Patriots Prevail, Give Williams Game Ball

JACKSON – All things considered, Kenny Williams has kept it together extremely well the past several weeks. Despite his mom and dad both being in and out of the hospital, he kept going strong each day - looking over his parents the best he could, being a husband and father at home, and handling his responsibilities at school while also coaching football.

Although weary and stretched thin, the well-respected MRA offensive line coach made sure he was still there for his big guys up front. And everywhere else he was needed, doing his best juggling act all the while.

That all changed in the minutes following MRA’s 20-10 victory over rival Jackson Academy here Friday night. Williams, whose mother, Linda, passed away earlier this week, needed a moment. So, while the players and other coaches were gathered around head coach Herbert Davis near midfield, Williams retreated to one of the benches along the visitors sideline. His navy blue polo shirt and grey slacks drenched in sweat on this muggy early September evening, he sat there alone, collecting his thoughts.

“It all just came to a head there at the end for me,” said Williams, eyes still red from the tears. “I’m glad this game is over.”

Players play through pain all the time. Well, Williams has been coaching through pain, the pain of mental anguish having just lost a loved one. Making matters worse, he hadn’t been able to see his mother for weeks. On Wednesday, he will bury her. “I’m going to say my final farewells the best I can,” he said.

So, really, it should come as no surprise the most emotional of moments played out as it did. Emotionally, physically and mentally drained - mixed with raw grief – Williams’ heartache was on full display. The only real surprise is it didn’t happen earlier. “Shows you just how tough he is,” said Davis, who has worked alongside Williams for the better part of the past 15 years. He buried his head in a towel one moment, stared blankly the next.

His wife, Lauren, made her way down from the bleachers and sat next to him, consoling her husband with her left arm draped around his shoulders. Eventually, Davis walked over and presented his longtime assistant and good buddy with the game ball and a high five. “He deserved it, especially with how well his guys played tonight,” Davis said. “They bowed up and took the game over to be honest.”

Indeed, they did. MRA’s size up front proved to be too much for JA on this night at The Brickyard. After a slow start, the Patriots finished with 248 yards on 40 carries, 142 of that coming in the second half as the Patriots rallied from a 10-6 halftime deficit with a pair of rushing touchdowns. Senior Rayf Vinson, a Navy commit, scored both. The first – a 3-yarder with 4:35 remaining in the third quarter – pushed MRA into the lead, 13-10. The second – a determined 12-yarder early in the fourth quarter – extended that lead to 20-10.

With Danny White’s defense stifling the Raiders’ offense over the final three quarters, that point total proved to be more than enough. It seemed only fitting that in the end, MRA’s defense sealed the deal for good with Sam Polles’ interception, followed by three straight running plays to extinguish the clock.

Tylor Latham finished with 80 yards on eight carries, his brother J.J. Latham had 78 yards on 14 carries, and Vinson totaled 71 yards on 12 carries.

“We started off slow . . . that’s probably the worst first half we could’ve played,” said Vinson, who has six touchdowns through the first three games. “But we came together towards the end of the first half and we started to get the running game going, so we came out in the second half more confident. The offensive line did a great job tonight, especially in the second half. They made those holes open up.”

Davis pointed out afterwards that JA “was almost daring us to run.” After a mini-adjustment at halftime, and a fiery pep talk from Williams, MRA did just that in the second half. The Patriots only threw the ball three times in the final 24 minutes.

“We felt like we were dominating (in second half),” MRA offensive lineman Harper Blake said. “That first half really wasn’t us. (Williams) lit a fire under us, though, and we started playing with passion and anger. We started firing off better and that was that.”

As if a MRA-JA game in any sport needed any more extra spice

MRA improved to 3-0 overall, 1-0 in conference play. The Patriots, winners of five of the last six in the series with JA, have now won 10 straight dating back to last season when they captured the MAIS Class 6A state championship. They have won 27 of their last 30 games over the past two-plus seasons, and 23 of their last 24 against MAIS competition.

JA dropped its second straight to drop to 1-2, 0-1.

As if a MRA-JA game in any sport needed any more extra spice, this one provided more than usual as story lines were aplenty.

JA has a new head coach in Lance Pogue. JA also welcomed the arrival of wide receiver Deion Smith, who made his much-ballyhooed debut in a Raiders’ uniform. Former MRA player Clayton White, who elected to transfer to JA over the summer, played most of the second half at quarterback against his former team, replacing ineffective starter Jackson Conn. Meanwhile, on the MRA side, the Patriots were without the services of leading receiver Davis Dalton, who woke up ill Friday morning.

“Not exactly the news you want to hear when you get to school the day of the game,” deadpanned Polles.

The news only got worse for MRA, which lost linebacker Braeden Watters to injury early in the game. The Patriots, already without starting offensive lineman George Drake (injury), then proceeded to turn the ball over three times in the first half after jumping out to an early 6-0 lead – twice on special teams miscues. Numerous penalties also hurt. They trailed 10-6 at halftime after yet another snafu, inexplicably letting the clock run out while getting no points at the end of the second quarter after driving the ball inside the JA 10-yard line.

The Patriots would most assuredly been down by more than four points had it not been for Stone Blanton and Co. on defense. Three of the Raiders’ six first half possessions started in MRA territory, yet JA came away with only 10 first quarter points. White’s crew was even better in the second half, forcing punts on four of JA’s six possessions, coming away with Polles’ INT on another, and snuffing out a fake punt attempt on the other. The Raiders only crossed midfield once in the second half, and that was on the fake punt attempt which came up empty.

“I like the way we fought when things weren’t going our way early,” Davis said. “A lot of bad things happened, but we kept battling and battling and found a way to win. That’s what good teams do. We’ve got to get better, we know that. But I’m very proud of my guys tonight. That’s a good win for us, especially considering all the adversity we overcame and the fact that it was our first conference game.”

Said Polles: “We weren’t going to let all the bad things get in the way of us doing what we needed to do. We had a slow first half executing, and then there were all the turnovers and penalties. But we came in at halftime and got right, then came back out in the second half and took care of business.”

Part of that business was finding a way to contain Smith, the No. 1 player in Mississippi and No. 7 wide receiver in the country according to 247 Sports. He elected to transfer from Provine to JA last week after Jackson Public Schools opted to shut down football this fall. Smith finished with five catches for 28 yards, the longest being a 21-yarder late in the game. His first catch resulted in a 7-yard loss near the end of the first quarter.

Smith was open at times, but JA had a hard time delivering him the ball. Conn, who was hit hard numerous times in the first half, was replaced by Clayton White on the Raiders’ second possession of the second half and played the rest of the way. White, a sophomore, was MRA’s starting quarterback on the junior high team a year ago. He completed three of his eight passes for 35 yards and one interception.

“JA has some really good receivers, then you add Deion to the mix. . . everybody knows he’s a good one,” Davis said. “But I thought for the most part we did a good job there. I’m proud of the secondary. It was good having (Drew) Peacock back. The defense was out there for a long time, they had to be tired. But we train for that, and it showed tonight.”

Said Blanton: “That game was a lot of fun. There was a lot of hype around this game. We came in and did our thing and got out with the win.”

That was the plan all along, with Williams’ personal saga serving as the backdrop. Once Davis’ postgame speech concluded, several of the MRA players made their way over to the bench where Williams sat. That group was led by his offensive linemen. Some of them patted Williams on the back, others exchanged fist bumps with their grieving coach.

“He’s been going through a hard time with his mother dying, but he was still here for us every day,” Blake said. “He stayed focused on his job and did the best job he could do for us. He was still there for us, so it was time for us to be there for him.”

Said offensive lineman J. P. Wilke: “Winning this game meant everything to us, but I think it meant even more for him.”

Polles said it’s a moment he will always remember.

“Looking over there and seeing Coach Williams crying, that’s one of those Friday night moments you will never forget,” he said. “Winning tonight was huge. That game was definitely for him and his mom.”