There’s a clear winner in the 2020 Mississippi high school football championship playoffs: COVID-19.

So far this week, six teams have forfeited Friday night playoff games due to coronavirus outbreaks, thus ending their seasons.

“It’s not supposed to be this way,” said Lafayette County coach Michael Fair, whose team was set to play Neshoba Central in a Class 5A playoff game on Friday night. “In football, your season is supposed to end on the field.”

Instead, Fair informed his team that their season had ended as the team gathered for a practice on Tuesday afternoon. The MHSAA follows Mississippi State Department of Health guidelines that deem three or more positive COVID-19 tests an outbreak requiring quarantining for 14 days. Fair had one player test positive on Saturday, another on Monday and a third on Tuesday. And that was that.

“One of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” said Fair, the former Mississippi State offensive line standout. “There were lots of tears. I feel for my seniors, some of whom have played their last games. But I feel for all our players. I mean, you work so hard for so long for something and then it ends like this.”

Lafayette County’s season had begun under tragic circumstances. Longtime Lafayette assistant coach Nacoma James, the team’s special teams coordinator, died of COVID-19 on Aug. 6. He was 42.

“Coach James was beloved by our players,” Fair said. “He wore a bow tie to school ever Wednesday, so we put a bow tie decal on our helmets this season to honor him. He was a real inspiration to our kids. You know, football teams are like a family and we lost a loved one. That made us that much closer, and it makes it that much harder for it to end the way it ended.”

Lafayette County is by no means the only high school team grieving this week. The scene was much the same at other schools across the state. In Class 1A, McAdams, near Kosiusko in Attala County, forfeited its game with Lumberton. In Class 4A, three of eight playoffs games scheduled have been cancelled due to COVID-19. McComb forfeited to Mendenhall. Lawrence County forfeited to Sumrall. Clarksdale forfeited to Itawamba Agricultural. Another 5A playoff game was cancelled when Brookhaven was forced to forfeit to Pascagoula.

All this was as of Wednesday afternoon. More could follow before scheduled kickoffs on Friday night.

Last week, Puckett forfeited to Bogue Chitto in 2A, and Shannon forfeited to West Lauderdale in 4A.

Not coincidentally, pandemic numbers have soared in Mississippi recently. The state’s average number of daily COVID-19 cases surpassed 900 for the first time in three months. On Tuesday, 1,256 new cases and 17 deaths were reported.

The MHSAA reported just over 100 games forfeited during the 10-game regular season. Nearly two dozen teams, including all Jackson Public Schools teams, opted not to play football this season. Many teams’ seasons were ravaged before the regular season ended and the playoffs began. Take 6A powerhouse Starkville, for example. Coach Chris Jones’ Yellowjackets appeared the best team in the state for much of the season. They were 5-0 and ranked No. 1 in the state before COVID-19 struck.

Because of COVID, Starkville didn’t play a game for 21 days and didn’t so much as practice for two full weeks. When the Yellowjackets finally returned to the field, they lost three straight games, finished with a 5-3 record (including one forfeited loss) and out of the playoffs.

“I know it’s been a tough year for everybody, and some of it is things you don’t even think about,” Jones said. “Because of COVID, we didn’t have the summer work you usually get. Our conditioning wasn’t what it should have been, and I’ve heard a lot of coaches say the same. Injuries rocked us about as much as COVID. And then when it hit us in October, we had to quarantine and we couldn’t even practice. Then, you come back and it’s like starting over and you have to play a team like Clinton, which was really hot at the time. Nobody wants to make excuses, but it is what it is. We weren’t ready.”

Jones was the first person to reach out to Lafayette County’s Fair when he heard the news about Lafayette having to forfeit Friday night’s playoff game.

“I know how it feels when it’s out of your hands,” Jones said. “It’s just sad.”

Mississippi’s public schools teams still playing are shooting for championship weekend to be held at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson on Dec. 4-5.

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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 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.