MADISON – Life hasn't been the greatest for James Smith in recent years. His son, Noah, died in November, 2018, and more recently Smith was diagnosed with cancer.
"The last couple of years have stunk, there's really no other way to say it," he said bluntly. "So, when I got the call from MRA, needless to say it was a very nice change of pace for me, especially considering what the last couple of years have been like."
The call Smith referenced is the one he received from the school notifying him that he had been chosen for induction into the MRA Sports Hall of Fame. It was then that Smith, MRA Class of 1985, also learned he would be entering alongside his former high school football coach, Jack Carlisle.
The induction ceremony will take place Friday in the MRA gymnasium between the varsity girls and boys basketball games. There will also be a reception in the MRA Dining Commons at 6 p.m. that same evening to honor and recognize the two inductees' accomplishments.
"It's crazy . . . I mean I'm getting introduced by a coach who has won 1100 boys basketball games (Richard Duease), and I'm going to be followed up by a coach who is in five or six hall of fames, or whatever the number is now. It's a huge honor for me, even more so being able to go in at the same time as Coach Carlisle."
Carlisle, a 10-time Coach of the Year in football and track, is already a member of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, the Collierville (TN.) High School Hall of Fame, the Mississippi Association of Coaches Hall of Fame, the Jackson Prep Hall of Fame, and the East Mississippi Community College Hall of Fame. On Friday, he adds another to the ever-growing list.
"It's great to be honored by a school that you coached longer than any other," Carlisle said. "The memories of the players and friends we made while at MRA will always be cherished."
Carlisle coached high school and college football in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Tennessee for 62 years until finally retiring. He compiled a 262-70-17 record as a high school football coach. Eight-five of those wins came at MRA. He coached the Patriots from 1983-94, a stint highlighted by the program's first (AAA) state championship in 1992. The Patriots also won the 1985 South state championship under Carlisle.
Smith was a tight end/defensive end on that 1985 team. He went on to play collegiate football at Ole Miss for four seasons, where he played for Billy Brewer. The Rebels won a pair of bowl games while he was in Oxford – the 1986 Independence Bowl and the 1989 Liberty Bowl.
Prior to Carlisle's arrival, MRA had eight high school football seasons. The Patriots won only 27 games while losing 54. During Carlisle's tenure, the Patriots won 85 and lost 28.
"It was really big when Coach Duease and Coach Carlisle came to MRA," Smith said. "I always say those two coaches are the best I've ever had at any level. They were both great leaders, and they knew how to get the best out of us. We thought we knew how to play football and basketball before they got here, but we didn't.
"We didn't have a lot of players back then, maybe 20-25, so most of us played both ways," Smith continued. "Some of us rarely, if ever, came off the field. Coach Carlisle got the most out of us, though. He was super instrumental in putting me in the right position to succeed. I was a running back/linebacker when he got to MRA and he told me I would never play college football as a running back, and he was right. He moved me to tight end/defensive end and I end up signing with Ole Miss as a tight end."
One of Smith's fondest memories of his time at MRA was beating Jackson Prep (53-47) in varsity football for the first time during his sophomore season. Another game always comes to mind for Duease, however, when it comes to Smith.
"James was a hard hitter, I mean he would hit you," Duease recalled. "I remember we were playing Magnolia one night, and he hit one of their players so hard that he knocked him out. There was a Magnolia parent who came down out of the stands and told the Magnolia coach not to put his kid in the game. I still get a good laugh about that to this day."
Perhaps the biggest moment of Carlisle's college coaching career came against Notre Dame in 1977. As an offensive assistant at Ole Miss, Carlisle inserted third-stringer Tim Ellis at quarterback and the Rebels rallied for a 20-13 victory over the Fighting Irish at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson. That was the only loss for that Notre Dame team which went on to win the national championship.
Carlisle, now 90, resides in New Albany with his wife, Jean. The couple lives next door to his daughter, Jane, and her husband Walter Hubbard. Jane is one of the Carlisle's four children. They have 10 grandchildren, and five great grandchildren with another one on the way.
"He still gets around pretty good for a guy with one leg," Hubbard said. "He uses a cane. He's lost most of his hearing, and he's got one bad eye so we thought it would be best if he lived close to us
Interestingly enough, Hubbard wrote a book about his father in-law entitled Cactus Jack: Against All Odds. The book chronicles Carlisle's amazing life story, from his humble beginnings as a child growing up in Monroe County during the Great Depression years, to the near tragic accident he suffered at age 16 that resulted in doctors amputating his right leg, to a coaching career spanning over six decades – a career in which he touched the lives of many students, athletes and co-workers.
One of those is Smith, who still carries with him some of the life lessons he learned from Carlisle while at MRA. Smith and his wife, Charlene, reside in Madison. They have one daughter, 17-year old Perriann, who is a senior at Madison Central. Smith is the Owner/President of First Guaranty Title, Inc., a real estate title insurance agency. He started working at his current company in 2003, and has been the owner since 2010.
Smith recently underwent surgery in November, and started treatment in December. He just finished his last round of chemotherapy this past Friday.
"I'm still undergoing radiation through the end of next week," Smith said. "It's tough, but it's not as bad as the chemo. I've lost about 20 pounds or so. I was doing pretty good with (chemo) until that last one. It kicked my butt. That stuff is rough. But we've hit it pretty hard, and they feel like they've knocked it out. We certainly hope so."
Carlisle never played football, but he chose to become a football coach despite losing one of his legs as a teenager. Those who knew and loved him urged him to find a more realistic plan. Nobody will ever hire a one-legged football coach, they said. Not only did Carlisle become a football coach, he became a highly successful one at that.
Likewise, Smith has opted to meet the recent challenges in his life head on. No question, there are parts of his story that haven't turned out like he would've liked. But, at the same time, he knows he can't erase those chapters.
"When times are hard you can sit in your room and curl up and not do anything, which I'm not going to do nor can I afford to do, or you can keep moving forward, fight your battles and try to help others I remember at my first treatment there was a lady there who had been undergoing treatment for eight years. That really hit me. As bad as my situation is, I thought, it wasn't nearly as bad as hers. So, I've approached it as an opportunity to talk to others about what I'm going through. And the same thing with my son. There are so many people out there who are struggling and going through the same things my son did. So again, I feel like that is an opportunity for me to talk to other families and help them out any way that I can."
Carlisle was inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 2004. Eight years later, Carlisle was the subject of a roast in conjunction with the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. One of those chosen to roast Carlisle was none other than Smith himself. And he didn't hold back.
"Yeah, that was a lot of fun," Smith said, with a chuckle. "That was one of the best moments I've ever had. It gave me a chance to say some things about him I would never say in a million years. I even had some of my former teammates say I can't believe you said some of things you said up there. I'm sure we will share some more laughs Friday night. I'm looking forward to it."