November 28, 2012 9:44:32 AM
Adam Minichino - firstname.lastname@example.org
JACKSON -- Dylan Bradley knows the importance of team chemistry.
As one of 23 seniors on the Noxubee County High School football team, Bradley has dreamed of playing an integral role in the Tigers' march to a state championship.
But after seeing the past two seasons end short of that goal, Bradley realized he and the Tigers had to re-dedicate themselves to doing whatever it took to helping the program win its second state title.
That's why Bradley didn't shy away from coach Tyrone Shorter's renewed focus on ways the Tigers could come together. In addition to having his players wear dress shirts, ties, and khaki pants on game days, Shorter re-committed Noxubee County to devotions every Wednesday following its team meal. He also asked his players to go to church together every Sunday. The Tigers have made Sundays a true team experience, as they have visited churches in Shuqualak, Brooksville, Macon, Columbus, and Crawford -- about 14 or 15, according to Shorter -- in an effort to create a special bond on the 2012 team.
Judging from the fact Noxubee County (15-0) is set to play Green County at 3 p.m. Saturday in the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 4A state title game at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson, the team's work off the field has paid dividends.
"This year, we have made it more of a priority," said Bradley, one of the state's top defensive linemen. "Going to church is a big thing. In my family it is a big thing. Coach Shorter is trying to get us to put God first. If God is on your side nothing can go wrong."
Shorter, a longtime assistant coach at Noxubee County who is in his third season as head coach at the school, said the team visited churches for the first time last year. He said his desire was to find a way to bring the players closer together. By doing more things as a group, Shorter believed the Tigers would be better able to work as one on the field.
"I don't want them to be selfish," Shorter said. "It doesn't matter who scores the touchdowns, who gets the sacks. We're just doing it as one."
Shorter said the team has devotions every Wednesday night after practice. His focus this year has been to instill the Lord Jesus Christ in his players, too, as a way of helping them become men. He said a lot of the players didn't go to church and a lot of them didn't wear or never had worn a shirt and tie.
Together, Shorter said, everything the Noxubee County coaches have done off the field has helped set an example for the players.
"A lot of these guys don't have fathers at home, or their fathers aren't in their lives," Shorter said. "I try to be a father figure, too. I am not just their coach. I try to have the guys come to me for anything, and they have."
Noxubee County assistant coach and defensive coordinator George Richardson said player participation in going to church has been more consistent, which he said is refreshing.
"Kids will have some type of in-fighting, whether it is about a girl or I am not getting much playing time, but in the eyes of The Lord, there is no room for that at all," Richardson said. "It has definitely brought us together. The kids are caring about each other. I have been on teams where there has been a lot of animosity with who is getting the most publicity, but I haven't seen that at all this year. I think that has allowed us to focus on football instead of other things outside on the street."
Shorter smiled and pointed to his team's 15-0 record when asked to cite examples of how the team has benefited from the off-the-field activities. More importantly, though, he feels the team has grown closer together so it is like it has "11 brothers" on the field, no matter who is out there. He said that bond has allowed seniors to counsel sophomores and younger players and it has enabled the defense to recover from big plays to be such a dominating force.
"These guys just have the mind-set that they want to be the best," Shorter said. "They work extremely hard to be the best. Everything we do we do together. That's what we talk about all the time, let's do this as one."
Shorter also takes pride in the fact that a lot of students at Noxubee County High who don't play football have noticed the football players wearing shirts and ties and slacks Fridays before the game days. He said some of those students have said they want to be involved.
Not only have the football team's priorities caught on at school, Shorter is equally proud of the way people in the area have gotten behind his program. He said members of the community have embraced his players when they attend their church, while others who haven't played host to the Tigers have asked him when the team is going to come to their church.
Shorter smiles when he talks about the bond that has developed in the community because that feeling and mind-set is at the heart of what he is trying to teach his players.
Bradley agrees the devotions, team meals, and trips to churches have made teamwork and brotherhood staples of the program. Even though it will be bittersweet for him to play his final game in a Noxubee County High uniform Saturday, he will take the field with the confidence 10 of his "brothers" will have his back on defense.
"From the start, it wasn't easy," Bradley said. "If you're not used to doing something or getting up early to go to church, you have to work your way into it. As the season grew on, more started to come to church and participating and going to church with one another. When that started to happen, it is not just my teammate, it is my brother. He goes to church with me. We are going for the same goal. We believe in the same thing."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.