VARDAMAN – Friday night was perfect. It didn’t matter that it was the kind of evening when just leaning over a chain-link fence was enough to make your clothes stick to your body.
The August humidity in Mississippi hung in the air like a dense, oppressive fog.
For the first time in four years I was back on the sidelines covering high school football. The tiny town of Vardaman, Miss., (pop. 1,316) and all its glory as the sweet potato capital of the world was a far cry from the grand sporting arenas I had frequented as a young journalist. But on this night it didn’t matter.
At 22-years-old I wore a tweed sports jacket into the famous Madison Square Garden in New York City and covered Blake Griffin as a freshman for the Oklahoma Sooners. Some two months later I wore that same sports jacket to the Cotton Bowl at the Texas State Fair Grounds for what would be the final bowl game in that venue.
And two years after that I was out of journalism completely.
I thought I was on the fast track to stardom, but life has a funny way of humbling us all. After a few bumps in the road; a failed business venture as the publisher of a website; a run as sports editor at a weekly newspaper that eventually closed up shop; and a move to south Mississippi to purse one final opportunity, I found myself frustrated, alone, and what felt like a million miles from my dream.
And so I left the profession.
People asked for several years if I missed sports writing. My response was always something along the lines of, ‘it’s nice just being a fan again.’ But deep-down I did miss it, and wondered when or if I would ever return.
When I sent a message to longtime friend Lisa McNeece several weeks back asking if she had a need for stringers this fall, Lisa immediately put me in contact with her husband Joel McNeece. Joel offered all the games I could want on Friday nights.
When I pulled up to the stadium two hours before kickoff I knew it was exactly where I was meant to be on that Friday night; under the lights. The fanfare and pageantry of high school football, especially in Mississippi, is unmatched by almost anything else.
There was a field by the stadium where cars were parked behind a gate, and the attendant asked gruffly, ‘you with the visitors?’ After assuring him I wasn’t he finally let me through. No press pass needed, just honesty in this small town.
On my way into the stadium a woman at the entrance stopped me and said, ‘show me your credentials.’ The world’s most famous arena had no problem letting me pass through the gates unnoticed, but in Vardaman there’s protocol.
Once inside, I shot the breeze on that chain-link fence with a volunteer fireman who had played tailback at Northwest Community College in the mid-1970s. We talked about how much the game had changed in recent years, and what Vardaman’s prospects were for the season.
It didn’t take long after kickoff for the home team to fall hopelessly behind. But through it all the fans cheered, and cheered some more. And cheer they should.
The Rams never gave up. Running back Deon Johnson showed glimpses of being a star in the making. Quarterback Brandon Walker was steady in the face of adversity, and provided leadership for his teammates. Even coach Larry Gann was reserved and mild-mannered during the most tenuous moments.
All three talked positively after the game about what they could build on. There was no finger-pointing or hiding from the result. Just pure, unadulterated honesty.
There’s hope for this Vardaman team when region play starts.
And sometimes hope is all you need.
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