September 3, 2014 10:40:40 AM
TJ Davis didn't know Friday the honor he was about to receive.
Jammed into the New Hope High School gymnasium, Davis and his New Hope football teammates were gathered with the rest of the school's student body to participate in a pep rally prior to the team's season opener against Aberdeen.
Dean and Gail Stevens also were on hand to be a part of the start of another season. Unlike Davis, they knew someone was going to be recognized, but they didn't know which Trojan was going to get selected.
It didn't take them long for the power of No. 72 to bring them together.
Davis, a senior offensive guard, was selected by the New Hope High coaches to wear the No. 72 that was worn by former New Hope High standout Park Stevens, who went on to play football for two years at East Central Community College in Decatur and then earned a spot on the Ole Miss football team as a walk-on.
Stevens, 20, the son of Dean and Gail Stevens, of Columbus, died July 3, 2013, after his pickup collided into the rear of an 18-wheeler at Egypt Road and U.S. Highway 45A in Chickasaw County. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
New Hope High retired Stevens' No. 72 last season, but Dean Stevens said he and his wife wanted to ring in a new tradition to coincide with the hiring of new football coach Kris Pickle and his coaching staff. He said they were familiar with the tradition of Chucky Mullins and Ole Miss and wanted to do something similar to keep the spirit and the memory of their son alive.
Mullins was paralyzed on a hit to Vanderbilt's Brad Gaines in their game Oct. 28, 1989, in Oxford. He died in the hospital on May 6, 1991. Ole Miss honored Mullins by retiring his No. 38 in 2006, but the school reinstated the number in 2010. A player who wins the "Chucky Mullins Memorial Courage Award" gets to wear Mullins' number.
"It is one of those things that helps us to continue to try to heal from tragedy," Stevens said. "We were excited to see the run-through and No. 72 come out on the field (against Aberdeen)."
Davis was an eighth-grader at New Hope School when Stevens was a starter on the offensive line for the Trojans. He said he was shocked when his name was called to receive the honor.
"It was an honor getting Park Stevens' jersey," said Davis, who wore No. 77 before receiving the honor. "He was a good person. He was a good leader."
Pickle, a former assistant coach at Aberdeen High and a head coach at Morton High, didn't know Stevens, but he said everything he has learned about him sounds a lot like Davis, a 5-foot-10, 270-pounder, who works hard and gets the most out of his ability. He credits New Hope High offensive line coach Kyle Watson, who coached Stevens for two years at East Central Community College, for finding the right player who embodies the work ethic and personality of Stevens.
"Coach Watson chose TJ because he said he is a lot like Park in that he worked hard, he came to practice every day, he didn't complain, didn't carry on, didn't fuss, had a great attitude, and was a leader out there," Pickle said. "He didn't have as much talent as some of the other guys did, but he always was as good as those other guys because of his attitude and his work ethic. ... I couldn't have been more excited for TJ to wear that jersey. When we made the announcement, I think every kid in the school, and teachers included, agreed that was the right decision to let TJ wear it. You could see on his face when it was announced that it meant something to him.
"He knows what Park meant to this school and what Park meant to Mr. Dean and Miss Gail, and he knows what kind of an honor it is."
Davis understands the responsibility of wearing Stevens' jersey. He said he takes pride in his willingness to work hard and to finish everything he does. He hopes wearing No. 72 serves as motivation to him and his teammates to raise their level of play and to realize they are playing not only for themselves, but for Stevens and his family.
"It is going to be hard to try to live up to that number, but I am going to do the best I can," said Davis, who played tackle as a 10th-grader and center some last season. "I am going to try my best to motivate my teammates the way (Park) motivated a lot of people around here."
Dean Stevens agrees Watson and the New Hope High coaches made the perfect selection. He said he and his family are excited about the thought their son's legacy will live on. He said they get a similar feeling when they see Ole Miss sophomore Robert Conyers on the field wearing No. 75, the number Stevens had when he was a Rebel.
"When we see that number (72) go on the field we see our son," Stevens said. "We wind up watching every movement they make and every step they make. It gives us that feeling knowing he is still there and that through this we will still continue to see him and be a part of what he loves so much.
"It is not about the size of the player or the color of the player, or anything like that. That never mattered to us or Park. It is all about the game and enjoying what you love and enjoying your teammates and being a part of a fraternity. ... I tell kids today, even at Ole Miss, enjoy every minute you have out there with your teammates because when you are 50 years old, like I am, and you get together with old friends, these are the buddies you're going to talk about and they are going to be the big things in your life, the bonds you built out there on the field.
"For me and Gail, for our kids, for my brother and his wife, for my mother and sister who was there, to know No. 72 is back out on the ballfield and seeing that active number -- and lo and behold TJ is playing offensive guard at New Hope, which is the position Park had when he was there -- it is almost like it was meant to be. It just gives us that sense of knowing we can look out there and we see that number and we still see a piece of Park out there."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.