On a gray, cold and blustery Friday morning, just before 11 o’clock, Noxubee County senior Damian Verdell stood ready to take the field with his teammates for the 2020 Class 3A state championship football game against Magee.

And not just any field — Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson, where Payton, Rice, Manning, Favre and dozens of other greats once played. The place is filled with legendary ghosts. And for the first time since 2013, it awoke to once again serve as host to six title games in two days.

Many fans sat huddled under blankets. The weatherman always seems to toss us a cold front for these battles. And that is good, for that is how championship football should be played — with a bit of cold and wind and mud. Nuggets for the memory book.

Photo by Robert Smith

And here came the Noxubee Tigers with Verdell, the 5-foot-9, 160-pound running back and linebacker, running among them, something two weeks ago he wasn’t sure would happen.

Strapped in a medical helicopter with no strength in his arms, his neck and head pounding, strangers hovering over him as his teammates began the second half of a playoff game at North Panola, Verdell wondered if he would ever run anywhere again.


“He’s a hard working kid. Very upbeat. Never seen him down or mad,” Noxubee coach Teddy Young said last week by phone. “He means a lot to our team. He’s so versatile. And he’s one of our five fastest guys.”

A team built on speed and toughness, Noxubee sat 10-1 before the title game, the only loss coming to 5A powerhouse West Point, which had won four straight state titles before losing Saturday night to West Jones.

  The Tigers’ toughest challenge in the playoff run was the game at North Panola, located in Sardis. They were sluggish in the first half and trailed 14-13 at halftime.

Late in the first quarter of that game, Verdell picked up a first down on a run to the left.

“Looking at it on film, it was a helmet to helmet blow,” Young said. “It wasn’t intentional, but it’s a play that you never want to see as a coach.”

Young didn’t see the hit when it happened. And because Verdell went down out of bounds on the Noxubee sideline, Young didn’t know that his running back was injured.

“In fact, I called a play for him just a couple of plays later,” Young recalled, “and one of the coaches said, “Coach, Damian’s hurt.’ That’s when I went over and checked on him, and they were bringing an ambulance for him.”

Medical personnel soon decided to summon a helicopter unit, instead. They wanted to get him to Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis as quickly as possible. Verdell was losing consciousness. 

“Our kids were in shock. I was, too,” Young said. “It was hard to focus. I was trying to make adjustments and get our team ready for the third quarter and it was tough. We are such a close-knit group.”

Once out of the dressing room, the coaches and players watched as the helicopter lifted off from just behind the visitors’ bleachers.

Inside that helicopter, Verdell’s mind was racing.

“I was scared,” Verdell said by phone last Wednesday night. “I never thought something like that would happen to me. I kept looking out the corner of my eye, and all I could see was black sky. The helicopter was loud. All I could think about was, ‘My senior season is over.’ 

“My neck and my shoulders were still hurting bad.”

And, of course, he kept wondering how the game was going. They have to win, they have to come back.


At the hospital, Verdell underwent X-Rays and a CT scan. Good news: No spinal damage. 

Slowly, the pain decreased and he was able to move his arms a little bit, then a little bit more. Doctors told him  he had suffered a concussion and a stinger. If the hit had happened an inch or two one way or the other, it could’ve been much worse.

He rode back to Macon in the wee hours with his mom, uncle, aunt and cousin.

His teammates had done their part, rallying to beat North Panola, 39-14.

Verdell was able to watch practices leading up to the Tigers’ 50-7 rout of Winona to earn the trip to Jackson.

Noxubee is a proud program, dating back to championships in the old Choctaw Conference in the 1960s and state titles in 2008, 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2017.

There were signs that this might be Noxubee’s year again. Young was a wide receiver on the 2007 team that lost to Laurel in the championship matchup, then came back a year later to beat D’Iberville for the title.

In his first year as head coach, Young led Noxubee to the finals in 2019, only to lose to Jefferson Davis County, 25-15. Could this team repeat Young’s joy of winning a state championship after being so close the year before?

“I want this for them so bad,” Young said.

But he realized Magee would be a tough foe. They have a prideful program as well, winning four state titles and seemingly always fielding physical, no-fun-to-play squads. Head coach Teddy Dyess had another one of those in 2020 — 10-0 entering the final.

The question remained: Would Verdell be cleared by doctors to play in the championship game?

The answer came Wednesday during a visit with his doctor in Columbus.

“Oooh, man, they said I’m good to go,” Verdell told me that night. “I’m very excited. I’m going to buckle down and study Magee, look at their offense and defense and see what tendencies I can pick up.”


This is not a Hollywood script. If it were, it would require me to write a different ending.

Photo by Robert Smith

This is reality. Verdell played on kickoffs but never touched the field as a running back or linebacker.

And the game turned in one stretch, as most do when two good teams tangle.

Just before halftime, Magee scored to take a 28-20 lead. The Trojans extended the margin to 35-20 on the opening possession of the second half. They did so with flair and remarkable play from their all-everything senior quarterback  Chandler Pittman.

Rated a three-star prospect, Pittman threw for three touchdowns and ran for two. Magee won, 49-26. 

“I’m proud of our kids,” Young said afterward. “They sacrificed a lot, dealing with the virus this season. We came up a little short today, but we still had a great year.”

I asked Young about Verdell’s lack of playing time.

“He just hadn’t had a lot of reps in two weeks,” he said.

Damian Verdell watches somberly as the clock hits zero in the Class 3A championship game Friday in Jackson. His Noxubee Tigers were defeated by Magee, 49-26. Verdell’s play was limited to kickoffs because of a neck injury suffered two weeks earlier against North Panola. (Photo courtesy of Scott Boyd)

What the coach didn’t say was that he put the 18-year-old’s health above the team’s needs, which says a lot about Young.

Verdell took it hard. As the game’s final minute ticked away, he stood holding his helmet with both hands behind him. His face said, ‘I can’t believe any of this happened.”

I caught up with him near the dressing room. He tried to speak but emotion choked away every word.

A couple of hours later, I texted him and asked if there was anything he wanted to say to the Noxubee fans who had watched him play since middle school.

He texted back: “Even though I didn’t play the last game, I’m going to miss being a Tiger.”

He wondered why “they didn’t let me in” the game.

And near the end of our exchange, I wrote that he might be back to the championship game one day, perhaps as the father of a son who grows up to be a Tiger.

He wrote back: “Yeah, you’re right.”


You May Also Enjoy