On Sept. 23, Raleigh football coach Ryan Higdon stood on the field at the MRA as he lost 39-28 in a game some were unsure whether it would go ahead.
He greeted a string of well-wishers who shook hands, hugged and spoke words of encouragement. He’ll nod, bite his lower lip, and say “thank you” softly.
Higden is in pain, searching, and trying to make sense of it all. He also tried to lead and comfort 35 players.
It has nothing to do with the score of the game that night.
Two days earlier, starting cornerback Isaiah Strickland was killed in a car accident. Three months ago, defensive lineman Ethan Adcock drowned. On top of that, Higdon’s mother, Cherie Higdon, died unexpectedly that same week.
After the crowd walked silently to their vehicles, Higden explained to reporters that it was important to play as planned and “try to get the kids back to normal.”
He also said, “Our community is hungry for a state championship. Football is big in Raleigh. We’ll keep fighting all year long and honor Ethan and Isaiah along the way.”
The following week, the Lions beat Crystal Springs 59-6. Most of their games since then have been similar blowouts. They are 13-1.
Now the town of 1,100 in Smith County will face Noxubee County (10-4) at 11 a.m. Friday at USM’s MM Roberts Stadium for the school’s first state title.
It came close last year, losing to eventual state champion Jefferson Davis County in the Southern State playoffs.
This loss creates momentum.
“The Monday after we lost, the kids went back to work,” Higden said. “They’ve been thinking about this upcoming game since December last year.”
Higden, in his third season as head coach in Raleigh, knows a thing or two about the state tournament. He was one of seven as an assistant coach at Basfield and Jefferson Davis High School.
“It was pretty cool to see,” said David Hays, pastor of the United Baptist Church in Raleigh. He unofficially serves as the team’s chaplain, crunching game-by-game stats.
“We’ve got some good teams here, some good players,” Hayes said. “Donte Moncrief and Woodrow Hamilton are two examples. But it’s probably the most complete team we’ve ever had. And I’ve never seen a team where players pull each other so hard. There’s no talk about playing time or who gets the honor Honor’s complaint. It’s humbling to watch.
“We’ve got the best player in the state who’s as happy blocking a shot as he is throwing a touchdown for a teammate.”
Hayes was referring to 6-foot-2, 200-pound running back/linebacker Suntarine Perkins. He was rated a four-star recruit and will be at linebacker at the next level. He is committed to Ole Miss.
Perkins has been selected to play in the Army Bowl game Jan. 7 in San Antonio.
“His nickname was ‘Get,'” Hayes explained. “His mom started calling him that when he was a kid and has always called him that. You look at his stats, he doesn’t have 3,000 rushing yards. But that’s because we don’t need him to have 3,000 yards. Remember, one of these kids There’s a lot of guys playing Iron Man football — they never leave the field.”
Perkins’ stats were certainly flashy: 1,744 rushing yards, 12.8 yards per carry, 31 touchdowns and 86 tackles. In a playoff win over Wesson, Perkins rushed for four touchdowns and scored one tackle.
“He did exactly what we expected,” Higdon said. “He has been that guy. If he happens to have a little rest at night, he’s still the best player on the floor. “
“He’s as good off the court as he is on it,” Hayes said.
Hays tells the story of a man battling mental illness who approached Perkins at the local Dollar General. This person talked for half an hour about the team and how they could make things a little bit better and suggested changes.
Perkins listened patiently, and at the end of the conversation, he thanked the man, shook his hand and smiled.
“That’s what we call young people,” Hayes said.
Lions are not a one man band. Senior running back Javarious Walker had 1,555 yards and 18 touchdowns. Junior Kyvryn Moncrief — Donte’s cousin — had 753 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Junior quarterback Jacob Bowen has thrown for 777 yards and 11 touchdowns. Tight end Jay Owens, also a junior, averaged 30 yards per reception and seven touchdowns.
Higdon has dealt with this team, tragedy and his own grief in a way we can all learn from. He basically said, “Come with me.”
Higdon puts a lot of credit in his assistant coaches.
“I know our players are strong, but they handle the loss of teammates as well as anyone else. It’s fantastic,” he said. “I think after the MRA loss, there was a bit of skepticism, but they stuck with it and never questioned any of the coaching decisions we made.”
Hayes said: “I admire the way he coaches. No nonsense. He wants kids to do well in the classroom, in life and on the football field. He knows what winning championships can do for the community.
“He trains them hard. When a kid does something good, he’s quick to praise him, but when they don’t, he tears them up. Kids don’t get downcast after he gets in the car. They listen. These Kids trust their coaches.”
Looking back on that night in September, when his world and heart fell apart, Higdon said: “It seemed like a long time ago, but it wasn’t. We just went to work every day. As painful as it was, we still had a purpose.” … Our community has expectations. They know this team has what it takes to win a title, and after coming so close last year, they really want it.”
Higdon knew his team had to perform well against Noxubee County, which trailed 21-0 at Amory last Friday night but won 52-51 in overtime.
“All you have to do is turn on the tape, and they’ll grab your attention in no time,” Higdon said. “It’s going to take four full quarters. Even if we manage to pull it off, we know that group isn’t going to give up.”
True to their word, the Lions have honored Ethan and Isaiah all season. Before every game, the team will run out onto the field in Ethan and Isaiah jerseys.
“And players still refer to them and talk about them — all the time,” Hayes said.
Isaiah’s father, Strike, competes.
Ethan’s mother, Amy, headed the Lions Booster Club and served as the team photographer. Amy took the photo for this story.
“Losing young people is never easy,” Hayes said. “But even through such terrible times, God has brought good out of them. We have players, even juniors, who gave their lives to Christ because of the tragedy.
“As I said before, it’s something to watch. Now we want to end the season with a state championship.”