Alabama's high school football All-Stars had bigger names, more recruiting stars and were considered a favorite to knock off Mississippi in the annual game played this past weekend at The Rock at Southern Miss.
But, for the fourth time in five years and the third time in a row, the Mississippi stars prevailed, 17-16, in overtime. Trailing 10-0 in the fourth quarter and with both its quarterbacks injured, the Magnolia Staters found a way, mostly with defense and special teams play, to get it done.
And while all-star games at most levels of football are played with a minimum of passion and with not much on the line, this one never is. All one must do is watch the highly enthused coaches from respective states who ring the field each year to know how much state pride is at stake.
And all one had to do last Saturday afternoon in Hattiesburg, was watch the wild celebration that followed Armondous Cooley's block of an Alabama extra point kick to seal the victory. Mississippi players and coaches ran and literally danced all over the artificial turf, hugging and high-fiving and acting as if they had just won the Super Bowl.
Mississippi MVP honors went to George County nose tackle McKinnley Jackson and he was most deserving, having thrown his 325 pounds into the way of most everything Alabama tried offensively all day long. He was a force that Alabama could not reckon with, and we'll get back to him later.
The Mississippians needed heroic performances from many to win this one. Meet quarterback Will Rogers of Brandon, for one. Rogers, son of Brandon assistant coach Wyatt Rogers, suffered a knee injury and was helped off the field, limping noticeably, in the second quarter. During warm-ups after halftime, he had donned a knee brace in an effort to play. He simply couldn't move as well as he needed in order to avoid a huge Alabama defensive line.
But when his south teammate Jimmy Holiday of Madison Central suffered what appeared to be a worse leg injury early in the fourth quarter, Rogers limped back onto the field. You see, they were the only two quarterbacks on the Mississippi roster. And Mississippi was down 10-3.
Rogers first pass was intercepted, but he valiantly completed four of his next six, including two for touchdowns, to help the Mississippians win. Rogers, who intends to play at Mississippi State, displayed fortitude, smarts and no small amount of grit in the fourth quarter.
“I'm so proud of these guys,” said Union's Brad Breland, who served as head coach of the Mississippi team. “They were down 10-0 and they kept fighting back and hanging in there and then they made the plays to win.”
Clearly, Alabama has some built-in advantages in this all-star game. The most obvious: Alabama has a population of nearly five million, compared to Mississippi's nearly three million. That's a lot more people, a much bigger talent pool. Historically, Alabama still leads the series 22-11 despite Mississippi's recent dominance. Of course, for the large majority of that time, the game was played in either Mobile or Montgomery, not exactly neutral sites. Mississippi is now 3-0 in games played in Mississippi.
Nevertheless, Alabama has just been bigger, stronger up front for many of those previous games. Not so, this year.
And that's largely because of George County's extremely large, remarkably quick Jackson, who is one of the most dominant – if not the most dominant – high school lineman these eyes have witnessed. Try what they might, and mostly they tried double-teaming Jackson, Alabama could not block him.
Jackson spent the afternoon in the Alabama backfield, while his George County head coach Matt Caldwell watched mostly from the end zone, where he had a better view of how Jackson was blowing up what Alabama tried to do offensively. Often, Jackson was in the Alabama backfield before the quarterback could hand off or set up to pass. Rarely do you see such size and strength combined with so much quickness and agility.
“He squats 600 pounds, dead lifts 550 and benches 375, and you see how quick he is,” Caldwell said. “Plus, he's our hardest worker, a great kid. Somebody is going to get a great player.”
After receiving the MVP Award, Jackson said he is still considering “Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M.” Ole Miss was once considered one of the leaders for his services but Jackson said former Ole Miss coach Matt Luke and Georgia have now entered the picture. Jackson said he doesn't plan to sign until February, so things could change.
Know this: Somebody is going to get a freshman starter, a ready-made star. Said Caldwell, “McKinnley always has played his best football against the best teams. He rises to the occasion.”
His future career, no matter where he plays, will be most interesting to watch.
Rick Cleveland ([email protected]) is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist.