the FCS level.
Fourcade threw for 2,316 yards and 14 touchdowns as a sophomore and pushed Nicholls to a home playoff game. The Colonels are predicted to finish second in the league behind only Sam Houston State.
Tabary’s junior season was a little more disappointing depending on who you ask. Despite throwing for 2,511 yards and 21 touchdowns on a 56.4 percent completion rate, McNeese coach Lance Guidry was blunt in his assessment that Tabary needs to do more for the Cowboys to return to the postseason.
The motivation for McNeese is clear: to seek revenge for the narrow loss to Nicholls this past season that would later be its downfall.
Nicholls, on the other hand, tries to continue the program’s revitalization that has seen the Colonels go from a period when they won six games in a four-year span, including an 0-12 season in 2014, to what was the best season in Thibodaux since joining the Southland in 1990.
And while those motivations are more than enough for Tabary and Fourcade, the excitement of adding another classic to their rivalry is hard to conceal.
“It’s a rivalry, but it’s a brotherly rivalry,” Tabary said. “You don’t want your little brother beating you in any sport, whether it’s Ping-Pong, pool, swimming. It’s been that way since we were 9 years old playing basketball in the backyard. That’s how far back we go. He’s family.”
Back in New Orleans all those years ago, whenever Fourcade and Tabary played Ping-Pong, the loser always received a punishment. He would have to take off his shirt, turn around and let the winner slap Ping-Pong balls into his back, leaving tiny welts if hit just right.
The days of “sting pong,” Tabary assures, are long passed and no punishments will be served in September.
The only competition that remains unsettled is who will leave as the better quarterback?
“It adds a little taste to it,” Fourcade said of their friendship playing out on the football field. “He’s got that want to win every game. It doesn’t matter who he’s playing. He wants to win. … That’s what I like about him. He’s a competitive man and I like guys who have that (competitiveness) in them and that’s what he brings to the table.”
"It's so high energy," Tabary said. "We give each other some smack talk the week before the game. The guys on both teams know we're really close, so it gets them hyped up. It's always fun. It's nothing personal, but it's something we look forward to every year."