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story.lead_photo.caption Adkins Stadium will host the first Jefferson City-Helias football game tonight. Photo by Jason Strickland / News Tribune.

It was a rite of passage.

For years, when we hired a new sportswriter and the high school football season approached, they noticed something missing from the schedule. And then came the question.

"Why don't the Jays and Helias play each other?"

How do you answer a question that would get 100 different answers if you asked 100 different people? So I pulled out my tried and true Dad-like response.

"They just don't."

But they're in the same city?

"They just don't."

And they play their home games at the same stadium?

"They just don't."

Starting tonight, I can't say that anymore. For the first time, the Jefferson City Jays and Helias Crusaders will meet in football.

What changed? How did we get here?

It took voters approving funding to build a new high school, and at least as important, "the butterfly effect" of a decision made by a school 60 miles away.

III

If Chris Hentges and Ron Cole had their way, the Jefferson City-Helias football series would be approaching its 20th edition tonight.

In 1997, Cole was the head coach at Jefferson City and Hentges was in his first stint of leading the Helias program. They signed a contract to play a football game at the junior varsity level between the Jays and Crusaders.

"Word got out and people were excited about a junior varsity game," Hentges said this week.

And with the junior varsity programs playing each other, varsity games were soon to follow.

"Exactly what we were thinking," Hentges said.

But there was one final hurdle to clear for it to become official. Jefferson City school superintendent Chris Straub and Helias president/principal Jim Rackers met to talk about the two schools starting a football series.

"Two of the finest men you'd ever want to meet," Hentges said. "They got together, talked about it and told coach Cole and I to tear up the contract, we're not playing that game."

That was that. And to the best of Hentges' knowledge, there were no more discussions about Helias and Jefferson City meeting in football in the ensuing years.

But fast forward 20 years and talk began of what turned out to be the Central Missouri Activities Conference.

III

Helias and Jefferson City — along with the Columbia trio of Battle, Hickman and Rock Bridge — were without a conference in high school sports.

That independent status can bring about some scheduling headaches, especially when you're attempting to find football games in the fall when a lot of other schools are playing conference contests.

So there were preliminary talks about the five teaming up to start a conference. But they already played each other in every other sport — well, except Jefferson City and Helias in football — so there wasn't much benefit to doing it. Some day, they'd get around to it.

But then Jefferson City voters in 2017 approved funding for what is now Capital City High School. So since Jefferson City would be willing to join, so would Capital City.

That made six potential conference members. But there still needed to be a push to get the process started.

That final piece of the puzzle was ready to fall into place. And it came from an unlikely source.

III

To put it simply, the "butterfly effect" can be imagined like this. A butterfly flapping its wings in one spot can eventually evolve into a wind storm someplace else.

Sedalia Smith-Cotton decided to leave the West Central Conference after the 2017-18 school year. But as a large school in an area full of smaller ones, it quickly became apparent scheduling games in all sports was going to be an issue. Smith-Cotton was looking for an established conference to join.

Or perhaps help start one.

Smith-Cotton got in contact with Jefferson City, Helias and the Columbia schools about a conference. Those informal talks turned serious as Smith-Cotton took the lead in organizing what turned out to be the CMAC.

It had been so ingrained in my head through the years the Jays and Crusaders were never going to play football, the first thing I thought when I heard about the potential starting of the conference was, "Is it for football, too?"

The decision to start the CMAC became official in 2019, with conference play starting in the 2020-21 school year. The blowing winds had put Jefferson City and Helias onto each other's football schedule.

There are hundreds and hundreds of players who wore the Red and Black or the Blue and Gold through the years who would likely give up pretty much everything for the opportunity to play tonight.

The Jays-Helias game will always be big, just look at the interest in the crosstown showdowns in the other sports they play. But there's only one first time. And that's tonight.

It's taken 60 years to travel the 1.5 miles down Stadium Boulevard.

It's Game Day.

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