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Football coaches, typically, shy from making predictions. But Puckett's Jaris Patrick was willing last week to offer one forecast.
"I don't believe come Friday," Patrick said, "you can go into the town of Puckett and find anybody."
The coach was not referring to the long-awaited Rapture, regardless of the state of abandonment outsiders passing through the Rankin County town of 350 may have found in the hamlet Friday afternoon. The effect was similar, though, if only temporary, for the next best thing: a 28-mile trip to Jackson for the 1A state football championship, the school's second in five seasons.
"It's huge," said Nathan Sullivan, a senior guard and linebacker for the Wolves, four days before Puckett High School rolled to a 38-20 win over East Webster High in front of its maroon-and-camouflage contingent in Veterans Stadium. "The fans, they're excited," he said.
The rare collective excitement of a state championship berth is "as big as it gets," for the entire town (or, officially, village), where "the people live and breathe football," according to Patrick.
Surely, not a whole hell of a lot is really going on other than football in Puckett, a town I only know as the halfway stop for my mom to shuffle me off for a weekend in the country with Mimi and Pop. The U.S. Census Bureau's Industrial Code Summary for ZIP code 39151 reports 10 establishments in Puckett, nine of them with fewer than 10 employees. Retail, its major industry, consists of an automotive part and accessory store, a gasoline station with a convenience store and one other "general merchandise" store. News in town centers around sports: "Football mainly," Patrick said.
For the Wolves' opponents Friday, North champion East Webster, things are about the same. Outside of sports news, assistant coach Doug Wilson offered, there is hunting and church.
"We've never been here in football," said Wolverine guard Jason Smith at the Mississippi High School Activities Association press conference for the championships the Monday before his team's loss. "There won't be anybody left in town. For East Webster, it's huge."
Smith doesn't come off as one for words, in general, but "huge" is a good way to describe the outsized experience of a state championship visit from the perspective of a 1A program. The game in itself is meaningful—huge—but there's also the state capital—huge. Jackson television, radio and a couple dozen newspapers statewide—huge. Walking through a dark tunnel and emerging under the lights of the 60,000-seat Veterans Memorial Stadium, compared to the rarely filled 3,000-seat bleachers at home—huge. And even a few players from the 4A and 5A schools on hand at the Monday press conference, like blue-chip South Panola linebacker Chris Strong, brother of former Panola and Ole Miss star Eddie, baby faced but towering at 6-foot-3-inches and 250 pounds—huge.
The South Panola Tigers have 18 players on the roster listed at 250 pounds or heavier, including five over 300, enough for a starting line as hefty as most major colleges. In 1A, Jason Smith and Nathan Sullivan start in the trenches at 207 and 205 pounds, respectively.
Not that last weekend's relative theatrics are lost on the bigger schools. In Batesville, four seasons and dozens of games into a winning streak beginning to stretch into absurdity, the championship may be the only thing related to football that still counts as a big deal. Following its 28-21 handling of overmatched Meridian Friday night, the seniors on the latest championship edition of "The University of South Panola" are the second straight graduating class leaving the program perfect: 45 wins since tenth grade, zero defeats and three 5A state championships. The next batch of players—led by Darius and Bud Barksdale, who combined for three of the Tigers' four touchdowns Friday to cap their junior season—is favored by a landslide to extend the overall streak to 75 straight games beginning next August.
"I think it's just as much pressure as anybody," for The University, said Panola Coach Ricky Woods. "You always want to win no matter where you're at."
Only slightly lower community expectations weigh on Marcus Broyles of 4A champion Wayne County, the come-from-behind winner of the heavyweight match up with Clarksdale in Saturday night's always-frigid finale. The county struggled last week to define a major news story in Waynesboro—Broyles' program is the news story in Waynesboro. Paul Keane, sports editor for the weekly Wayne County News, said his paper annually publishes a 96-page preview covering Wayne County and Wayne Academy football. The paper highlighted the War Eagles' 2005 championship trip with a 26-page preview, and commemorated its win with the only special edition of the year. Friday's win will probably warrant another special edition.
"The only thing that trumped (Broyles') team last year was a police officer getting shot," Keane said.
It's unlikely anything will trump state championship victory stories in their own local papers by Puckett, Franklin County or East Marion, including trips by Nettleton, East Webster and Calhoun City. It may be the top story in these communities for much longer than a year, which leads to an entirely different sort of pressure after the tense build-up and excitement of the playoff run, and of an entire community mobilized by the collective momentum of surviving week-by-week through a gauntlet that leaves no room for error. If the team doesn't win here, when will it have the chance again? When will more than half of an entire town depart en masse to be representatives of the best in anything else?
Said MHSAA Director Ennis Proctor, explaining at last week's press conference why the association discontinued the practice of lining the players up and draping championship and runner-up medals around their necks on the field following the game, "Sometimes for the losing team, being draped is a difficult thing to do."
He's right about the emotions of teenagers after a game, or season, or career, across the board. But that difficult part for some teams—and towns—is hardly universal.
Our new sportswriter, Matt Hinton, is doing some great work. Y'all check it out.
And I love the photo of the Puckett play by Charles Smith. ;-)