If you look strictly at the results on the field, the weekend’s high school football games in Jackson would appear to be a unanimous downer for Northeast Mississippi’s teams.
Five schools from the region played for state championships, and five lost.
But that’s far from the whole story. There is first the matter of what it took to get there, and the extraordinary achievement it represents for Tupelo, Smithville, Calhoun City, Lafayette County and Oxford high schools. Just playing for the state championship is a huge accomplishment, the product not only of talent but of hard work, discipline and sacrifice.
Of course, the last game is too often remembered out of context, as if the rest of what happened throughout the late summer and fall was wiped away. It wasn’t, and players and coaches will recognize that after the pain of not getting all the way to their goal subsides.
What they may not think about as much, but what is surely just as true, is what their accomplishments on the field meant to their schools and communities.
In an increasingly fragmented world, sports remain a common, unifying bond for people across all the lines that usually divide: race, economic class, social status. In Mississippi and much of rural and small-town America, this is especially true for high school football.
Smithville High School’s football program, for example, was a primary rallying point in pulling that community back on its feet after the devastating tornado of two and a half years ago. In Tupelo, the football team’s resurgence after a down period has served as something of a metaphor for the school system and community’s comeback from unaccustomed setbacks.
In our culture, sports is big and none is bigger than football. When high school football teams take the field, particularly when they’re from a community unified behind its public school system, they’re the closest thing that community may have to a tangible, visible expression of itself.
The players are the sons and grandsons of people across the spectrum of that community, from all conditions and walks of life, united in common purpose. So, too, are the bands and cheerleaders and fans that follow and surround the team. That can and does spread beyond the football team into broader aspects of community life.
Each of the Northeast Mississippi teams that played in Friday’s and Saturday’s state championship games gave its community a source of unity, pride and cohesiveness. Not winning the last game will never take that away.