Three football teams have canceled games with mighty Greenville Christian, the state’s top-ranked high school football team. All have cited small rosters, injuries and concern for the health of their players.

That has caused Saints coach Jon Reed McLendon to search in vain far and wide — as far away as Washington D.C. and south Florida — to fill open dates.

But McLendon did not have to look far to find Friday night’s foe. The Delta Streets Academy Lions are about 50 miles east, down Highway 82 in Greenwood. The game has been scheduled for months. Despite long odds, Delta Streets is not begging out.

Rick Cleveland

If a betting line existed on the game, Greenville Christian would be favored by 40 points or more. The truth is, McLendon probably could name the score Friday night and make it happen. But that’s not the point, Delta Streets executive director T. Mac Howard and his second-year football coach Travis Upshaw say.

“We signed up to play this game and we’re going to play it,” Upshaw said. “We are not teaching our guys to quit.”

Perseverance is one of the school’s five stated and published core values, with this addendum: “We work hard even when we fail.”

Says Howard, the school’s founder, “We are building character here. Part of that is the discipline to do what you said you were going to do. We said we were going to play. We are going to play. Wins and losses are not what define us. We are developing young men.

“These young men will face difficult times later in life, maybe with their marriages or with their jobs or with life in general. We all face them, right? You do. I do. We all do. You can’t just quit, you know. You got to face up to them.”

Ahmaude Jones, 12, works on homework during Study Hall under the watchful eye of Study Hall monitor O’Ryan Patterson at Delta Streets Academy in Greenwood, Wednesdsay, October 20, 2021. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Some facts about Delta Streets:

  • The school is just nine years old, the brainchild of Howard, who grew up in the Barnett Reservoir area and played football and baseball at Northwest Rankin before attending Mississippi State, where he was a football walk-on under Sylvester Croom.
  • Delta Streets, located in downtown Greenwood in a partially renovated (and still being renovated) automobile dealership, has an enrollment of 95, all boys, in grades 7 through 12. The school currently has no football field or gymnasium. The football team usually practices in an open field behind a nearby church.
  • The school’s enrollment is about 75% African American and 25% Hispanic. The football team has 18 players, but only 14 of those are 10th grade or older.
  • There is a strong emphasis on both Christian faith and discipline. Discipline is non-negotiable.

“We are not a fit for everybody,” Howard said. “If a student can’t or won’t follow our rules and values, they move on. Typically, they go back to public school.”

T.Mac Howard at Delta Streets Academy he founded 2012 for at risk young males in Greenwood. The school provides a Christian-based education for grades 7 – 11. “We’re working hard to give these kids a chance,” said Howard, Wednesday, October 20, 2021. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Howard, himself, formerly taught and coached at Greenwood High School, where he was dismayed with the lack of discipline — more specifically, he says, the lack of demand for discipline.

Delta Streets began the school year with 105 students. Ten have moved on. On the other hand, enrollment has steadily increased year to year.

Al’Javeez McGhee, who goes by AJ, is the team’s slender, 17-year-old senior quarterback who ran afoul of the school’s rules in the seventh grade, came back a year later and, said Howard, has blossomed as a student, athlete and citizen.

“AJ is going to be successful in life, no matter what he chooses to do,” Howard said.

McGhee, soft-spoken to the point coaches have had to insist he bark the signals, wants to be a scientist. Currently, he takes two college courses at nearby Mississippi Delta Community College and plans eventually to attend a four-year university.

Delta Streets, McGhee says, “has equipped me to be a better person. My teachers have pushed me. My mom pushes me. I have learned so much here.”

McGhee has known and competed athletically against many of Greenville Christian’s players for much of his life. Earlier this fall, he traveled to Ridgeland to watch the Saints dismantle defending MAIS state champion Madison-Ridgeland Academy 58-32. So he knows what his team is up against.

“Oh man, they are really, really good,” said McGhee, who is realistic about his and his team’s goals Friday night.

“I just want to compete,” McGhee said. “We want to score against them, put some points on the board — not many teams do.”

Delta Streets Academy head football coach Travis Upshaw at football practice in Greenwood, Wednesday, October 20, 2021. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Upshaw, the head coach who once played as a 380-pound nose tackle for Texas State and later in the Arena Football League, says he has set some realistic goals for Friday night in terms of first downs, defensive stops and other statistical categories. He once played a game against nationally ranked Texas A&M when he was at Texas State, which was then a division below A&M and given little chance to compete. “But we were down only three points at halftime, and eventually lost a close game in the fourth quarter, but we were competitive,” he said.

Upshaw said he and his Texas State teammates left College Station feeling better about themselves and eventually finished the season ranked No. 4 in Division I-AA, winning two playoff games. He would dearly love for his small pride of Lions to have a similar experience Friday night.

Delta Streets Academy running back Jaylin Lewis Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Realistically, this matchup is far more one-sided than that one years ago in Texas, but running back Jaylen Lewis, the Lions’ best player, is eager to play. He ran for 240 yards and four touchdowns in a 33-20 victory over Rossville (Tenn.) Christian Academy last week.

“I want to compete,” Lewis said. “I want to show what I can do. I know how good they are, but I am not scared.”

Upshaw says his team is making strides. The Lions are on a modest two-game winning streak. Two weeks ago, in a 13-8 victory over Riverside, Cristian Ledesma, a 10th grader, kicked the first extra point in school history.

“We’re taking it one step at a time,” Upshaw said, chuckling. “How about that? The first extra point in school history.”

Both Howard and Upshaw believe Delta Streets’ best days are ahead for both the school and the football program. Renovation continues on the converted auto dealership, adding classrooms. The hope is to eventually expand to lower grades.

Plans are proceeding on a $2.2 million gymnasium, which will be located on campus. Approximately $1.65 million has been raised, and, Howard says, “That’s going to happen.”

A football field is also on the drawing boards, which would be located adjacent to the school buildings. That’s a $1.4 million project. Howard is constantly raising money. Individuals, companies and churches have donated to the school, including a $1 million donation from one individual toward the gymnasium.

There are only five seniors on this year’s football team, and the middle school team, which defeated Greenville Christian recently, has better numbers and potential. Several 8th and 9th graders dress with the varsity team. 

None of that will help Friday night.

“We’re going to go out there and compete,” Upshaw, the coach, said. “We know what we are up and against. All we can do is our best.”

And here’s the deal: Friday night’s game is for the division championship. Greenville Christian is 8-1 overall, compared to Delta Streets’ record of 3-6. But both teams are 2-0 in their respective MAIS Class 3A division.

If Greenville Christian wins as expected, the Saints will have a first round bye in the playoffs. Delta Streets would play in the first round. And should the Lions win that playoff game? There’s a good chance the would play Greenville Christian again.

They hope to.

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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.