This article was originally published in The Beacon Magazine in April 2009.
Marty Frascogna still recalls the argument he overheard between his father and the principal at Jackson Preparatory School.
“I was sitting in class and I heard them talking in the hall,” Marty recalls. “The principal couldn’t believe my father was actually taking me out of school to attend the Mississippi high school football state championship game. Dad told him, ‘My son will learn more important things at the game today than he will in class.’ ”
Marty wasn’t surprised when his father, X.M. “Mike” Frascogna, Jr., won that argument. In the Frascogna family, high school football had always been more than just a sport. It was a passion that would eventually lead Mike, Marty, and Marty’s older brother, Mike Frascogna III, to write not one but two books capturing the triumphs, tragedies, and life lessons played out every fall Friday night on football fields across Mississippi.
Mike Frascogna, Jr. and Mike III are graduates of Mississippi College School of Law; Marty will graduate from MCSOL in December 2009. Mike and Mike III are attorneys and Marty is a clerk with Frascogna Courtney, PLLC, a Jackson-based law firm specializing in entertainment and sports law. But while the three Frascogna know their torts, they also know their sport.
“My birthday present in the first grade was a blue tackling dummy,” Mike III recalls.
“Mine was yellow,” Marty says. “Growing up in our house, football was pretty much non-stop.”
The Frascogna didn’t stop at playing on their own schools’ teams or cheering on their alma maters. Instead, they developed a family passion for following high school football statewide.
“There’s just no comparison between pro or even college football and high school football,” Mike Frascogna says. “High school football runs so deep in the community that it’s part of the root system. There’s a genuine loyalty there that doesn’t exist at the college or pro levels.”
“Take a team like South Panola,” Mike continues. “The Tigers are unbelievably important to the people of Batesville and every player on the team knows it. Those kids would rather die in a ditch than let the community down. That’s what high school football in Mississippi is all about – the kind of passion that’s inspiring to see.”
Although the Frascognas have never tried counting all of the games they’ve attended – Marty says that would be like “trying to count the number of times you’ve eaten a hamburger and French fries” – Mike estimates that he’s attended somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 football games. Often accompanied by one or both of his sons, Mike has been in the stands at every Mississippi high school championship game since the playoffs were implemented in 1981.
“It never gets old and it doesn’t matter who’s playing,” Mike says. “We get sideline passes and go from one side to the other, cheering for whichever team is behind.”
The Frascognas’ decision to turn their shared passion for Friday night football into a book was inspired by a 2006 stud conducted by USA Football, a non-profit organization supporting youth football, and the Wharton Business Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania. The study cited Mississippi as having the best high school football program in America.
“For years we’d been saying that Mississippi had a different environment that made our high school football the best,” Mike Frascogna says. “Were we biased? Absolutely. But USA Football was not, and they ranked Mississippi #1. When that survey came out, we realized that no one had ever researched why high school football in Mississippi is such a cultural phenomenon.”
The Frascogna decided to tackle that research project, and ultimately, to memorialize Mississippi high school football in a way it had never been showcased.
“The study looked at stats, but that doesn’t make for an interesting read,” Mike III says. “Instead, we wanted to capture the emotional side of things. How did people describe and explain high school football in Mississippi?”
To get that unique perspective, the Frascognas interviewed 120 of Mississippi’s greatest high school football coaches and combined their insights, coaching philosophies, and war stories into the definitive book on Mississippi high school football. The three Frascognas participated equally in the interviewing, research, and writing, critiquing and contributing to each other’s work. Thanks to all those years of playing, watching, and loving football together, the collaboration came fairly easily. The Frascognas agree that Marty was perhaps the best interviewer, Mike III the most skilled at factual writing, and that Mike – who wrote his drafts in longhand – poured a sense of passion into the pages.
The result of their team effort is a 300-page love letter to high school football titled Gridiron Gold: Inspiring Stories of Legendary Mississippi High School Football Coaches, Guardians of the Greatest Football Talent in America. Some of the stories in Gridiron Gold are humorous, some are heartwarming. Some reflect deep tradition, while others are a metaphor for social change. All point to high school football as an integral part of Mississippi’s culture. The jacket copy for Gridiron Gold describes high school football as “…more than just a sport to the residents of the Magnolia State. It is a mechanism for teaching right and wrong, a platform for preaching the word of God, an outlet for escaping farming and pulpwood hauling, and source of civic pride and a way of honoring your ancestry. To Mississippians, high school football is a necessary obsession.”
Reasons behind that “necessary obsession” examined in detail in the book include a small town make-up that allows the high school football team to become a symbol for the entire town, a strong work ethic, and the legacy and sheer pride of continuing a winning tradition. Mike Frascogna also credits Mississippi’s geographic location and the profound influence of high school coaches.
“We’re located in the Bible Belt where rules, including those enforced by coaches, still apply,” Mike says. “And in story after story, the coaches for the most part didn’t see coaching as a profession, they saw it as a ministry. High school football coaches in Mississippi recognize they have a unique opportunity to minister to the young men they coach.”
That philosophy is backed up by NFL superstar and former B.L. Moor High School Eagle Jerry Rice, who once said, “There were two important events during the week – Friday night football and Sunday church. In many cases, the coach and the preacher were saying the same things. You talk a lot of football at church and learn a lot about God at football practice.”
During the course of researching Gridiron Gold, the Frascogna heard story after story of heated high school football rivalries played out not only on the football field but also in the towns that were home to the teams. Those stories formed the basis of their second collaboration, Y’all vs. Us: Thrilling Tales of Mississippi’s Hottest High School Football Rivalries.
To immerse themselves in those rivalries the Frascognas visited 30 schools, interviewing some 600 coaches, players, cheerleaders, principals, booster club members, town mayors, and fans. The result is a fun-filled, in depth look at 15 of Mississippi’s most intense high school football rivalries, replete with tales of trash talk, mascot mischief, game-changing plays, controversial calls, and even a brawl between cheerleaders from rival schools in a fast-food drive through line. Each chapter concludes with a series of often-hilarious comments made by each team about the other.
“The great thing about interviewing the kids was that none of them were politically correct,” Mike III says. “They would say things an adult would never say with a tape recorder running. For example, the cheerleaders at Greene County told me the kids at George County referred to them not just as hicks, but ‘inbred hicks.’ Instead of worrying about being politically correct, their attitude was ‘Come on, can’t we just have fun with this?’”
More than just humorous tales, Y’all vs. Us offers inspirational stories that prove high school football is much more than just a game, including accounts of the Pearl vs. Brandon match-up that returned a sense of normalcy to an entire community I the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, and Oxford High School assistant coach whose terminally ill mother refused to die during the Lafayette-Oxford game, and the hope generated by the first Biloxi High School football game played in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
One of the Frascognas favorite stories from Y’all vs. Us focuses on the uniting power of high school football. But this tale doesn’t focus on the winning football team, but on the band. In 1967, predominately white McComb High School, proud home of the Tigers, was integrated with African-American Burgland High School, equally proud home of the Lions. Many compromises were made, including retaining the Tiger mascot but adopting the Burgland school colors. But one of the biggest challenges was how to integrate the two school’s bands. The bands literally marched to the tunes of different drummers; combining their musical and performing styles without sacrificing either band’s identity seemed an impossible assignment. In one of the most moving passages of Y’all vs. Us, band director Robert Vick, Jr. describes the football game at which the two bands merged into one:
“The stadium was packed; both sides were full. Basically all the blacks were together and all the whites were together. Everybody was wondering just how we were going to work things out. Both bands came on doing their own thing. McComb High came onto the field playing “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” and marching military style. Burgland took the field to “Fever,” marching at a faster pace. Then both bands came to midfield, merged, and struck up “Tiger Rag.” When we hit that tune together, you just felt a great sigh of relief across the entire audience. The band marched off the field to a standing ovation.”
“the best part of this project for me was getting to meet so many people from across Mississippi and seeing and hearing first-hand what their towns’ football teams meant to them,” Mike says. “Because of this book, I’m much more knowledgeable about my home state. I came away with a stronger conviction and deeper appreciation of just how unique Mississippi really is.”
That appreciation for high school football as part of what makes Mississippi unique is the reason that Gridiron Gold and Y’all vs. us resonate not only with football fans, but also with those who might never learn the difference between a Hail Mary and a hand-off.
“Many women come to the Frascognas’ book signings to get a copy autographed for their husbands or sons, and later they tell me they picked up the book themselves and couldn’t put it down,” says Dr. Ennis Proctor, executive director of the Mississippi High School Activities Association, who wrote the foreword to Gridiron Gold. “These books are about more than just a football play or a rivalry. I would recommend Gridiron Gold and Y’all vs. Us to any reader who wants to laugh, who wants to be inspired, and who wants to feel pride in Mississippi and her citizens.”