The moment stands out vividly to Rob Brown.
On the Georgia Dome turf against Lincoln County in the 2000 Class A semifinals, little was going right for Commerce. In the huddle, the Tigers were plenty frustrated. Brown remembers an usual reaction from his high-profile teammate.
“I remember like it was yesterday: Monté Williams was laughing,” said Brown, then a junior tight end. “And I looked at him, and I said, ‘Hey man, why are you laughing? We’re really struggling here,’ and he said, ‘Man, they think they got it won. They don’t know what’s about to come.’ I said, ‘OK, whatever you say, man.’”
Williams’ words were prophetic.
The record-setting tailback scored twice in the fourth quarter as Commerce erased a 14-3 deficit and won 17-14, sending the Tigers to the state finals against Buford.
Six days later, an unprecedented crowd descended on Tiger Stadium Dec. 15, 2000 to watch Commerce beat Buford 27-19 for the state championship. The Commerce News reported over 6,000 fans in attendance with vehicles parked as far away as Jefferson Rd.
“The biggest thing I remember was just the amount of people at that game,” Brown said. “We had never seen that many people in Commerce at Tiger Field … and probably hadn’t since.”
The passage of time is difficult to believe for some, but the 2020 season marks the 20th anniversary of Commerce’s hard-won 2000 state title.
Memories, though, remain vibrant. Memories of a 13-2 season that included both dominating victories and pressure-grinders, of a once-in-a-lifetime talent at running back and of that overflow home state championship crowd that’s as much a part of the folklore of that season as the games themselves.
“From under the eye of the tiger, to the tiptop of the hill and even outside of the fence, it was like being in a college bar,” Kyle Moore, a junior on the team, said of the crowd. “It was shoulder-to-shoulder … It was just insane.”
Here are more recollections from players and coaches who delivered that state title 20 years ago.
Rob Brown, tight end/quarterback
Rob Brown can be found on Friday nights as Commerce’s PA announcer. Twenty years ago, he was on the field, helping the Tigers win a state title.
“Time flies,” Brown said. “It is hard to believe that it’s been 20 years.”
Brown recalled that the 1999 Tigers “may have been better” but the 2000 team seemingly had fate on its side.
“The ’99 team was super talented and just didn’t get the breaks the 2000 team did,” he said.
The 2000 team certainly won its share of close games. Five contests were decided by eight or less points. That included the state title game, which the Tigers won by eight points over a Buford team that featured future Florida State star and NFL player, P.K. Sam.
“And when it was over, you know, we’re young and thinking, ‘Oh, we’ll do it again next year,’” said Brown, who went on to start at quarterback the following season. “You don’t really realize how special that is until you’re 20 years removed and still haven’t won another one.”
Brown remembers the team feeling confident against a Buford team it had already defeated 18-14 in the regular season. Commerce raced out to a 21-0 lead and held on for the 27-19 win, delivering the second state title in school history, 19 years after the first one. Brown, now 36, works at his family’s insurance agency in town. His office includes memorabilia from the 2000 title run, which tends to spark conversations.
“I talk about Michael Collins and Monté Williams, the big names that were on that team,” Brown said. “It’s definitely something I’m proud to say I’m associated with and lucky to have been associated with.”
In some ways, the title does seem like it was 20 years ago for Brown. Midway through his 30s, he is recovering from recent open-heart surgery (a valve replacement, stemming from a birth defect). “So, I obviously feel a little bit older right now,” he said.
Brown, who coached at Commerce for about a decade before going into insurance, has maintained close ties to Tiger football with his duties as PA announcer, which he took over a couple of years ago. He reflects on what that state championship season 20 years ago meant to Commerce.
“I remember a guy catching me in a parking lot one day (back then), saying ‘Y’all put Commerce back on the map.’ I’m thinking, ‘What do you mean?’ Because I’m 16 or 17 years old. At the time, I think it was a huge thing for our community, and a point of pride for the community, just like if we won one now.”
Kyle Moore, outside linebacker
When Kyle Moore looks back on that season, he remembers teammate Lee Sorrow, who passed away in an automobile accident a few years after graduation from Commerce High School.
The two started on opposite sides of the field at outside linebacker. Each player had three interceptions on the year entering the state title game. “In every one of those games, Lee had an interception, and later in the game, I had an interception,” Moore said.
Sorrow intercepted a pass in the first half of the state title game, and told Moore it was time for him to do the same.
“My comment to him was, ‘Well, I’m trying to wait and make it more dramatic’ or something to that extent,” Moore said.
Moore was true to his word, intercepting a pass — bobbling the ball and then finally securing after he fell and kicked the ball to himself — with around two minutes remaining to seal Commerce’s win against Buford.
“The interception, of course, is the big memory, but the one that sticks with me the most is my time with Lee that year,” Moore said. “Great dude.”
Moore is now 36 and vice president of operations for a commercial landscaping company. He’s also served six years on the Commerce Board of Education between two different stints. Moore said the state championship season still comes up from time to time.
“Certainly more with the older generation than the younger generation,” Moore said with a laugh.
But Moore added, “Never, ever does it get old or never does it not bring a smile to my face.”
The former outside linebacker said he takes a great deal of pride in that state title 20 years ago — and being from Commerce. The two are inextricably linked.
“Even though Commerce has changed and is changing, there’s still a lot about it that I see when the boys take the field on Friday night,” he said. “There’s a lot of me I still see in a lot of them. In kind of some way, shape or form, you get to relive those Friday nights every time you come out to a ball game.”
Michael Collins, quarterback/defensive back
Michael Collins was asked about what he remembered from a schedule (including the playoffs) that included two games each against both Lincoln County and Buford, as well as single matchups with teams like Washington-Wilkes, the Class AA runner-up.
“A lot of soreness,” Collins said.
Collins, a senior in 2000 who went on to play at Tennessee and Clemson, remembers the aches and pains the following mornings after those hard-hitting Friday nights. The Tigers played a demanding schedule, facing nine playoff teams during the regular season. Those teams combined for a 78-44 record.
“Coach (Steve) Savage and coach (Rex) Gregg and the coaching staff did a really good job of making sure we were prepared every week,” Collins said.
The 2000 season marked a big change for Collins, who moved from wide receiver that year to quarterback and took over the reins of the Tigers’ vaunted triple-option offense. He admits the change was tough initially.
“But it was a challenge I looked forward to and I accepted and I think it gave me the ability to kind of be in a leadership position more so than a wide receiver,” he said.
And Collins did become comfortable. He rushed for over 1,000 yards that season in leading a state-championship offense. Having the state’s all-time leading rusher in the backfield certainly didn’t hurt matters.
“Luckily for me, a lot of the time and attention was on Monté, so I would just turn and get a few yards, and it was on to the next play,” Collins said.
Collins didn’t throw many passes that season, but hit a huge one in the state title game against Buford — a 41-yarder to Williams — for the game’s first score. Collins ran for 71 yards that night — Williams had 272 — to help the Tigers defeat Buford.
Collins remembered the cathartic feeling of “getting over the hump” with that victory.
“Just a sense of relief,” he said. “It was the first state title in Commerce in a long time — just the jubilation we knew the city of Commerce was going to have.”
Collins called Williams “unbelievable,” though he said he didn’t fully grasp how great Williams was during his playing days. But, in the years that have passed, Collins has gone back and watched YouTube highlights of Williams’ runs. He said the things he saw his old teammate doing were “ahead of its time.”
“Back then, you really didn’t see it that often,” Collins said. “To see some of the cuts that he made, and the tackles that he broke and just the speed of his feet. It was something that was very impressive, and, like I said, I think when you’re in the moment you kind of don’t realize it.”
But Collins largely doesn’t think of that season too much these days. He’s now 38 and has been in law enforcement in South Carolina since 2006.
“I’m married. I have kids. I’ve got a 14-year-old and a 9-year-old that are doing their thing in sports. So, I kind of enjoy their moments,” Collins said. “Every now and then, they forget that I was an athlete, so I have to remind them that I wasn’t always this old and have bad hips like I do now.
“For the most part, I continue to look forward and grind along just like I did back then,” Collins said.
Michael Brown, assistant coach
For Commerce’s current head coach, Michael Brown, the championship came in only his second year as an assistant coach for the Tigers, following a 13-1 season the previous year.
“It kind of spoiled me,” he said of that two-year stretch.
Brown remembers the 2000 team melding talented senior leaders with a host of up-and-coming younger players. A sophomore (Nix Cox) and freshman (Casha Daniels) started at linebacker, along with two sophomores (Kenny "Bug" Flint and Taylor Massey) and a freshman (Tommy Eason) who started along the offensive line.
Brown remembered thinking the 2000 team had a chance to be good when it beat Buford for the region title and then trekked to Johnson County a few weeks later for the quarterfinals and brought home a win.
Twenty years later, Brown still remembers a key adjustment in the second quarter of that game. Head coach Steve Savage noticed a misalignment in the Trojans’ defense, which left a huge gap. Savage quickly ordered a change at the line of scrimmage: “Blast strong.”
“So we changed the play at the line of scrimmage to ‘blast strong’ and Monté popped it and scored and kind of put us way ahead at halftime,” Brown said.
The Tigers never looked back after “blast strong,” advancing on to the semifinals in route to a title.
“That was kind of a moment that I’ll never forget,” Brown said.
Adam Stephenson, offensive line
Count Adam Stephenson among those who find it hard to believe 20 years have passed since that state championship run.
“Not even close,” said Stephenson, a starting senior center on that team. “Seems like it was yesterday.”
Stephenson served as a leader and mentor that year for a young offensive line that started three underclassmen. He said he believes that’s one of the best offensive lines Commerce has ever fielded “just as far as how tough and willing to learn" those young linemen were.
“I remember they would come to me and ask me a lot of times about a play, ‘What am I doing here?’ and all that,” Stephenson said. “If I didn’t know, I would just tell them ‘Hey, let’s just double team them, and let’s just knock the pee out of somebody.’”
Stephenson recalls the buildup during the day for the state title game on Dec. 15, 2000. Players sat in class trying to concentrate to no avail. Stephenson remembers the marching band and cheerleaders going up and down the halls.
“Nobody could really focus,” Stephenson said.
Assistant coach Rex Gregg eventually came and summoned the football players out of class.
“He said, ‘Y’all go down to the field house,’ and coach Savage said, ‘We don’t want y’all up there in all of that mess. We want y’all down here focused.’”
A little after lunchtime, Stephenson noticed people already gathering in a line to get a good seat for a game that wouldn’t start for hours.
As for the game, Stephenson remembers the packed house and how Commerce sprinted out to a 21-0 lead, weathered a 19-point rally from Buford and then went ahead 27-19 on a 56-yard third-quarter touchdown run by Williams.
“We knew that they had a good team, and they were going to make a run for it,” Stephenson said.
There’s a photo of Williams breaking free on one of his touchdown runs that stands out to Stephenson all these years later. Stephenson, now 38 and a firefighter-paramedic, is seen striding behind Williams in the picture.
“It looks like I’m right behind him … but I’m about 40 yards behind him,” Stephenson said. “But I tell people I was keeping up with him.”
Twenty years later, Stephenson said that state title “meant everything” to Commerce — a place where former players attend every game and stand on the hill just beyond the west end zone to discuss old memories and Tiger traditions.
“That’s what Commerce is,” he said. “It’s a football town. We don’t miss a game … And we feel like if you play for Commerce, you’re part of a family. I think that everybody is just proud that they made it through if they did play, and I think the ones who don’t play, they regret it.
"It’s just one of the biggest honors of my life, playing for that team and winning a state championship.”
Monté Williams, running back
Monté Williams paused for a moment to think about the question: “Does it feel like it’s been 20 years?”
“Ah, yeah …,” Williams said finally. “I’ve got kids now, so yeah.”
Williams is a name that elicits intrigue whenever brought up. His exploits on the prep football field remain legendary. A YouTube search of “Monte Williams Commerce” reveals around a dozen highlight videos. His 8,829 career rushing yards ranked fourth all-time — nationally — when his playing days ended.
“I was used to backyard football,” Williams said, reflecting on his career. “Coming into regulation (football), it was kind of a big switch. Because the linemen weren’t as fast, they couldn’t carry the ball. There was actually a line to protect you now. So, to walk into that atmosphere, and to learn it. It meant a lot to see what I was becoming a part of.”
And what he became a part of was a 48-6 run at Commerce between 1997-2000.
“We just had a great group of guys each year,” Williams remembered. “From the get-go, the seniors just taught us everything that we needed to know. If they hadn’t been there when we were freshmen, we wouldn’t have made it as seniors.”
Williams points more to the semifinals win over Lincoln County during his senior year that catapulted the Tigers to the state finals rather than the state championship itself. He recalls standing on the 20-yard line on the Georgia Dome turf as the clock ran out, knowing the team would play for a championship the next week.
“It was kind of like a breath-taking moment for me … To realize that we worked so hard to get there and we finally made it,” he said.
Williams, who went on to play junior college football at Butler Community College, is now 38 years old and lives in Nicholson. He’s been working in construction for the past six years.
While he’s happy for the experience and playing alongside his teammates, the 2000 state title is not something Williams reflects on often.
“I don’t really think about the state championship,” Williams said. “I think about the games that we really had to fight to win. That’s what caused us to get there … I’ve talked to a few guys about it, but not many. It’s just something I don’t bring up.”
Steve Savage, head coach
“Has it been 20 years? Good lord,” said former Commerce football coach Steve Savage when asked about that year.
Savage was in his 12th season with the Tigers when they won it all in 2000. He’s now two decades removed from that title run, though it sometimes doesn’t feel that long ago.
“In a way it has, in a way it hasn’t, but I’ve still got memories of it,” he said.
Neither Savage, nor his team, made it a goal to win the state title that year, he said. Nor was there pressure within the program to do so.
"We wanted to be better today than we were yesterday," Savage said.
The 1999 team, however, was perhaps a bigger favorite, among state-wide observers, than the 2000 squad to win a championship. But the 1999 team fell short in the semifinals against Lincoln County after winning its first 13 games.
“Coming back the next year, we didn’t have all those parts,” Savage said. “We had some of them.”
Those parts included Twion Shealer, Casey Gary, Michael Collins, Nix Cox and Monté Williams — all of whom became all-state selections that year.
“But we had a young offensive line that really got better and better and better as the year went on,” Savage said. “Really smart kids who played really well.”
Savage, who coached 22 seasons for Commerce and won 181 games, pointed to some gripping games that year. There was beating Lincoln County in the regular season with a Casey Gary field goal on an untimed down and defeating Buford for the region title in the regular season finale. The state quarterfinals victory over Johnson County also sticks in his memory (“We fooled around and got out of there with a win,” he remembered).
“Sometimes, you don’t know how you do things,” Savage concluded. “It just happens.”
The coach also recalled the special teams heroics of the semifinals win over Lincoln County: Taylor Massey making a crucial stop on a punt fake, Williams blocking a punt and Michael Collins booming a 70-plus yard punt in a critical moment that flipped the field position late.
“Things just happened,” Savage said.
And, like everyone else interviewed, Savage remembers the mass of people that poured into Tiger Stadium on the night Commerce played Buford for the state title. Not only were the stands and open spaces filled to capacity with fans, but about 100 coaches from around the state watched the game in a roped-off area near the old concession stand.
“(Former principal) Donnie Drew did a great job of organizing the event,” Savage said. “You don’t just organize something like that. It just doesn’t happen. You’ve got to have good people running it.”
Savage recalls sitting on a bench before the game and seeing someone emerging from the bottom parking lot through the dark. When he finally could see who it was, he realized it was Buford coach Dexter Wood.
“We sat down and talked for about 20 minutes before the game,” Savage said. “Not many people know that … Not many opposing coaches are going to sit around and talk right before you kickoff … We were talking about the night and how things were going and two teams from the same region playing.”
Commerce raced out to a big lead over Wood’s Wolves and then protected it, though the lead narrowed to 21-19 at one point in the third quarter.
“We made a lot of plays in that game,” Savage said. “Of course, Buford made a lot of plays, too.”
Williams’ 56-yard run was one of the biggest plays, giving the Tigers a 27-19 lead. As the game grew late and the Tigers maintained that eight-point edge, Savage remembered growing a little more comfortable.
“Because I knew the worst thing that could happen was that they would tie us,” he said. “And at that time, there wasn’t an overtime (for a state title game) … That made me a little bit more relaxed knowing that.”
Savage doesn’t remember much about the water-cooler dousing that awaited him after the clock hit triple zero. But he does remember seeing a photo some time later that captured the moment.
“My son Jesse was in the background, and it was a neat thing,” Savage said.
Savage pointed to the number of good players on that roster, those who weren’t headliners (“Great team players,” he said.). But Williams was a singularly unique talent.
In the state title game, Savage remembers Williams coming over to him after having scored three touchdowns. The coach asked his star running back, “Is that all you’ve got?’”
Not backing down from the good-natured challenge, Williams answered by scoring his fourth touchdown, outrunning the Buford defense — which included P.K. Sam — for his 56-yard touchdown.
“He scored and he came over to me and said, ‘What do you think about that?’” Savage remembered.
That touchdown was the 97th of Williams’ career. Williams also passed NFL Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith on the national high school career rushing list that night.
“Those kind of players don’t come along often,” Savage said.
Savage still lives in Commerce, having retired to a life of fishing, golf and “fiddling around” in his wood shop. Now 65, the biggest pride he takes in that championship season is that Commerce has continued to win.
“Commerce has won football games for a long time … I think we’re 21st in the state or 20th in the state or something like that in all-time wins,” Savage said. “I guess the proudest I am is that coach Brown — and there’s several guys on that staff that played for me — they’re still doing it. That’s what really makes you proud, that they’re still getting it done.”
Savage said he doesn’t bring up the state-title season much, but living in Commerce, he does tend to run into those players from time to time.
When he does, old stories are re-told and a special season — if only briefly — lives again.
“And my story, and their story don’t always match up,” Savage said with a laugh. “But I sure do enjoy listening to them though.”