It started out as a simple game played on a dusty Delta field in 1905. No fanfare, no television cameras or radio broadcasts, and very little concern over the final score of the game. Just a couple of hours of fun for some high school kids from Yazoo City and Winona on a December afternoon.
No one could have imagined what was about to begin when Penard McGruder circled right end and raced into the end zone to score the first touchdown in the very first high school football game played in Mississippi. While McGruder’s score helped Yazoo City defeat Winona in that inaugural game it started something far more important than the first entry in the high school record books.
Today, over 100 years later high school football has become a Mississippi passion. The game is more than a sport to residents of the Magnolia State. It is a mechanism for teaching right and wrong, it is a platform for preaching the word of God, it is a source of civic pride and a way of honoring your ancestry. To Mississippians, high school football is a necessary obsession. As veteran coach Stanley Blackmon says, “Mississippi is a football state. It is engrained and embedded in our culture.”
The sport attracts not only devoted coaches and players, but also a large supporting cast of student managers and trainers, cheerleaders, dance teams, pep squads, marching bands and color guard. This student support is further bolstered by support from booster clubs, businesses and churches. In small town Mississippi, the football team is the rallying point – the cause everyone supports – it becomes the community’s billboard. This love affair, or obsession – however you describe it – between the community and its high school football team is so prevalent throughout Mississippi that it has become a symbol of pride for the entire state. Coach Mike Justice, says “Southeastern football is the best in America. There are more good players for the number of people in Mississippi than anywhere else. That makes us the best.”
Another veteran coach, Tommy Morton, makes the case saying, “People outside Mississippi don’t understand the competitive environment of high school football here. It’s dog eat dog.”
High school football in Mississippi is all about its cultural values. The game puts into perspective many fundamental concepts that Mississippians aspire to in their own lives – core values – like hard work, patriotism, teamwork, discipline, respect for others and faith in a higher power. Coaches teach these values to the kids, and in most cases, the kids strive to follow their instructions under the watchful eyes of parents, preachers and the community at large. In the small towns everybody knows your name. As legendary coach Jim Drewry says, “Kids in the small towns are held accountable for their actions. And the kids know it.”
Another refreshing aspect of high school football is that it makes no difference who you are, where you come from , how much money your family has, your race or creed – nobody on the field during a game cares. There are no shortcuts to a starting position because of privilege. Imposters get embarrassed quickly in front of large, and oftentimes, very vocal and critical crowds. There are no advantages except for the ones players earn for themselves. As two legendary coaches describe it, “Football is the greatest equal opportunity program in existence”, says Mike Justice. And Bill Raphael, “I didn’t care who they were, I played the best.”
Mississippi high school football coaches and players are different from their counterparts across America. They possess a passion for the game infused into them by caring and proud communities – those small towns scattered across Mississippi where BIG football is played on Friday nights in the Fall.
Oh McGruder, look what you started.