Ward 7 Alderman Henry Vaughn Sr. has seen a lot of Starkville High Football. Six of his sons have donned a black and gold jersey. Vaughn himself played on the first integrated SHS football team in 1970 after Henderson High School was absorbed into a unified school system. A two-time all-conference running back (pre- and -post integration, the Little Six and Little Ten, respectively), Vaughn ultimately played backup to Walter Payton – “Sweetness” – at Jackson State for a season before returning home in 1972 to care for his children. He’s been attending games ever since – 42 years worth.
Vaughn has seen nine SHS teams play for state championships (‘81, ‘83, ‘84, ‘85, ‘94, ‘95, ‘01, ‘11, ’12) and five champions (’84 – Callaway, ’94 – South Pike, ’95 – Hattiesburg, ’01 – Moss Point, and ’12 – Pascagoula).
“Starkville is a football town,” Vaughn said. “As a community, we are proud of our Jackets. They bring us together.”
And he has seen some great players too: like David Fair, a running back who led SHS to the ’84 and ’85 state championship games. Many consider Fair, who suffered debilitating knee injuries at Mississippi State that cut his career short, a top-five Mississippi prospect. He also watched Barrin Simpson (a ‘99 All-American at MSU) pile up tackles during Starkville’s golden era, which featured the ’94 and ’95 state titles amid a 35-game winning streak. On that ’95 team, waiting in the wings as a sophomore? The spectacular Freddie Milons, who ended up setting a single-season receptions record at Alabama in ’99 (since broken by Julio Jones) and was drafted in the fifth round by the Philadelphia Eagles. He brought his game back home a couple of times while in college. The sight was a familiar one. And any list of Starkville greats must include Antuan Edwards, who played for Clemson and was a first-round draft pick by the Green Bay Packers in 1999.
But most importantly, Vaughn enjoyed watching Surhaven Fair play: his son who passed in June, the quarterback of the ’95 championship team who helped author Starkville’s longest winning streak.
So what about now? What about this 2014 Starkville team, sitting at 13-0 and No. 1 in the state? The team that’s managed the highest national ranking in school history – No. 2, according to Max Preps – and is about to play in one of the biggest games in state history for the North Half this Friday at Yellow Jacket Stadium. SHS will take on the South Panola Tigers, which solidified its empire during in the 2000s amassing an 89-game winning streak along with five straight state titles, garnering the nickname The University of South Panola along the way.
“We haven’t played anyone on this level since the last time we played South Panola,” said John Howard Patton, the long-time SHS defensive back coach who retired in 2010 after 27 years and five different staffs. “These folks can play.They are strong, fast and physical. You have to bring your A-game.”
Starkville has played South Panola twice for the North Half (1996 and 2003) and didn’t fare well either time. But this go around is different: the match actually features two undefeated teams tied for No. 1 in Mississippi, at least according to the final regular season poll of the Mississippi Association of Coaches. (Nationally, SHS has climbed to No. 2 while the Tigers hold tight at No. 17.) Both groups have prolific offenses. In Class 6A, the Jackets are No. 3 in yards per game, averaging 408, and No. 1 in points per game, with 38.7. The Tigers sit at No. 2 in ypg and No. 3 in ppg, averaging 424 and 34.7, respectively. And both teams have suffocating defenses. Starkville gives up 11 ppg, while South Panola yields only 13. Style wise, a clash emerges: South Panola likes to pound the ball, leaning on their senior back Darrell Henderson, who has piled up 1,964 yards on the ground. The Jackets, of course, prefer to air it out. Senior quarterback Brady Davis, who has passed for 3,127 yards and 39 touchdowns, distributes the ball fairly evenly to junior A.J. Brown and senior Raphael Leonard.
While this game almost has the vibe of the Nov. 15 meeting between Mississippi State and Alabama (a rising program challenging the status quo, the behemoth), don’t be fooled. It’s much closer to the Iron Bowl. SHS took a brief dip into Class 5A during the 2011 and 2012 seasons, reaching the state title game both years and winning one. Only in its second season back with the big boys, the Jackets are back on top – ranked No. 1 in the state for the first time since 2001.
“I think it’s just a mindset. It’s who we are,” said linebackers coach Tate Fischer, who has worked with six staffs (one-upping coach Patton) in his 25-year career. “Being Starkville, we want to be with the biggest and the best because we've always considered ourselves one of the biggest and the best.”
In fact, since the Mississippi High School Activities Association implemented the current playoff format in 1981, the Yellow Jackets have found themselves in a state championship about every four years on average, including the first ever played versus Natchez. And whoever plays for a ring this year will be kicking off right down the road at Davis Wade Stadium – on the turf of another team in the midst of a historic season, jockeying in unfamiliar, unforgiving terrain to be deemed No.1 in the country. Starting this year, MSU and Ole Miss will rotate hosting MHSAA state title games. The winner of the North Half will face either Brandon or Oak Grove on Dec. 5.
“If we are lucky enough to win out and make it to that game, it’s going to be a unique thing, really exciting,” Fischer said. “It’s kind of strange. We’ve always said, ‘We wanna go to Jackson, we wanna go to Jackson.’ Now we’re saying, ‘Let’s stay home in Starkville.’”
It’s impossible to know where this team and its players will end up in the Starkville High football annals, whose names will be added to that coveted list of greats so easily recalled on sports message boards and during family gatherings. And even if this bunch topples a dynasty, wins the first ever high school state championship at Davis Wade and finishes No. 1 in the nation, who’s to say they’d be better than Surhaven’s squad?
“It’s like comparing apples to oranges,” says Fischer of trying to figure out which era featured a superior team. “This team may have had a really good running back, this one a great quarterback, this one may have been defensively oriented. I think if you are a team that’s lucky enough to win or play for a title, it puts you in in a special category. Just enjoy it while it happens and hope you’re around when it happens again. Because statistically, it’s going to happen here every few years.”
Rankings, winning streaks and glory days aside, this team has kids that can flat out play – in any era. Seventeen consecutive quarters of shut-out football will earn that distinction. To name a handful: the 6’2, 260-pound junior defensive lineman, Maleke Bell, could blossom into an inside force at the next level. Or maybe quarterback Brady Davis, who has committed to Memphis, will find his groove in the American Athletic Conference and upset a Power 5 team. And, to be sure, the junior receiver A.J. Brown has been drawing a lot attention. Brown, already a unanimous 4-star recruit as a junior, could pan out and become a nation-wide target, and if he gets a taste of Scott Field in a couple of weeks, maybe he’ll even decide to stick around.
But regardless of big-time scholarship offers and Dandy Dozen hype, and no matter the outcome of Friday’s game, one thing is certain: Henry Vaughn will be there, rooting on his Jackets, enjoying some of the same company he’s kept the past 42 years. He will be there remembering and honoring his son.
“So many people from so many different backgrounds come to the games since it’s a public school, and I’m starting to see a lot of faces I haven’t seen around in a while,” Vaughn said. “And so many different people from other communities have come this season too. They just want to know, ‘Are they really this good?”’
I guess we’ll find out Friday night, under the lights. And for the record, Vaughn thinks the ’95 team is better.
“Solid. That team was so … solid," he said. "But whatever team is out there, I’ll be a Yellow Jacket until the day I die. Until the day I die.”