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fridays in mississippi
by todd w bush

I remember getting up early on that Friday, driving to school just like any other day in my white Chevy S-10 extended bed. The long drive down oak-shaded Memorial Drive, then a left at the red light on College Street, and over to Highway 8. From there, it was a quick straight then right to Cleveland High School, Cleveland, Mississippi. I drove through the high school and middle school, over the speed bump that no one knew the purpose for, and to the athletic parking lot located in the corner between the combination football/baseball/soccer locker room and the heat box known as the “old gym.”

As I stepped out of the truck, I felt something a little different. It wasn’t a normal day at school, and one look across the parking lot and the gravel road to the field told the reason. The smell of freshly cut grass laid an olfactory blanket over everything. The school’s head janitor JT, a guy who had graduated in the mid 1980’s and just stayed at the school (most students had wondered if he lived at the school), was slowly, methodically rolling a painting machine at mid-field, laying down sparkling white on the deep green. On the fence that circled the field, a large black rectangle blocked my view of JT as he got near the home sideline. I couldn’t see the front of the black sign, but I knew by heart what it said. Some cheerleader’s dad worked for a local advertising company and had it made. Gold letters on a black background proclaimed for any visitor who cared to look, “Welcome to Death Valley.”

I walked into the school house, and straight to my first period class. Several guys in the room were dressed in shirts and ties; several girls in the new majority black cheerleader outfits with the white letters and gold trim. We all liked that choice, because those outfits showed off the girls’ midriffs. Class got started, but hardly any teacher stuck to the lessons. Mostly, they gave us busy work that we could finish with at least 20 minutes to go in class, after which we were free to discuss that night’s game.

The Cleveland High School Wildcats were in the Mississippi High School Activities Association football playoffs for the first time in a few years. Showcasing a three pronged attack of quarterback Steven Rose, and running backs Bobby Payne and Ernest Edwards, CHS had made the most of their “small, but insanely quick” team to finish the year 9-0-1, with a tie in the final game the only blemish. I was a freshman that year, having started the year on the football team, but now just a regular fan due in large part to a separated shoulder in preseason practice. I didn’t care, just being apart of this special season was enough for me.

School moved slowly, but finally I walked outside at 3:10 to find my truck’s windows decorated with white shoe polish messages like “Go Cats!”, “Let’s Go CHS!” and “Hey Todd!” Four long black and gold streamers were tied to my antenna. I drove home, ate a quick dinner and by 6:00 pm I was back at the football field, dressed in my four-year old Timberlane’s, blue jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt under a button-up which was under my trusty leather jacket. Game time was 7:30, but by 6:15 half the metal stands were filled. The opponent for this first game of the playoffs was North Panola High School. No one in the stands knew much about the team, except that we weren’t supposed to even be in the game, much less win.

The game started and it was a classic battle of two fairly evenly matched teams. Back and forth both teams went in the first half, with the score knotted at 13 at the end of three quarters of play. Early in the fourth quarter, Cleveland’s quarterback, Steven Rose, rolled out on a veer right play, kept the ball and cut back into the middle of the field. A linebacker hit him high, a defensive end hit him low and Rose went down. No one in the stands moved. The conversations were muted, short, and terse: “Is he ok?” “It didn’t look bad.” “No, couldn’t be that bad, he’s gotten up before.” “I don’t know; it looked bad.” “Who are we gonna use, the freshman?”

After ten grueling minutes, Rose was helped off the field by the trainers. We would find out later it was a twisted knee. He would not return. Our freshman backup came in to finish out the series and the Wildcats were forced to punt. North Panola took the ball and marched methodically down the field, churning out three, four, and five yards a play, and eating up precious seconds off the clock. When they scored a touchdown to take the lead 19-13, stunned silence gripped the home side of the field. The paper cup football games came to a stop. Folks standing near the concession stand because they couldn’t sit down anymore weren’t even thinking about buying anything. As North Panola kicked off, I made my way out of the student section and down to the concessions area, where my mom had been working the whole game selling 2 ounce drinks for 50 cents a piece.

The kickoff return team gave Cleveland the ball at the 30 yard line. Fully expecting the freshman quarterback to come back out and guarantee us an early exit from the playoffs, my mom nearly clawed my skin off as our starting tailback, Bobby Payne strolled out to take position behind the center. Payne had scored several times on long runs late in games during his four years. A hometown legend in the making since his first game, he had short, powerful legs that seemed to always steer him toward the smallest opening in any defense. But he was a running back, and hadn’t taken any snaps as a QB since his freshman year.

There were only 2 minutes and 55 seconds to go in the game. Cleveland head coach Paul Downs put the offense into the shotgun formation, with the QB standing several yards in the backfield. Payne lined up for the first down play, his backfield mate Ernest Edwards to his right. Edwards, sporting gold painted shoes five years before Michael Johnson’s Olympic fashion statement, had scored once already that night. The ball was snapped, Payne and Edwards sprinted right in typical option play formation. Pads met pads and the play yielded a four yard gain. After five more plays, Cleveland had moved the ball to the North Panola 44 yard line. Then, disaster struck.

Payne went down with a turned ankle. Thankfully, it was on the sideline, and he got up before the referees could force him out for a play, but the obvious limp seemed to end any chance our team had. Three straight plays, Payne was sacked for a huge loss, obviously favoring his ankle. It was now fourth down, and an amazing 32 yards to go for a first down. Anything less and the game was over. Three extra receivers were sent into the game. Payne got back into the shotgun, called for the ball and started looking for someone to throw to. He ran left, then turned around and ran back to his right. No one was open, and I could fell a drop hit my hand. My mom was crying. Payne pumped the ball once, then took off running, bum ankle and all. I lost my view, broke free of my mom and started zigging and zagging through the crowd on the track, as Bobby Payne did the same through North Panola defenders. Just as I got the fence and a clear view, Payne was talked. He’d gotten 33 yards on the run. We were still alive.

Picking off yardage five, ten, fifteen yards at a clip, the Cleveland offense made it down to the North Panola two yard line with 19 seconds to go. They called a veer play to the left, and, fittingly, Bobby Payne took it himself and scored. On the conversation attempt, it was Payne again, this time over the right side, to seal the improbable win, 21-19. The crowd flooded the field as the clock hit double zero. We were dancing on the field, hugging each other, kissing, and in a state of euphoria. We’d won the game.

An hour and a half later, I was finally able to get out of the parking lot and start the drive home. As I passed the field, JT was out there about to turn the lights off. I slowed the truck and looked at what was holding him up. There was a young boy, no more than six years old, running down the field and throwing a small plastic football to himself. JT was standing in the press box, and I almost see the smile on his face. When the kid reached the two yard line, he leapt through the air, landing with a thump and roll in the end zone. I smiled. I felt good after the huge win. I didn’t know that two weeks later, Cleveland would be beaten by Louisville High School on a last second field, so I smiled. I knew in my heart that although this game was over, and that the season would be over in a few weeks, win or lose, the special feeling that every small Mississippi town has every Friday night would be around forever. It’s passed on not through genes, DNA, or blood, but through the smells, the sounds, and the experience every Friday.


Todd's background includes military service, a stint at a movie theater, and getting turned down for a date by Sandra Bullock. All things that make him totally unqualified to be a writer. However, now that he's getting married in November, that might just do it.

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lake deloach
10.5.04 @ 12:22a

Very nice; well done. It was Neshoba Central though. Take care, TB. Lake

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