By Rick Cleveland
The Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA), the governing body of the state’s public schools athletics, begins its 100th year of operations with this football season.
Mississippi high school football is slightly older.
On Dec. 5, 1905, Yazoo City defeated visiting Winona 5-0 in the state’s first high school football game. No, there wasn’t a field goal or a safety. A touchdown counted five points back then. Yazoo scored the only one. There were no shoulder pads, no helmets. The largest players on either team tipped the scales at about 145 pounds. The Winona team and supporters rode a train to Yazoo to play the game. You could look it all up. I did. Details are sketchy. There were no sports writers in Mississippi back then.
Little did those country boys from Winona and Yazoo know, but they were starting a tradition that has not only endured but flourished. Mississippi high school football has produced an inordinate amount of the greatest players in the history of the sport. Friday night football has become almost a part of the state’s culture as Sunday morning church services.
Years ago, someone asked me why high school football has such a hold on the state’s citizenry. Why do we love it so much? I wrote my answer in a column. It follows:
It’s the dimly lit, small-town field, carved and leveled from a cow pasture or a bean field, and surrounded by wooden bleachers that sag toward the middle on a Friday night.
It’s the bugs, by the millions, that swarm in the stadium lights.
It’s the mamas who wince and cover their eyes every time their boy gets hit.
It’s the dads who fidget and fret, just as they did in a hospital waiting room 16, 17 or 18 years ago.
It’s the grandmas and grandpas, aunties and uncles who scream themselves hoarse.
It’s the railbirds, too nervous to sit, who prowl the sidelines shouting encouragement to the players, advice to the coaches and things we can’t print here to the men in stripes.
It’s the rivalries: Brandon-Pearl, Booneville-Baldwyn, Mendenhall-Magee, Laurel-Hattiesburg, Forest-Morton, Pisgah-Pelahatchie and so many more.
It’s the cheerleaders, smiling, bouncing, clapping and screaming. They live for this night, and it shows.
It’s the managers and ballboys, often small boys with towels wrapped around their necks, who eagerly race onto and off the field with water bottles throughout the night.
It’s the bands, some large, most small. It’s an often off-key version of our national anthem that fans on the visitors’ side can’t hear.
It’s the majorettes shivering on a chilly November night.
It’s the little kids, behind the bleachers, playing their own spirited games with footballs made of crumpled paper cups, dreaming of their turn on the striped field on the other side of the bleachers.
It’s the homecoming court, daddies escorting daughters, praying their darling’s name will be called.
It’s the smoky aroma of hamburgers and hot dogs grilling just outside the concession stands. It’s a steaming cup of hot chocolate on that first brisk, late October night.
It’s the explosive crack of a linebacker’s shoulder pads crashing into a fullback’s gut.
It’s the coaches, some who act as generals and others more like drill sergeants. More often than not they are as edgy as a cat in a dog kennel. Wouldn’t you be if your job depended on the capricious bounces of an oblong ball and the fickle focus of teen-aged boys?
It’s coaching legends such as Jim Drewry, Mike Justice, Willis Wright, Ed Steele, Jack Bailey, M.C. Miller, Marion “Chief” Henley, Ricky Black, Mac Barnes, Stanley Blackmon and so many more.
It’s those teen-aged boys, themselves, pounding each other’s shoulder pads, shaking their fists, bouncing on the tips of their toes just prior to kickoff.
It’s the big-bellied, gray-haired head linesman in a striped shirt, telling the 15-year-old wide receiver he needs to back up a little bit.
It’s that brutally hot first game in August when everyone is undefeated and everyone’s expectations are so high.
It’s that first Friday and Saturday in December when the best of the best play in the State Championship games and whole towns follow them.
It’s so rich a heritage: a skinny wide receiver named Rice, a drum major- turned-running back named Payton, a freckle-faced redhead named Archie, a coach’s son named Favre, a mama’s boy named Stevie McNair.
It’s all those broad-shouldered, rangy, raw-boned country boys named Poole.
“Boys, have I found us a game to play,” Buster told Ray and Barney, and, boy, had he. . .It’s the sports writers, from big daily newspapers and small weeklies, thanking heaven someone actually pays them to write about these weekly passion plays.
It’s how important it all is. It’s how entire communities rally around the team. It’s our culture, part of our fabric.
It’s a fall Friday night in Mississippi.
And it doesn’t get any better. Anywhere.