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Football Season

ISSUE:  Winter 1997

Reporters are not supposed to inject anything personal into their stories, but in the interest of full disclosure, I think you should know that I ran cross-country track in high school, not because I loved the sport, or because I was particularly good at it—I was a decent long-distance runner, always in the top three on my team, yet I never threatened any records—but because I carried in my mind this image of David Green as a lanky, lone shadow, pushing on along narrow wooded paths, emerging onto a track and loping gracefully across the finish line, oblivious to the roar of the crowd that poured out around him as he bent over, drinking in a victory breath. It was such a romantic vision that I could, if I focused on it, forget that I, David Green, had really fallen into cross-country by default, being too small for football; and sometimes, when I really was pushing on along a narrow wooded path, and every step landed square and soft right in the middle of my shoulder blades and I experienced what they call the “runner’s high,” I could even forget that when I did emerge onto the track, there would be no crowd, not even a single spectator except for Coach Magill. Even though our football team rarely had a winning season, their sport was the sport of choice at my school, and it demanded so much fervor that there was none left for any other. In the beginning, there were still crowds in my mind; but after my first season, I could no longer create an adoring, cheering mob out of my coach’s pat on the back. Still, I kept running, until I graduated and went off to Columbia, where I would pursue the same kind of solitary glory—this time academically, burying myself deep in the stacks of Butler Library.

On a Saturday night in a September five years after my last race, when high school and even college were past and I found myself 1,100 miles from home, working as a reporter in rural Mississippi, I was pushing my way through the piles of football scores that were coming in over the wire when I came across something else, etched in pencil on a piece of loose-leaf paper, neat block letters just barely touching the faint blue horizontal lines. At the top was written gingerly, underlined twice:

For The Sports Editor
The Delta Sentinel
Schlater, Mississippi


I suppose it’s obvious what happened next. Jack Hendricks, our sports editor, had left early for a high-stakes poker game, foolishly asking me to fill in a four-inch hole on the second page of the sports section. He’d assumed I would fill it with late-breaking football scores, but I felt I’d found a better use for it.

It was Monday morning before I found out just how surprised Jack had been. All day Sunday, he explained, he’d taken phone calls at his house asking why in hell was there not a word about the results of the Clarksdale-Grenada game but a full story on a bunch of running niggers. Jack was not pleased. Still, he did not retract the invitation he had offered, as part of his introduction on my first day at the newspaper, to contribute stories to his sports pages as often as possible, and the more the better. That was his second mistake.

*   *   *   *

Two days later I drove down to Sidon, a tiny town consisting of a few houses, a convenience store, a water tower, a cotton gin, a grain elevator, and Southwest Leflore County High School. The school was a group of four old red-brick buildings, none taller than two stories, arranged in a square around a small courtyard. In the back was a scraggly field, half-covered with grass and framed by two forlorn wooden bleachers; the faintest trace of a white-lime gridiron came and went among the weeds.

I found the main entrance and went inside, where I was accosted by a septuagenarian hall monitor. She seemed surprised when I told her that I wanted to see a Mr. Harlan Kincaid, but she shrugged her shoulders and led the way. The walls of the hallway were covered with composites of graduating classes going back to the thirties. The fashions didn’t change very much, but the students were markedly white until 1969; then one or two black students found their way into the little paper ovals; and by 1974, they were almost all black. In five years—half a decade—the school had gone from one monochromatic extreme to the other. I wondered if the old alumni still bragged on their alma mater without qualifying it in some way. Rebels, indeed.

Harlan Kincaid was a dark man and very round; I could hardly imagine that he’d ever run so much as a 40-yard dash in his life. He must have seen this on my face, because the first thing he did after shaking my hand and pulling me into his office was grab one of a couple dozen framed photographs from his desktop. It was a picture of a teenager as linear as the man was now spherical, hair cropped close to his scalp, smiling proudly inside a gray tank top and shorts. “That’s me,” he said, grinning, though somehow this made him seem sad to me. “1961. Captain of the squad at East Sunflower Vocational High School. That was the year we won the championship.”

“Wow,” I said. “State champions, huh? So this is old hat for you, I guess.”

He smiled wider, sadder. “No, I reckon not. We weren’t no “state champions” in 1961. Back then only white schools got to compete in those kinds of tournaments. We had our own meets. It was a loose kind of arrangement among most of the colored schools.”

“Was cross-country a popular sport back then?”

“Was for us. Like a lot of the colored schools, we didn’t have the money to buy any kind of equipment, so we didn’t have no helmets or gloves. But we all had feet.” He laughed. “And we all knew how to run. Lord, we knew how to run. We were goo-ood.”

“And how about now?” I said. “You really got within a point of the state championship last year?”

“You got it. One point, s’all. We coulda lost that for one of the kids havin’ his shorts on crooked. Year before that we lost by three points. Both times it was Port Gibson beat us. But I tell you what—we gon’ take that trophy this year, I can promise you that. I already told Willie Greer—he’s the coach down at Port Gibson, a good friend of mine from the old days. He used to run for Booker T. Washington up in Yalobusha County, they were our big rivals. I told him, I said “Willie, you know I’m always happy for you, but this year I want some of that for myself!” So he knows. This year is our turn.”

“Well, good luck to you.”

He looked at his watch. “Say,” he said. “You got a few minutes? You want to meet the kids? We’re fixin’ to start our practice. They’re already out there warming up. I know it’d give them a thrill to see you here.”

“They warm up without you?”

He laughed. “Mister Green, you ain’ never met kids like these kids. They got what you might call motivation. They’re out there every day, even Sundays. They come and practice even when I can’t make it. They came out here and ran every day this summer. I mean everyday, don’t matter how hot it was. All had jobs, too, but they got out here. I came by one night to pick up a couple of books, it must have been eleven o’clock at night, and I’m not lyin’ here, Tyree Harris and Freddie Campbell were out there running laps in the dark. Wasn’t even a moon out.”

“Wow,” I said again, wincing at my verbal oafishness but also at the memory of me and my teammates, all of us wearing the expensive New Balance running shoes our parents had bought us, bitching and whining every time Coach Magill gave us anything mildly strenuous for a workout. And I knew—almost before I stepped out onto that overgrown field with its pitted track and got my first look at those skinny kids in their faded crimson tanktops and frayed shorts and worn-out sneakers—that there was something going on here that no one on my old team, as good as we were, could really hope to understand, even me. But Harlan Kincaid, even though he was older and fatter and owned his own car now, did understand. And if he said these kids were going to win the state championship that year—that he was going to win it—then I believed him.

*   *   *   *

Jack never ran the story I wrote after that visit. He said that if he spared so much as a single inch to Harlan Kincaid and his running Rebels he’d have to change his phone number, and he did not care to do that. Instead, he enlisted me to cover football with him. So I spent my fall Friday nights following the Carrollton Colonels and the Holcomb Twisters and the Schlater Tigers and the Itta Bena Green Wave and the Ruleville Rebels and the South Tallahatchie Rebels and the Mid-Delta Academy Rebels. But mostly I tagged along with Jack in covering the Greenwood Bulldogs, the only 5A team in the area. The Bulldogs were also the only winning team in the area, and the only truly integrated one, too: most of the players were black and most of the fans white, but it was still a better mix than I saw anywhere else. I imagined that most of the people in the stands were holdovers from the 60’s and 70’s, when the team had been white, but their love of the game kept them coming back. And the Bulldogs could play the game; throughout September and October and on into November, they beat everyone, chalking up a record of 12—0, their best regular season in a generation. They started every game with a minister leading a prayer, and ended with the band playing “Amazing Grace.”

Games ran late, often past midnight, and had to be written up that same night, while the facts were still fresh in our minds, so I didn’t really have the energy to get up early on Saturday morning to see Southwest Leflore run in their meets. And, since I knew Jack wouldn’t run that story anyway, I didn’t really have the will to get up, either. So I contented myself with following them at a distance, scanning the back pages of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger’s sports section, where the cross-country scores were run in agate type on Monday mornings. Harlan Kincaid was keeping his word: No one had beaten him yet. He’d already secured himself an invitation to the state championships. I wondered how many people knew.

*   *   *   *

On the night that Greenwood beat Starkville 22—19 in overtime, thus advancing to the North Mississippi 5A championship game, every restaurant and bar in town stayed open late giving away food and drinks. Pretty girls and women ran around kissing men they’d never met before. The streets were filled with laughing mobs, like Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

It seemed like most of Leflore County made the 45-minute drive to Greenville the next Friday. Every motel sign in Greenwood said “GOOD LUCK BULLDOGS!” or “IF YOU’RE FROM GREENVILLE STAY AWAY!” or some combination of the two; every motel room in Greenville had been sold out since Monday. The Greenville Hornets were favored by 10 points, and went into the half with a seven-point lead, but Greenwood came alive in the second half, scoring three touchdowns in the third quarter alone. They held onto their lead and beat Greenville, and had the ball on the Hornets’ 34-yard line with 30 seconds to go when thousands of fans started pouring onto the field, hugging the players—even the Greenville boys—and hoisting them aloft. One group tried to pull the goalposts up out of the end zone; another attacked the ground with spades, dropping little squares of turf into plastic bags and shoving them into their pockets. In the press booth, Bobby DeLoach, who did the color on WGWD-AM, broke down and sobbed that he wished his mother had lived to see it happen. Another guy ran in, grabbed the P.A. mike, and proposed to his girlfriend.

For the next week, everyone at the Sentinel was responsible for writing at least one story about the Bulldogs every day. By Wednesday, ideas were scarce. I proposed a piece on team hygiene; Warren MacDonald, our managing editor, told me to interview the wives of the assistant coaches. I countered with a profile on one of the wide receivers, a kid who had been raised by his deadbeat-parents’ next-door neighbors. Warren said the kid wasn’t clean-cut enough to merit a profile. I suggested a study on the correlation between a clean-cut background and prowess on the gridiron. Or perhaps an architectural evaluation of the stadium in Jackson where the championship game was played every year on the first Friday in December. Warren wrote himself a memo: “Green—profile assistant wives.”

I appealed my assignment to Jack, who said he thought a profile of the assistant coaches’ wives was about the stupidest thing he’d heard since my story on the Southwest Leflore cross-country team.

“Speakin” a which,” he said, flipping me the Clarion-Ledger sports section, “your boys are goin’ to the state championships this Saturday.”

“I know,” I said. “They qualified weeks ago.”

“Well ain’t you a fan.”

“Did you say it was this Saturday?”

“Did I stutter?”

“Where do they run?”

“At Mis’sippi College, In Clinton.”

“How far is that from Jackson?”

“ ‘Bout ten minutes.”

“Really,” I said. “Say! You don’t—”

“Lord a-mercy,” Jack said, shaking his head. “Damned if I don’t know what you’re gon’ say next, you Yankee sumbitch.”

“Well,” I said, “aren’t you staying over in Jackson Friday night?”

“S’right, my brother-in-law’s. I don’t s’pose I’d be worth much if I didn’t offer you a spot on his couch.”

“So then you want me to cover the cross-country championships.”

“Now, I didn’t say that. It’s just that we ain’t gon’ be done with everything until two in the mornin’ probably, and I wouldn’t want you to break your Yankee neck drivin’ back after that. It’s a good two hours.”

“But I can just get up the next morning and drive over to Clinton.”

“You’re free, white and 21, y’bastid. You can do anything you damn well please. But I can tell you now, there ain’t much chance I’m gonna run that story, even if they win. You remember what happened last time, don’t you?”

“But this is the state championships.”

“Now listen, David. I’m not sure how to get this through your thick Ivy-League head, but I’ll try. On the one hand we got us a big local football team goin’ to the state championships. People are gonna want to read about them whether they win or lose, and they’re gonna get as much space as I can fill. On the other hand, we got us a little local cross-country team goin’ to the state championships. Ain’t nobody gon’ care about them whether they win or lose. Especially from a school like Southwest Leflore. And you cain’t make people care about somethin’ they just don’t care about. You gotta know I’m tellin’ the truth, here.”

“Well,” I said, “we’ll see about that.”

*   *   *   *

Some fourteen thousand Mississippians jammed into Memorial Stadium in Jackson on a crisp late-autumn Friday night to see the Pascagoula Panthers beat the Greenwood Bulldogs, 27—7, for the state championship. When it was over, almost all of them spilled onto the field to embrace the players of both teams. Everyone in the press box, except for a couple of dedicated radio men, ran down the bleachers to join the crowd. Panthers and Bulldogs, coaches and assistant coaches and even cheerleaders were carried around the gridiron on a sea of shoulders. Except for the Scoreboard, it was impossible, at that moment, to tell who had won, nor did it seem to matter. Right then they were all, Deltans and Gulf Coasters and everyone in between, part of the same fellowship, I imagined: the fellowship of the game. This was the true nobility of sport, I decided, its ability to join people in the harmony of enthusiasm. I tried to describe it a couple of hours later, as I wrote up my story, but Jack told me to tone it down. It was, he said, football.

*   *   *   *

The next morning I got up early and drove over to Mississippi College. Let me tell you what I saw there:

I saw scores of kids, most short, all skinny, milling around in shorts and tank tops, chatting nervously or kicking at the grass as they waited for the announcement that their race was about to begin. I saw Harlan Kincaid, round and dark as I remembered him, talking to two women as his team went through their stretches and then spotting me, smiling and calling me over, introducing me to his wife and Tyree Harris’ mother and asking his boys if they remembered that nice man from the paper, and them smiling and waving. I saw the scores of short, skinny kids in their different-colored shorts and tank tops tense up as a voice from a speaker announced that it was time to line up by school and division. I saw them line up and jangle and shrug until the warning shot and then tense up and the count to three and another shot and they were off down the cinder path and into the woods and then they were gone. I saw Harlan Kincaid talking to his wife and her laughing and rubbing his shoulder and Mrs. Harris standing near a clump of maybe two dozen parents and I saw the other teams’ coaches and the man with the microphone and the one with the starter’s pistol and a man with a stopwatch and one with a clipboard and nobody else.

And then I saw the first clump of kids emerge from the forest and break for the finish line, little Freddie Campbell and a kid from New Albany wearing these weird sunglasses and Reggie Brown and a big tall guy from Mendenhall and another from New Albany and three from Port Gibson all together and there was Tyree Harris, teeth clenched, kicking his legs so hard I thought his sneakers would fly off. And they came across the line, two and even three at a time, stopping a few yards past the line and shaking their limbs, crouching with craggy hands on knees, no one talking to anyone else, just breathing deep and looking back across the field from which they had come, looking for the rest of the runners on their team to break out of the trees and come on home. And when they were all in at last, I saw them murmuring to each other, pacing in the dirt, waiting for the officials to tally up each team’s scores, and Harlan Kincaid coming over, patting a shoulder here and there, talking to Willie Greer, the coach from Port Gibson, who had aged a little better than he had, the two of them laughing but not like old friends laugh. And I saw everyone, all the runners and coaches and the two dozen or so parents straighten up at the scratching sound from the speakers as the announcer ran through Division 5A and then 4A and then Division 3A, third place goes to East Hancock County, second place Port Gibson, first place to Southwest Leflore County High School. And I saw Tyree Harris laugh and and nod his head and stride over to his mother, and Freddie Campbell shake his fists and say “Yes!” over and over again, and Harlan Kincaid breaking into a heavy smile that wasn’t the least bit sad, shaking the hand of Willie Greer, and then turning back to his wife and giving her a powerful hug, and Tyree Harris grabbing his mother and doing the same.

And then I saw something else: I saw the rest of the team, Reggie Brown and Freddie Campbell and a half dozen other boys, having patted each other on the back in a tentative way, look around and, shrugging, line up, one behind the next, for the chance to hug Harlan Kincaid’s wife and Tyree Harris’ mother, and one by one, they did just that.

*   *   *   *

On another morning, five years earlier, I went with the rest of my team to the regional championships in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. It was colder then, the leaves having already turned and fallen, and the air slashed at my lungs until I got used to it. This was the last meet of the season, and I was a senior; I wanted to end my career with a flourish. I had been planning something spectacular, and had sat out the week before, saving myself for it. As I went through my final stretching I reviewed my strategy once more; it was brilliant, the product of four years’ worth of meets. At the starter’s gun, I would streak out ahead of the pack at such a speed that those who didn’t know me would think I was a freshman, heading for a quick burn-out. But I had decided that my greatest strength lay in a psychological advantage: If I could convince my opponents—even my teammates—that I just couldn’t be caught, then they would subconsciously capitulate, run slower, and the race would be mine. The course we were running was mostly wooded, with few straight-aways, so I knew that I wouldn’t have to maintain a huge lead in order to maintain that illusion; I just had to stay far enough ahead that I would stay out of sight.

My plan, then, was to run the first and last miles at top speed; thus, with a huge initial lead, I could afford to run the middle four miles slower than average. It was the kind of race a runner couldn’t run every week, but I only wanted to do it this once. And I did. For six miles, I was completely alone, just me and the woods and my legs and the sounds of my breath passing through my lips and of my feet brushing the path. But something happened in there.

After about three miles I started to synchronize my breathing with my stride; suddenly, my mind and my senses became sharper than they had ever been before. At that moment, everything became crystal clear to me: I believed that the morning, a cold gray and brown, was the most beautiful morning I had ever seen. I could feel every muscle in my body, feel the blood pumping in and out of my heart; I could hear every dried leaf and twig being crushed beneath my feet, each one making a distinct, unique sound. I could see exactly how the trees and the rocks and the moss and the weeds and the dead leaves were all part of something bigger, linked together inextricably, and that they could be no other way than they appeared to me at that moment in time; and I also understood that I fit into all of it, that 7 had to be there, too. Just then, I knew exactly who I was and what I was doing and where, and, most of all, why.

And for the very first time, I also knew—really knew—that when I came out of the woods and crossed the finish line, far, far ahead of anyone else, there would be no cheering crowd, and that, for most of us, no matter what we do or try to do, there never would be. You’d think I wouldn’t have to learn that kind of lesson over and over again.


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