What is that makes Mississippi high school football so special? How did small-town Mississippi high school football produce the leading receiver in NFL history (Jerry Rice), the leading scorer (Rice again), the second leading passer in NFL history (Brett Favre), the second leading rusher (Walter Payton) and the patriarch of the first family of American football (Archie Manning)?

And while we’re at it, let’s throw in the all-time leading yardage producer in NCAA history (Steve McNair).

These are small-town guys who grew up in Kiln, Crawford, Columbia, Drew and Mount Olive and they have set the standard for people from much larger, more populous states. 

How could this happen in a rural state, so small, so relatively poor? What is it? Is there something in the water, the soil? How has Mississippi produced so many Pro Football Hall of Famers, so many legends of the fall. 

What makes Mississippi high school football so special? So glad you asked.

It’s the dimly lit, small-town field, carved and leveled from a cow pasture or a bean field, and surrounded by wooden bleachers that sag toward the middle on a Friday night. 

It’s the bugs, by the millions, that swarm in the stadium lights.

It’s the mamas who wince and cover their eyes every time their boy gets hit.

It’s the dads who fidget and fret, just as they did in a hospital waiting room 16, 17 or 18 years ago.

It’s the grandmas and grandpas, aunties and uncles who scream themselves hoarse.

It’s the railbirds, too nervous to sit, who prowl the sidelines shouting encouragement to the players and advice to the coaches.

It’s the rivalries: Brandon-Pearl, Mendenhall-Magee, Laurel-Hattiesburg, Forest-Morton, McComb-South Pike, Jackson Prep-Jackson Academy, and so many more.

It’s the cheerleaders, smiling, bouncing, clapping and squealing. They live for this night, and it shows.

It’s the managers and ballboys, often small boys with towels wrapped around their necks, who eagerly race onto and off the field with water bottles throughout the night. 

It’s the bands, some large, most small. It’s an often off-key version of our national anthem that fans on the visitors’ side can’t hear.

It’s the majorettes shivering on a chilly November night.

It’s the little boys, behind the bleachers, playing their own spirited games with footballs made of crumpled paper cups, dreaming of their turn on the striped field on the other side of the bleachers. It’s the little girls who watch, wondering what all the fuss is about.

It’s the homecoming court, daddies escorting daughters, praying their darling’s name will be called.

It’s the smoky aroma of hamburgers and hot dogs grilling just outside the concession stands. It’s a steaming cup of hot chocolate on that first brisk, late October night.

It’s the explosive crack of a linebacker’s shoulder pads crashing into a fullback’s gut.

It’s the coaches, some who act as generals and others more like drill sergeants. More often than not they are as edgy as a cat in a dog kennel. Wouldn’t you be if your job depended on the capricious bounces of an oblong ball and the fickle focus of teen-aged boys?

It’s coaching legends such as Jim Drewry, Mike Justice, Willis Wright, Ed Steele, Jack Bailey, Stanley Blackmon and so many more.

It’s those teen-aged boys, themselves, pounding each other’s shoulder pads, shaking their fists, bouncing on the tips of their toes just prior to kickoff.

It’s the big-bellied, gray-haired head linesman in a striped shirt, telling the 15-year-old receiver he needs to back up a little bit.

It’s that last Friday in August when everyone is undefeated and everyone’s expectations are so high.

It’s that first Friday and Saturday in December when the best of the best play in the State Championship games and whole towns follow them.

It’s so rich a heritage: a skinny wide receiver named Rice, a drum major- turned-running back named Payton, a freckle-faced redhead named Archie, a coach’s son named Favre, a mama’s boy named Stevie McNair. 

It’s all those broad-shouldered, rangy, raw-boned country boys named Poole.

“Boys, have I found us a game to play,” Buster told Ray and Barney, and, boy, had he. . .

It’s the sports writers, from big daily newspapers and small weeklies, thanking heaven someone actually pays them to write about these weekly passion plays.

It’s how important it all is. It’s how entire communities rally around the team. It’s our culture, part of our fabric.

It’s a fall Friday night in Mississippi.

And it doesn’t get any better. Anywhere. Aren’t we thankful it’s all about to start again?

Rick Mugshot

Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers. Rick has been recognized 11 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year. He was inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 2016 and into the Hattiesburg Hall of Fame in 2018. He received the Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence in 2011 and was inducted into the University of Southern Mississippi Communications Hall of Fame in 2018. In 2000, he was honored with the Distinguished Mississippian Award from Mississippi Press Association. He has received numerous state, regional and national awards for his column writing and reporting.