This was no ordinary night in Smithville, just as April 27, 2011, was no ordinary day.
That day brought death, and this one, in a sense, carried life.
One day shy of four months after an EF-5 tornado devastated the town of 900 and killed 16 of its residents, its heroes of the fall returned home and brought football back to Smithville.
"Smithville has always been about football, since the beginning," said resident Vivian Grier. "Seeing football in Smithville, it is a new life."
So it was that the Smithville Seminoles took the field against the Hatley Tigers. So it was that when Smithville senior Jake McClary smacked his foot on the leather ball at 7:29 p.m., a new chapter in the town kicked off.
That the Seminoles lost 7-6 was secondary to the fact that the game was played.
Smithville mayor Gregg Kennedy, among several dignitaries honored on the field before the game, said that the town's leaders had two priorities when they first met one week after the tornado.
No. 1 was to get the town cleaned. No. 2 was to get back to playing football.
"The reason it was priority No. 2 is that it was the quickest thing we could get done to allow some normalcy to start the healing process," said Kennedy, just before his cell phone rang to the sound of Smithville High's Tomahawk Chop.
Shortly before the game began, U.S. Representative Alan Nunnelee got on the microphone and spoke about what football meant in Mississippi. That meaning is specially infused in Smithville, a small town with two state championships and a long history of gridiron success.
"I wasn't going to miss this first one, even if I had to take a vacation from work," said Smithville's Coy Dabbs. "This is a game you just don't want to miss."
It was appropriate that the first time Smithville's student body gathered on the school's campus after the storm was for a football game, and it was appropriate that the game came against Monroe County rival Hatley.
After all, it was Hatley - among dozens of towns that came to Smithville's aid in its darkest days - where Smithville's baseball team played its playoff games and where the school's kindergarten to sixth-grade students finished the year.
"It was a perfect script," said Scott Cantrell, superintendent of Monroe County Schools. "...There is a little something, you just feel it in the air."
Cantrell knew well the work that went into restoring the field to make Friday night's game possible. The tornado, which passed through the school's campus, tore down goals posts, knocked over fences and light poles and destroyed the locker room, press box, scoreboard, visitor's stands and band hall. It left a ceiling fan on the field and impaled a piece of plywood in its turf.
Most of those scars were fixed Friday night, as they players battled on a lush green turf.
"It is awesome," Smithville's Greg Williams said of the field. "It is better now than it has been."
Signs of the storm were still present. Many fans wore shirts that read "Forever Seminoles" or "Demolished and disrupted but not defeated." Trees damaged by the twister were visible beyond the north end zone and blue tarpaulins covered many of the campus' buildings. Around the field, signs proclaimed "EF-5 and still alive" and "Tornadoes can't stop the chop."
Even Hatley's cheerleaders carried a sign that read, ironically, "The pain is temporary, but the pride is forever."
Friday night was, after all, about pride.
"We want to send a message that we're on the rebound," Kennedy said. "Nothing can lick us. We will come back bigger and better than ever."
Not that the pain was forgotten. The name of the storm's victims were read in a ceremony following the game that preceded a special fireworks show.
Those victims were also on the minds of many in attendance, including Mike Hathcock, who worked on the field as a member of the "chain gang" that carried the first-down marker.
"I am thinking about the ones who passed away," he said. "I knew every one of them."
Hathcock said it was special to be a part of the first game back in Smithville. The school's band director, Jeff Colburn, had a similar sentiment. Minutes before the game began, he spoke to the members of the school's two-time defending state championship band about the importance of playing this particular national anthem.
That anthem was played under a brand new American flag, that had previously flown at the U.S. capitol. The flag was donated by the office of U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker.
"Everything you do this year has special significance, and that is primarily true tonight," Colburn said.
Click here for photo gallery from Daily Journal's Thomas Wells of the game and scene as football comes back to Smithville.