Jackson Public schools athletic director Daryl Jones (with microphone) discusses upcoming football season with members of the Provine football team. JPS schools are determined to play football after missing the 2020 season

The Jackson Public Schools football regular season doesn’t start until next week, but already the Jim Hill Tigers are 1-0.

How’s that?

JPS coordinated a COVID-19 vaccination drive among its football-playing high schools recently, and Jim Hill won with more than 75% of its athletes now vaccinated, up from below 40% before the competition. Jim Hill won $1,000 to go into its football program.

“We can’t mandate, but we can educate,” said Jim Hill head coach Jermaine Bryant. “We are constantly stressing to our students and their parents the importance of taking all possible precautions in order to play a football season. We want to play all our games.”

They did not play any last year — neither did any of the other six JPS high schools. In mid-August last year, JPS announced that all fall sports had been canceled due to the pandemic.

Rick Cleveland

Despite the success of the vaccination drive, JPS — as well as all Mississippi high school football teams — face huge obstacles to play anything resembling a complete schedule this fall.

On Aug. 20 of last year, Mississippi reported 894 new cases of COVID-19. On the same date this year, there were a record 5,048 new cases. What’s more, the delta variant appears much more dangerous for young people.

Daryl Jones, the JPS athletic director, Thursday acknowledged the challenges but said the school district is doing all it can to have in-person classes and as normal a football season as possible.

“We are encouraging all athletes and coaches to get vaccinated,” Jones said “Those that don’t must submit to weekly testing. If they’re going to play football, or going to be in the band or going to be a cheerleader, they must submit to weekly testing if they are not vaccinated.”

All football players and coaches present at the press conference Thursday evening at Forest Hill High wore masks, taking them off only when photos were made.

Isiah Terrell and his Jim Hill teammates are hungry to play football.

Jim Hill’s Isiah Terrell was one of those players, an 11th grader, who packs 350 pounds on his six-foot frame with legs as thick as tree trunks and arms nearly as massive. Terrell played as a ninth grader, when the Tigers finished 2-9, but missed an entire season last year. He said he was fully vaccinated long before the current JPS vaccination drive.

“I just want to play,” Terrell said. “We are all hungry to play.”

Terrell said he and his teammates met in small groups during the last school year to run, lift weights and try to remain in football-playing shape. He said they stayed in touch using social media.

He was asked how difficult it has been to get back into the routine of two-hour practices in the Mississippi August heat after missing an entire season.

“It hasn’t been that hard,” he said. “When you have a passion about this thing called football, it’s actually easy.”

Nevertheless, pandemic or not, JPS coaches face an enormous task in preparing teams to play, especially when they face teams from outside the district who never stopped playing.

Jones, the athletic director, knows that. “It’s gonna be tough, especially the first few games,” said Jones, a former coach himself and the son of former Alcorn coach Cardell Jones. “But remember, they still worked out, still watched film. If they managed their time well, they should be prepared.”

Nobody faces a more difficult task than Murrah, Jackson’s only Class 6A school. Murrah, 1-10 in 2019 and idle last year, faces a murderous schedule that includes many of the state’s largest, most powerful football programs. Indeed, beginning Sept. 24, Murrah faces Oxford, Germantown, Grenada, Starkville, Tupelo, Madison Central and Clinton. That’s the high school version of playing in the SEC West.

Said Marcus Gibson, the Murrah coach, “The issue is going to be calming them down, and understanding the game within the game. Gotta get them to focus on each play. They are prepared because through this pandemic, they have had to endure a multitude of starts and stops. The guys that are here, they’ve been through everything that we’ve been through, and it’s actually unified us quite a bit. If you are here with us now, it means you’ve been through all of it.”

And there’s still a long, long road ahead.

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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.