The ritual that is Mississippi high school football begins again this week. It begins in the heat and humidity of August and extends to the usually chilly first weekend in December. It is a roller-coaster of passion and pageantry that unites communities and has produced an inordinate share of the game’s greatest players.
What makes Mississippi high school football so special? Glad you asked.
It’s the dimly lit, small-town field, carved and leveled from a cow pasture, a beanfield or a forest. It’s those wooden bleachers that surround the field and sag toward the middle on a Friday night. It’s the bugs that swarm, by the millions, 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 invective to the guys in stripes.
It’s the rivalries: Mendenhall-Magee, Brandon-Pearl, Gulfport-Biloxi, Laurel-Hattiesburg, Forest-Morton, McComb-South Pike, Jackson Prep-Jackson Academy, and so many more.
It’s the cheerleaders, smiling, bouncing, clapping and squealing. They live for this night, and it shows. It’s the reserves, in their clean uniforms, sneaking a peak at the cheerleaders.
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 little boys, 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 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 and nervous 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 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 10th grade receiver he needs to back off the line a little bit.
It’s that third Friday 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 for the state championships.
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 Brett, 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.
In Mississippi, football Friday nights are a huge part of culture, our fabric, our DNA.
And it doesn’t get any better or mean any more. Anywhere.
Rick Cleveland (firstname.lastname@example.org) is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.