In all of the stories that have come out of this football season, one will be overlooked by nearly everyone. I say “nearly” because some in the sleepy hamlet of New Hope, Mississippi will never forget, nor should they.
For ten years, the New Hope Trojan football team was mired in mediocrity. At a school where champions are produced on a regular basis in other sports, football was sort of the “red-headed stepchild” of New Hope High School. In the South, where football is more akin to religion than sport, this is an oddity indeed.
The 2007 Trojans began the season coming off a 1-9 mark in 2006. As fall practice began, so did the defections. Skill players quit left and right. When it was all said and done, fewer than 50 players remained on the varsity roster, including several 14 year-old freshmen.
In the first test of the year, the Trojans hosted a jamboree where several local teams showcased their skills in one-quarter scrimmages.
The class 4-A Trojans scrimmaged their 1-A in-county neighbors, the West Lowndes High Panthers. After a sloppy start, the Trojans rallied to finish the scrimmage with a 14-0 win over the Panthers. Still, doubts prevailed, prompting one observer to note that the Trojans would “not win a game.”
The first real game was on the road at Saltillo, a school just north of Tupelo, MS. Saltillo was a program which, like New Hope, was seeking to establish winning ways. The Trojans scored first on a field goal by the young freshman kicker. The Trojan offense then coughed up two turnovers that led to 14 Saltillo points. Trailing by 11 at the half, the Trojans faced a decision: give up, or fight ’til the end. With new determination, the Trojans roared back into the second half and by sheer determination, scored 14 points to take the lead. Then, after a penalty negated a game-tying Saltillo field goal, the Trojans blocked the Tigers’ second attempt to split the uprights, and sealed the win.
Despite the win, many still doubted the Trojans’ chances in the next game. Coming to Trojan Field was perennial 3-A powerhouse, Amory. The Panthers were a legendary team in North Mississippi during the 1990s, winning consecutive state titles, sending players to Division I schools, and cultivating a mystique that many in North Mississippi refer to as “Panther Magic.” They had already disposed of 4-A playoff contender Itawamba, who would end up with only 2 losses on the season, and were coming to New Hope as a tune-up for their next game, a showdown with 5-A power Tupelo. One internet observer boldly proclaimed that New Hope didn’t “have a snowball’s chance in hell” to take down Amory. The Trojans had two turnovers in the first half that gave Amory 14 points, but they battled and at halftime, the score stood at 14-7. In the second half, the Trojans exploded for 28 points while holding Amory to 14, including a dramatic goal line stand at the 1 foot line late in the fourth quarter. Hell froze over, and the Trojans dispelled the myth of “Panther Magic” by a tally of 35 to 28.
The next four games were not so good for the young Men of Troy. A heart-wrenching 27-0 loss to the senior-laden, 5-A playoff contender and cross-town rival Columbus High Falcons was tough for the fragile psyches of these young men to take. This loss was followed by a 36-6 blowout at the hands of eventual district winners, the West Point Green Wave. Two more losses followed: a 21-0 loss to rival and eventual 4-A North State Champions Noxubee County, and a brutal 42-0 pounding at the hands of the 4-A North State runners-up, the Kosciusko Whippets. The “young Trojans” as their head coach repeatedly called them, were battered, bruised and bewildered. Several players were injured, including the junior quarterback, who suffered his second concussion of the year in the Kosciusko game. A new direction was needed. A “blood transfusion” of sorts became necessary.
Such relief came after the Kosciusko game, when the 17 players left on the 9th grade team were called up to become varsity. This “new blood” was seamlessly injected into the Trojan veins. What the neophytes lacked in experience, they made up for in enthusiasm and confidence; said confidence to be soon tested by the West Lauderdale Knights, a team that had destroyed New Hope just one year earlier.
The Knights jumped out to a 9-0 lead. The Trojans seemed to feel the cold hands of inevitability choking the life out of their hopes once again. But right before halftime, a spark shot out of a flicker of hope, and gave birth to a flame. As the West Lauderdale quarterback laced a pass over the middle the Trojan free safety seemed to materialize from thin air, intercepted the ball, and ran it in for a score. The halftime score stood at 9-7 and hopes were high for the men in black.
West Lauderdale opened up the second half with the cold precision and efficiency of German engineers. In 2 plays, West Lauderdale moved the ball 50 yards for a score and a two-point conversion. The score stood at 17-7. But New Hope was not to be outdone. On a play that will be long-remembered by those who witnessed it, the junior quarterback ran right on a busted play, reversed field near the home sideline, darted across towards the visiting stands, and ran 53 yards for a touchdown. A missed PAT put the score at 17-13 with plenty of time left to play. At this point, the New Hope defense said, in no uncertain terms, “thus far and no farther shalt thou go.” West Lauderdale could do nothing more against the Trojans for the rest of the game. Offensively, the Trojans found themselves in a bit of a pickle. They were deep in West Lauderdale territory and a freshman quarterback was at the helm. On a 3rd and 17, the young gun courageously avoided a sack and completed a 16 yard pass to set up a 4th and 1. The Trojan running back was not to be denied and pushed forward so secure the first down. The dagger in the heart of the Knights came on the next play, as the rejuvenated junior quarterback raced 73 yards for a score. A successful PAT put the score at 20-17. The defense shut down all hopes of a comeback by West Lauderdale, and New Hope had its first homecoming win in recent memory. They had also tripled their win total from the previous year, and were suddenly playoff contenders.
The next game took the Trojans on the road to Philadelphia, MS where they played Neshoba Central. In a first half fraught with controversy, lack of focus, questionable officiating and offensive miscues, the 1-6 Rockets led the Trojans 10-0 at the half. It was at this point the Trojans had to decide if they were indeed the better team. They responded that question by exploding for 19 unanswered points in the second half to secure the win and stay in the playoff hunt.
The next contest for the Trojans was their last division game. With a win, they could clinch a non-losing season, a non-losing division record, a winning home record, and a possible playoff berth. All that stood in their way was division and in-county rivals, the Caledonia Confederates. Having beat Caledonia two years in a row, many of the Trojans were confident going into the game; perhaps too confident. On a cold, sloppy field, the Trojans drew first blood on a spectacular 98-yard interception return. After a Trojan fumble, the Confederates executed a perfect pass play to secure a touchdown, but missed the extra point. The Trojans went into the half with a slim 7-6, but it was their first halftime lead of the year. The lead didn’t last as the Confederates executed a surprise onside kick perfectly to take the ball in Trojan territory. They proceeded to march down the field and score another touchdown and decided to go for two. The Confederates missed the two-point conversion, and held a 12-7 lead. The Trojans responded with a 16 play drive that culminated in a touchdown. Unfortunately, the Trojans missed their own two-point conversion and the score stood at 13-12. Caledonia threatened late, holding the ball at the Trojan 30, but the defense once again asserted its dominance and held the Confederates in check. After a Trojan drive sputtered deep in Caledonia territory, the Confederates tried for some late-game heroics. Several deep passes were thrown in the hopes of a legendary finish, but the Trojans, who only allowed one fourth quarter touchdown all year, would not permit themselves to fall prey to such a fate. Like their namesakes, the Confederates threw everything they had at New Hope, but came up short. New Hope did not play its best against Caledonia, yet still found a way to win. This was a trait long missing from New Hope football and will hopefully be a harbinger of things to come. The win, ugly as it was, secured a non-losing season for New Hope football for the first time in ten years.
It has been said that the Trojan army was never defeated by the Greeks. Rather, it was the subtle machinations of fate and the trickery of Odysseus. Troy never fell in a straight fight. Such was to be the fate of our young heroes. In their final game of the season, they pulled out another come-from-behind win against the 3-A Houston Hilltoppers, winning a 17-14 thriller in overtime on a 32-yard field goal by a freshman who had never kicked a field goal in a game before. But the euphoria of the win was sobered by the stark reality of missing the playoffs. West Lauderdale defeated Kosciusko by a score of 27-12, putting the three teams in a three way tie for the final two playoff spots. West Lauderdale, having defeated Kosciusko, finished 3rd in the division. Kosciusko, having defeated New Hope, finished 4th, leaving New Hope out of the picture. Once again, the subtle machinations of fate had done in the Trojans.
Despite this, the Trojans finished with a 6-4 record with virtually the same level of raw talent, if not less, than the year before. They battled adversity on and off the field in truly heroic fashion. They also laid a foundation for future classes to build on. They proved that hard work, determination and belief can take you farther than sole reliance on your own meager abilities. Before I met this hearty group of young men, I was of the opinion that talent would always triumph over lesser ability. But like many in the community, I too was made a believer out of this group. I have learned that talent will only get your foot in the door. What really matters is what you do with your talent. Many talented football players sit and watch others play the game. If you don’t believe how talented they are, just ask them. But in reality, they lack the other football necessities which cannot be quantified with a stop watch or a weight machine: self-discipline, proper attitude, character, mental toughness, the willingness to humble one’s self and receive instruction and above all, courage.
Painted across the wall of the weight room in New Hope are the words “Pride, Toughness, Togetherness.” Nowhere do you find the words “talent,” “ability,” or “potential.” It is because having these traits no more makes a winning team than owning a chisel makes one a sculptor. It in the process of refining those skills with the intangible ones previously mentioned that we take God’s gifts to us, and transform them into our gifts to Him.