By Billy Watkins
Raleigh head football coach Ryan Higdon stood on the field on Sept. 23 at MRA, moments after a 39-28 loss in a game that some weren’t sure would be played.
He greeted a stream of well-wishers who offered handshakes and hugs and encouraging words. He would nod, bite his bottom lip and give a quiet “thank you.”
Higdon was hurting and searching and struggling to make sense of it all. He also was trying to lead and console 35 players.
This had nothing to do with the score of that night’s game.
Two days earlier, starting cornerback Isaiah Strickland died in a car accident. Three months before that, defensive lineman Ethan Adcock drowned. And on top of all that, Higdon’s mother, Cherie Higdon, died unexpectedly the same week.
Once the crowd had wandered quietly toward their vehicles, Higdon explained to this reporter that it was important to play the game as scheduled “to try and give the kids some normalcy.”
He also said this: “Our community is hungry for a state championship. Football is important in Raleigh. We’re gonna keep on fighting all year and honoring Ethan and Isaiah along the way.”
The next week, the Lions defeated Crystal Spring, 59-6. Most of their games since have been similar blowouts. They are 13-1.
And now Raleigh, a town of 1,100 in Smith County, will play for the school’s first state title Friday at 11 a.m. against Noxubee County (10-4) at USM’s M.M. Roberts Stadium.
It came close last year, losing in the south state finals to eventual state champion Jefferson Davis County.
That loss produced buckets of motivation.
“The Monday after we lost, the kids went back to work,” Higdon said. “They’ve been thinking about this upcoming game since last December.”
Higdon, in his third season as head coach at Raleigh, knows a thing or two about state championships. He was a part of seven as an assistant coach at Bassfield and Jefferson Davis High School.
“It’s been something cool to see,” said David Hays, pastor of Union Baptist Church in Raleigh. He serves unofficially as the team’s pastor and handles statistics every game.
“We’ve had some good teams here, some good players,” Hays said. “Donte Moncrief and Woodrow Hamilton are two examples. But this is probably the most complete team we’ve had. And I’ve never seen a team where players pull for each other so hard. There is no complaining about playing time or who gets the credit. It’s been humbling to watch.
“We’ve got the best player in the state and he’s just as happy blocking for a teammate as he is scoring a touchdown.”
Hays was referring to Suntarine Perkins, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound running back/linebacker. He is rated a four-star recruit who will play linebacker at the next level. He is committed to Ole Miss.
Perkins has been selected to play in the Army All-American Bowl on Jan. 7 in San Antonio.
“His nickname is ‘Get,’” Hays explained. “His mama started calling him that as a baby and it stuck. You look at his stats, and he doesn’t have 3,000 yards rushing. But that’s because we don’t need him to have 3,000 yards. Remember, a lot of these kids play iron man football — they never come off the field.”
Perkins’ stats are certainly gaudy enough: 1,744 yards rushing, a 12.8 yards-per-carry average, 31 touchdowns and 86 tackles. In the playoff win over Wesson, Perkins rushed for four touchdowns and had another on a scoop-and-score.
“He’s done just what we expected,” Higdon said. “He’s been that guy. And if he happens to have a bit of an off night, he’s still the best player on the field.”
“He’s just as good off the field as he is on it,” Hays said.
Hays told of a man battling mental illness approaching Perkins at the local Dollar General. The man talked for a half-hour about the team and how they could do things a little better, suggested changes.
Perkins listened patiently, and at the end of the conversation he thanked the man, shook his hand and smiled.
“That’s the kind of young man we’re talking about,” Hays said.
The Lions are not a one man band. Senior running back Javarious Walker has 1,555 yards and 18 touchdowns. Junior Kyvryn Moncrief — Donte’s cousin — has 753 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Junior quarterback Jacob Bowen has thrown for 777 yards and 11 touchdowns. Tight end Jay Owens, also a junior, is averaging 30 yards a reception and has scored 7 TDs.
Higdon has handled this team, the tragedies and his own grief, in a way in which we all can learn. He basically said, “Follow me.”
Higdon gives a lot of credit to his assistant coaches.
“I knew our players were tough, but they’ve handled the loss of teammates about as well as anyone could. It’s been amazing,” he said. “I think a little doubt crept in after the loss at MRA, but they stuck with it and never questioned any coaching decisions we made.”
Said Hays: “I admire the way he coaches. No nonsense. He wants the kids to do well in the classroom, in life and on the football field. And he knows what winning a championship can do for a community.
“He coaches them hard. He’s quick to praise a kid when he does something good, but he will tear into them when they don’t. And the kids don’t hang their heads after he gets on them. They listen. These kids trust their coaches.”
Looking back on that night in September, when his world and heart were in pieces, Higdon said: “It seems like it was a good while ago but it really wasn’t. We’ve just worked every day. As much as it hurt, we still had a goal. Our community had expectations. They knew this team was capable of winning a championship, and after coming so close last year they really want it.”
Higdon knows his team must play well against Noxubee County, which fell behind 21-0 at Amory last Friday night but roared back to win 52-51 in overtime.
“All you have to do is turn on the tape and they get your attention real quick,” Higdon said. “It’ll take a full four quarters. Even if we manage to get ahead, we know that bunch won’t quit.”
True to their word, the Lions have honored Ethan and Isaiah all season. The team runs onto the field before every game carrying Ethan’s and Isaiah’s jerseys.
“And the players still mention them and talk about them — all the time,” Hays said.
Isaiah’s father, Strick, attends games.
Ethan’s mother, Amy, is head of the Lions’ booster club and serves as team photographer. Amy took the photos for this story.
“It’s never easy when you lose young people,” Hays said. “But even through such horrible times, good has come from it through God. We’ve had players, even in junior high, to give their lives to Christ because of the tragedies.
“As I said before, it’s been something to watch. Now we hope to end this season with a state championship.”