By Billy Watkins

They were the bully of Mississippi high school football in 2021.

       The Greenville Christian Saints beat MRA, Jackson Prep and Jackson Academy by a combined 136-54. They also defeated Oak Grove — ranked No. 1 in the state at the time — 48-41. A Class 6A public school, Oak Grove has won more games than any Mississippi program over the past five seasons.

       Coaches and players who get taken to the woodshed have outstanding memories.

       “We know those teams are going to want to beat us pretty bad,” said Saints coach Jon Reed McLendon. “We will get everybody’s best shot.”

       And they got MRA’s Thursday night in Madison to the tune of 48- 6. (Greenville Christian won last year, 58-32.) Jackson Prep gets its chance next Friday night in Greenville.

Photo by Robert Smith

      Know this: When McLendon helped put together the 2022 schedule, he didn’t have to include those three private schools he routed. After all, he lost 22 seniors from last year’s team. Eighteen are now playing college football.

       But dodging them never entered his mind.

       “We don’t ever want to be accused of getting our licks in last year and then hiding,” McLendon said before the season.

       Postgame Thursday night, McLendon did his best to look ahead, to remind himself that this was one game against a powerful program that has won three consecutive state championships and is coached by Herbert Davis, already a member of the MAIS Hall of Fame.

       “This is certainly hard to swallow because I believe we’re better than this,” said McLendon, standing on the field a half-hour after the game. “We have talent. We just have to get some experience under our belts at certain positions. Eventually, we’ll be what we want to be. This group will work and do anything you ask them to do.

       “I was pleased with the effort — we certainly didn’t quit. But effort isn’t enough. You have to execute. And we have to persevere. That’s going to write our story this year.”

       And deep down, as McLendon shared with me during an interview the night before the game, he knows Greenville Christian —  the school and the football program — has recently won important battles that few outside the city know about.

       This is a program that four years ago used hand-me-down game uniforms from another school. On Thursday night, players donned top-of-the-line Nike uniforms.

       “What our football team has done the past two seasons has revitalized our entire school,” said McLendon, whose 2020 team went 11-1.  “We’ve added a lot of new kids to the Greenville Christian family. But we’ve also seen some renewed interest from people who graduated from here years ago but sort of faded away from the school. Now I’m getting calls from people who say, ‘I haven’t been to a game in years. I want to come to one this year, see the campus again.’

       “Our kids did a real good job of representing  the school the past two years. It was a major deal.”

       About a dozen of those players drove from different parts of the state to see the season opener. One of them was the 2021 Mississippi Gatorade Player of the Year, quarterback DJ Smith, now at Jones Junior College. As a senior, Smith threw for 2,516 yards and 37 touchdowns and rushed for 940 yards and 14 scores.

       “I had to be here,” Smith said, standing on the Saint’s sideline. “I miss it. I had to come see my boys. The game is not going too good right now, but this team will get better.”

Photo by Robert Smith

       Smith was one of several talented players who transferred to Greenville Christian at the beginning of the 2020 season, when the Greenwood-Leflore County school district canceled the football season at the height of the Covid outbreak. Most private schools played on.

       Greenville Christian won consecutive Class 3A state titles and finished 2021 ranked No. 74 nationally by MaxPreps.

       Mind blowing when you consider the Saints were 4-6 in 2019 and McLendon had to scrap to get enough players out to start the 2020 season, before the transfers arrived, simply wanting a place to play football. After all, a person gets only one shot at making high school memories.

       Now in his ninth year as head coach, McLendon didn’t have to be informed of Greenville Christian’s past struggles. He lived them as as student and offensive lineman.

       “Our senior year we went 6-5 and that’s the only winning season I can remember.”

       This program is personal for McLendon in more ways than one. In addition to his duties as head coach, he teaches Bible classes and physical education. He also serves as pastor of New Beginnings Fellowship in Greenville.

       While he enjoys it when local folks bring up the 23 football wins of the past two seasons, McLendon also wants people to know of wins that happened off the field during that span.

       “We had about eight kids make their profession of faith in Jesus Christ,” he said. “That right there … those are the real victories, right?”