OXFORD — Long ago, decades before any of the Noxubee County Tigers or the East Central Hornets were born, an old sports writer told me: “Son, the winning locker rooms are more fun, but lots of times the best stories are in the locker room of the team that loses.”
That came to mind Saturday evening at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium after the perennial powerhouse Noxubee Tigers came back from a 14-point halftime deficit to defeat previously unbeaten East Central 41-35 in one of the most exciting state championship games in memory.
First things first: Hail to the victors, because Class 4A champion Noxubee earned it the hard way, fighting back from 14-0, 28-14 and 35-21 deficits and scoring the game’s final 20 points.
Down 28-14, Noxubee coach Tyrone Shorter said he never raised his voice in the locker room.
“Didn’t yell, didn’t fuss at all,” he said. “It was real calm. We’ve had these kinds of games all year. I had no doubt we were going to win this game.”
Shorter turned and looked up into the huge Noxubee crowd on the visitors’ side of The Vaught and pointed.
“Those people up there expect us to do this every year. Every year, I’m telling you,” Shorter added.
There’s a reason. Noxubee has won state championships in 2008, 2012, 2014 and 2015 and now 2017. They grow football players in Noxubee County the way they grow corn in Iowa.
Which brings us to the team that left the field Saturday night crying in unison. East Central, which had won 13 straight games this season under Seth Smith, was nonetheless a decided underdog for those who follow Mississippi high school football. The Hornets not only have never won a state championship, they had never played for one before Saturday. What’s more, East Central, from Hurley near Moss Point, had made the playoffs just once before Smith got there five years ago.
His first Hornets finished 1-10. His second team was 5-7. His third was 7-5 and his fourth finished 8-5. Then came this magical season when they won 13 straight including a exhausting-as-it-was-exciting 52-45 victory over Poplarville for the South State championship.
“This school won one playoff game in 59 years before these players got here,” Smith said. “These guys have worked so hard, come so far. I love ’em, I’ll tell you that.”
They might have taken that last step, had it not been for star running back Tony Brown’s injury late in the first quarter. Brown ran for 108 yards on 14 carries in the first quarter before he suffered a broken collar bone when he hit the ground after a hard tackle. He was carted off the field with a trainer holding his arm and was taken to nearby Baptist Memorial Hospital.
“There’s no doubt that made a big difference,” Shorter, the Noxubee coach said. “That kid is a great player and I hope he’s OK. It’s hard to lose a player like that.”
Brown, who stands 5-foot-8 and weighs 187 pounds, rushed for 2,580 yards and 48 touchdowns coming into the championship game. He had scored 14 touchdowns in two previous playoff games. The guy has done everything you can do except earn a Division I scholarship offer.
“I guess I’d be a terrible college coach because I’d have to sign a guy who has scored 92 high school touchdowns, runs a 4.4 40, bench presses 340 pounds and squads 530,” Smith said. “I’d have to sign a player like that if I could.”
Without Brown, the Hornets played hard and well – and came up short. They gave it their all. Several left the field sobbing.
Smith gathered them together on the artificial turf of the indoor practice facility in the Manning Center.
He told them they had given him “the most memorable time of my life.”
“It hurts and it should hurt,” Smith said. “It’s OK to cry about it but remember all you have achieved. I just want to thank you. I want to thank you for believing and thank you for fighting. Special people do special things and you are special. You have done something no team in the history of this school has ever come close to.
“We’re not going home with the gold ball but you are champions to me. Take these lessons you’ve learned and be champions in life. Be a good husband. Be a good father. I’ll always love you.”