Think high school football rivalry stories are a dime a dozen? Brad Harris recalls precise details with a contemporary link to LSU football that is priceless.
“Steve Ensminger (LSU’s offensive coordinator, ex-LSU QB) was the starting quarterback for Central. I made an interception, something linebackers didn’t do much back then,” Harris said. “I jumped up, caught the ball and was tackled immediately. My face went straight into the dirt. I had to go right back with the offensive line. I tried to get a sub for a play because I still had dirt in my eyes.”
Harris followed in his father’s footsteps as a football player at Denham Springs High. His sons have done the same, including senior offensive lineman Alex Harris.
If fathers, sons and football are woven into Louisiana’s fabric, games like Denham Springs and Central provide the intricate gold stitching. The teams meet for the 72nd straight season. Central (5-0) hosts the Yellow Jackets (1-4) for a District 4-5A Friday opener where plenty is on the line besides bragging rights.
“Ever since I’ve been here, this has been a big game,” DSHS coach Bill Conides said. “It means a lot to the community. Each year, it has been a game we have had to win to achieve our goals. It’s no different this year.”
The chance to move a step closer to a playoff berth is motivation for the Wildcats. DSHS fights to keep its playoff hopes alive. Both possibilities provide a fitting backdrop for a rivalry that Denham Springs leads 34-33-4. Incredibly, Denham Springs has averaged 16.9 points a game for the series, while Central is 16.6.
The statistics supplied by series historian Robert Graves via email came with the subject line: “It’s that time of year again!” It is a special week and season for the Harris family. Ditto that for Michael Bencaz and his son, Brayden of DSHS. Central’s Shane Evans and son Gage, along with Donald Mayeaux and his son, Braxtyn, feel the same.
All four players are seniors. None of the fathers and sons can offer a definitive explanation of why Central and Denham Springs is the Baton Rouge area’s longest running series, dating back to 1948.
Michael Bencaz makes a valid point. “When I played in the 1980s, people lumped us together — Central and Denham — the (Amite) river rats,” he said. “We were located near each other, not in Baton Rouge. Games were physical, but there was always respect."
Others rivalries, including Catholic vs. Baton Rouge High, Catholic vs. Istrouma and Redemptorist vs. Parkview Baptist, have fallen by the wayside for various reasons. Baton Rouge High became a magnet school and dropped football, Redemptorist closed.
Istrouma closed and has returned to varsity football this year as a Class 4A school. Capitol vs. McKinley is the other enduring series that dates back to the 1950s.
"This is my 13th year, and I have come to appreciate and game and its history," Central coach Sid Edwards said. "People want friendly rivalries and this one has some of that. But it's also fun when there is drama and something to prove. You got that too."
The Central-Denham Springs rivalry has changed, due to the growth of two other Livingston schools, Walker and Live Oak, into 5A schools.
“For this generation of Yellow Jacket football, I think some of the meaning of this game has been lost,” Alex Harris said. “Live Oak and Walker are physically closer to us. But I hear about this one all the time from my Dad and my grandfather. And my uncle. It means something.”
So does Braxtyn Mayeaux.
“We talk about it all the time (Central vs. Denham Springs),” Donald Mayeaux said. “And I’ll talk about the other rivalries from back then … Baker and Redemptorist.”
Brad Harris graduated in 1976. Michael Bencaz (1987-88), Donald Mayeaux (1988-91) and Shane Evans (1989-83) all played in the 1980s.
“For us, it was always the last game and the game that decided the district title,” Evans said. “Several of my classmates moved to Denham Springs. Even though it’s different now, the kids still know each other because they played together in baseball and against each other.”
Braxtyn Mayeaux, a wide receiver, offers a quick example.
“We know each other’s names and we’ll talk between plays. It’s a thing,” he said. “Last year it was a tight game and it was one we could have won. This is their Super Bowl, and they want to us it to turn their season around.”
Like Braxtyn Mayeaux, Central safety Gage Evans is versed in Central vs. Denham Springs.
“The more I learn about the rivalry, the more significant it is,” he said. “We both have good offenses and the defenses are physical. We both love the competition and it’s a pride thing.”
Brayden Bencaz, a DSHS receiver/tight end, offers a similar assessment of the teams.
“This is a must-win game for us,” he said. “The rivalry adds to it.”