October 5, 2011 12:33:00 PM
In 1999, the improbable happened. On a rainy Friday night, the Columbus Falcons beat the South Panola Tigers. At the time, South Panola was the defending 5A state champion, undefeated and building its reputation as a football powerhouse. In comparison, Columbus, which had recently been created by combining Lee High and Caldwell, had never had a winning season. The expectations for defeat were so widespread that classmates joked with CHS players about how badly the team would get beat.
Prior to the game the coach at the time, Roy McCrory, implemented the smash-mouth, power I offense to control the pace of the game. To make the strategy effective, he placed star defensive players, Jonathan West and Joe Knox, on the offensive line for the first time, betting that this would help running back Galen Hendricks find holes against the Tiger defense. This bet paid off on the first play of the game when Galen scored on a long touchdown run.
The strategy also relied on the defense to slow down the notorious Tiger running attack. Similar to the style adopted by Coach McCrory, the Tigers were known to run the ball down their opponent's throat. Yet, Coach McCrory believed players like Shelby Van Every, Earnest Edwards, Marcus West, along with Jonathan and Joe, had the size and toughness to play the Tigers pound for pound.
From the fan's perspective, the game had a magical feeling from the beginning. The rain had kept many fans away, so the stands weren't crowded, but the ones there fed off the team's confidence and performance. Whole sections stood the entire game, carefully watching every down, cheering every good play, booing every bad call, and believing, more and more as the game went on, that maybe, just maybe, Columbus could win after all.
Then, they did. Heroic moments, such as Bennie Aaron's long touchdown run and Keon Bankhead's touchdown catch, provided enough scoring for the Falcons to win 20-14. The Falcons rode the momentum from this victory to make the state playoffs for the first time in school history.
The defeat was only a stumbling block in South Panola's rise to unprecedented heights, however. From 2003 to 2007, the Tigers captured five consecutive 5A State Championships and won the 3rd most consecutive games in the nation's history: 89. Mississippi sport's columnist, Rick Cleveland, famously refers to them as the University of South Panola out of awe and respect for their tradition and legacy.
Columbus, like all other schools, has been unable to remotely keep pace. The next year, 2000-2001, the team started 6-0 and won the school's first playoff game, but the Falcons have not been able to beat the Tigers again.
The Falcons have an opportunity to recapture the legacy of that 1999 team this Friday when they host the Tigers. Columbus is off to a solid start at 4-2 and 1-1 in the division. They have a balanced offense, with running threats in quarterback Cedric Jackson and running back Damian Baker, and a big play pass attack with alternate quarterback Trace Lee and wide receiver Deontae Jones. The defense has the playmakers, with players such as Jabari Edwards, Byerson Cockrell and Jimmy Cockrell, to match up with the Tigers. But the Falcons face a hungry South Panola. At 3-3, (two of those losses were to out of state teams) the Tigers are coming off a defeat to Olive Branch; their first home lost to a Mississippi school since 2001.
Regardless of the odds, though, many of the players and fans of that 1999 team will surely be at the game Friday. They'll remember the magic of that night, the night we beat one of the best football programs in the nation, and, if they're like me, they'll believe we can do it again.
Scott Colom is a local attorney.
colomsw commented at 10/5/2011 3:25:00 PM:
Shelby's last name is spelled Van Every. My sincere apologies for the mistake.
dz commented at 10/6/2011 10:47:00 AM:
That game...in the rain..is one of my best high school memories. Thanks Scott :)