By Billy Watkins
Somehow, some way, the Raleigh Lions played Friday night on the road against three-peat state champion MRA.
MRA won, 39-28, in a game that saw four lead changes in the third quarter alone. Those occurred after the Patriots held a 17-0 lead midway of the second quarter.
And as splendid as the athletes were on both sides, this was no ordinary Friday night under the lights. It was a lesson in perseverance, of dragging yourself up when life keeps kicking you down. A lesson in the power of community and friendship. A lesson in hope and love.
Raleigh linebacker and running back Suntarine Perkins, rated by most scouting services the state’s top college prospect, found it tough postgame to explain what the week had been like.
After practice Tuesday afternoon, Perkins talked with teammate and close friend Isaiah Strickland, just like always. Chit chat. A few laughs. And then, “See you tomorrow.”
Strickland was killed in a car crash during the wee hours of Wednesday morning.
“It’s been hard, man,” Perkins said. “Me and Isaiah, we liked to ride horses together. He was always motivating the team. Always doing everything he could for the team. Coach told us to stay strong, that God’s got us.”
“Coach” is Ryan Higdon, Two days before Strickland’s accident, Higdon’s mother, Cherie Higdon, died suddenly and unexpectedly.
“In all my 40 years, this is the roughest week I’ve ever had to endure,” Higdon said. “The loss of my mom, and then to get that call about Isaiah … I really didn’t know what to do, how to feel,.
“Even with everything going on with my mom, I knew I had 36 guys in that locker room looking to me to figure out ‘What are we going to do?’ ”
Sadly, this wasn’t the first tragedy the team has faced Junior defensive lineman Ethan Adcock drowned in June. The players honor Ethan every game by taking the field beneath a large blow-up helmet with his No. 72 on each side.
In all, four Raleigh High School students have died during the past 12 months.
That’s a lot for a close-knit town of 1,100 to handle.
Word spread quickly about Isaiah before school Wednesday morning.
“We got them down to the field house,” Higdon said. “I told them ‘I’m going to let you just sit here, let you think, let you breathe. I know you’re wondering why this happened.’
“Wednesday was more of a ‘Let’s comfort our guys’ day.”
The Rev. David Hayes, pastor at Union Baptist Church in Raleigh, talked with the team. His church feeds the players each Friday and he leads a devotional. He also keeps game statistics on the sideline.
Hayes understands pain. His mother was murdered 22 years ago. Not long after that, his sister died in a car accident.
“I told them we will never know this side of heaven why things happen like this,” Hayes said after the game. “Losing two kids that you think you’re going to finish the season with … I don’t know how those guys played the way they did tonight. It was amazing to watch.”
Some wondered if the game might be canceled. It had no bearing on the state playoffs. MRA is private school. Raleigh is a public school.
“Coach Higdon said we were going to try and play, just to keep the guys busy and make things as normal as possible,” Hayes said. “Look, we’ve got a great coach. He’s intense and coaches them hard, but he loves his players.
“I can’t imagine what he’s gone through with the death of his mother and another player in the same week. But he’s still managed to keep these players together.”
Hayes shared his favorite Bible verse with the team: Romans 8:28 — “All things work together for good to them that love God.”
“The main thing I tried to emphasize to them is that God is good, even through times like this,” Hayes said. “I told them that God loved Isaiah and that he loved God. Isaiah had a personal relationship with Jesus. And anybody who has a personal relationship with Jesus will see Isaiah again.
“And I told them that life is like a vapor. Here today, gone tomorrow. We never know when it’s going to happen.”
Fellow coaches from across Mississippi sent Higdon text messages.
“Some were from coaches I don’t even know,” he said. “And our local community has been unbelievable. It’s meant so much.”
He could tell during pregame warmups that his players were struggling.
“It was like they were sleep walking,” Higdon said. “I really think our kids got on the field and the emotion really hit them. ‘Where’s Isaiah?’ Well, Isaiah isn’t here.”
Isaiah’s dad, Floyd “Strick” Strickland, arrived wearing his son’s maroon home jersey, No. 11. He stood in the south end zone as Raleigh went through warmups.
A stranger walked up to him. “You don’t know me from Adam,” the man said, “but I love you.”
“Well, I love you, too,” Strickland said and shook the man’s hand.
Senior defensive back Jermaine Keyes wore Isaiah’s No. 11 white road jersey. They, too, were close friends.
Both teams wore decals on their helmets (IS 11) to honor Isaiah.
Like always, Raleigh fans traveled. They packed the visitors’ stands.
And just seconds before kickoff, an MRA player walked over and shook hands with one of the Raleigh coaches.
The game began with the western sky painted a blend of pink and purple that seemed to envelop both teams.
Raleigh, 4-0 entering the game, made uncharacteristic mistakes in the first quarter. MRA, one of the best programs in Mississippi, certainly had a hand in that. But lack of focus surely caused some of it, too.
Senior fullback Javarious Walker returned a kickoff for a touchdown, the first of two. The two-point conversion pulled the Lions within 17-8 with 7 minutes left in the first half. From that point on, Raleigh seemed to be all about football. It just came up short in the end.
“You can’t spot that bunch 17 points,” Higdon said. “They’re too good. It’s hard to win like that.”
But I never heard anyone from Raleigh utter the word “lose” or “lost.”
The Lions traveled the 60 miles to Madison to honor Isaiah. They did that and more.
“The loss of Ethan brought us closer together,: Higdon said. “I think the loss of Isaiah will bring us even closer.”
All of the Lions’ goals are still in front of them. District play begins Friday night at home against Crystal Springs.
“Our community is hungry for a state championship,” Higdon said. “Football is important in Raleigh. We’re gonna keep on fighting all year and honoring Ethan and Isaiah along the way.”