YAZOO CITY – Today we take a football-themed tour of Yazoo City, birthplace and hometown of defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and running back Kenneth Gainwell, who will play for the Philadelphia Eagles in Sunday’s Super Bowl.
That’s right: This little town of about 10,000 residents on the southeastern edge of the Mississippi Delta produced two of the 96 players who will dress out for a game that will be watched by about 100 million viewers around the world.
Cox played at Yazoo City High, while Gainwell, a distant cousin, played at Yazoo County High, about eight miles south of town.
This seems an absolutely perfect time for this tour. Our guide is Yazoo City High School athletic director Tony Woolfolk, who played for the Yazoo High Indians, the Alcorn State Braves and later was Cox’s high school coach. We are to meet at the high school. But first, I drive into town on Jerry Clower Boulevard, named for the famous, countrified comedian, who before becoming famous, played tackle for Mississippi State. Clower once told me, “You remember when ol’ Showboat Boykin scored seven touchdowns in one Egg Bowl for Ole Miss? Well, he stepped right on my big belly when he scored the last one.”
I take a left off Clower Boulevard onto Willie Morris Parkway, named for the great Mississippi author, once a Yazoo City halfback. Willie Morris described his hometown as “half Delta, half hills, all crazy.” Crazy about football, that’s for sure. Willie once wrote a short story about high school football titled “The Fumble” and a book titled “The Courting of Marcus Dupree.” If you haven’t read the story or the book, you should. Willie often described himself as “Yazoo City’s other Willie” in deference to fellow Yazoo native Willie Brown, the Pro Football Hall of Famer and Oakland Raiders Super Bowl hero who died in 2019. Willie Morris would quickly tell you, “Willie Brown was only the greatest cornerback in football history.”
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One more left turn gets us to the high school, where Woolfolk, a starting safety for the Alcorn Braves in the 1984 Alcorn-Mississippi Valley “Game of the Century,” is unloading soft drinks and snacks for that night’s basketball game. He knows a thing or two about Yazoo City football history.
First, Tony shows me the Yazoo High trophy case with literally hundreds of sports trophies and plaques, including one saluting 1968 Big Eight Conference Player of the Year Larry Kramer, once one of the most promising running backs in Mississippi history before injuries slowed him at Ole Miss. There’s another plaque that documents the retirement of Fletcher Cox’s red and white Indians jersey number 54. Asked about the first time he ever set eyes on Cox, Tony answers, “It was the summer after his eighth grade year. There were a bunch of kids out on the field playing ball and one of them was at least a head taller and a whole lot faster than the rest of them. I pointed and said, ‘Who is that kid?’ Somebody said, ‘That’s Bug-eye Cox.’”
“Yeah, that’s what everybody called him back then. His granny named him that because his eyes kind of bulged,” Tony says. “It stuck. Over time, I shortened it to Bug. I still call him Bug, but I knew the first time I saw him, we had us one — a potential superstar. Even then, he was bigger than everybody else and he could really, really run. You know Bug ran the 4 x 100 relay in track for us.”
I did not know that, but the idea of a 6-foot, 4-inch, 240-pound sprinter is kind of frightening. (Cox, a six-time Pro Bowler, now weighs 310.)
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From the trophy case we move on to the football field at what is now called Fletcher Cox Stadium. We go through the locker room with nice wooden lockers provided by Bug-Eye himself. We go through the weight room with 10 racks of weights, all paid for by Fletcher Cox, who apparently does not forget where he comes from. “When Bug came through here, we only had two weight racks,” Tony says. “He wanted to make sure these kids have more.”
Tony says Fletcher’s mom, who was a single parent, didn’t want him to play high school football. “She was afraid he would get hurt,” Tony says. “I told her she didn’t need to worry about that. The only concern was how many people he was gonna hurt.”
There have been a few, first at Yazoo, then at Mississippi State and finally with the Eagles, where he has played all of his 11-year career after being the 12th pick of the first round of the 2012 draft.
Our tour guide suggests a ride around Yazoo. He wants to show us where Fletcher grew up in an area neighborhood called Jonestown. We take River Road, which runs along side the Yazoo River, for which the town is named. We are actually searching for Fletcher Cox Street, going slowly by the street signs until we pass Gentle Ben Street named for Gentle Ben Williams, another remarkable defensive lineman from Yazoo, the first Black football player at Ole Miss and a 10-year star with the Buffalo Bills. Turns out, Ben Williams and Fletcher Cox grew up in the same neighborhood, only a few streets apart. That has to set records for defensive tackles per capita.
“I got a lot of my best players from Jonestown,” Tony says.
I tell Tony that Willie Morris used to tell me about the Brickyard Hill neighborhood, where Willie Brown grew up and where Mushroom Street has become Willie Brown Street. We head that way and I quickly learn where the “half hills” of Yazoo City are. Willie Brown Street tops one of the biggest hills.
Brown, who played for the legendary Eddie Robinson at Grambling, made one of the most iconic plays in Super Bowl history 45 years ago. That’s when he intercepted Fran Tarkenton’s pass and returned it 75 yards for a game-clinching touchdown in the Raiders’ victory over the Minnesota Vikings.
Says Tony Woolfolk, “When I was growing up, Willie was everybody’s hero in Yazoo City. I played in football shoes that Willie Brown sent home to us. They were shoes that the Raiders had already used, but they were like brand new to us. We were playing NFL shoes. It meant the world to us.”
Tony makes another stop on the way back to the school. We’re at the Yazoo middle school, that sits in what used to be a public park in the early 1900s, Tony says. “Take a look at that sign over there,” Tony says.
So I do, and it commemorates the site of Mississippi’s first organized high school football game played in 1905. Yazoo City won, of course, beating Winona 5-0.
There’s just so much football history here in Yazoo. We haven’t even mentioned the Heidel brothers (Jimmy, Ray and Roy) of Ole Miss fame; Houston Hoover (Jackson State), who played seven years in the NFL for three different teams; Elex Price (Alcorn State), an eight-year pro with the New Orleans Saints; or Gov. Haley Barbour, who played both football and baseball for the Yazoo Indians. We could go on and on, but it’s time to go and Tony has a basketball game that evening.
I head back south toward Jackson, more than little hungry from all the sight-seeing. So I stop at the Hall of Fame Restaurant , a little spot I’ve long heard about on the east side of U.S. 49 in an area known as Little Yazoo. There, I am greeted by David Brown, who happens to be Willie Brown’s older brother and the proprietor. The resemblance between David and his younger brother is startling.
I ask him, “Did you play football, too?”
“Man, I taught Willie how to play,” David says, smiling.
“Hungry?” he asks.
“Starving,” I said.
He shows me the menu, and there it is right there at the top. I order the Willie Brown Burger. Five minutes later, I get it, the biggest and surely one of the best burgers I’ve ever encountered. I tell David you could do bicep curls with that hamburger.
He smiles. “You ain’t gonna be hungry for a while,” he says.
And he is right. I leave, sated both on the Willie Brown Burger and rich Yazoo history.