2021 JHHS Football: Tragedy to Triumph! (part 2)

Started from the bottom now we’re here! The main lyric of the 2013 smash hit by iconic recording artist Drake would have made a good theme song for the 2021 Tigers as it describes the journey their season took. There is also another viewpoint that may be controversial and incapable of being believed to some. To others who believe, the season was an example of something being used as a lesson that a higher power is always in charge and no matter how bad something seems it is always for benefit somewhere down the road.

The first time the Tigers got to hit someone other than their own teammates came in a controlled scrimmage two weeks before the season against Class A Cedar Creek out of Ruston. When the two teams took to the field there was a noticeable size advantage evident in the Tigers favor. Despite being the smaller team though the Cougars pushed J-H all over the field for two thirds of the controlled contest much to the chagrin of the Tiger coaching staff. Towards the end J-H started playing better, as a spark of resiliency appeared. It was a starting point that the coaches knew they could build upon.

The next Friday JHHS ventured to Raymond Malone stadium on the campus of ULM to play against St. Frederick of Monroe in the Bayou Jamb, which is the annual season opening gathering of area schools that kicks off the regular season. Heavy media attention focused on the Tigers playing through the tragedy and the organizers of the event presented the families with a wonderful tribute at the half.

The Tigers won the two quarter contest when the St. Frederick, who had one of the top placekickers in north Louisiana, missed a chip shot field goal as time expired. This turned out to be a major point of emphasis for the coaching staff who preached the importance of playing hard to the end. This was also the first time that what seemed like “heavenly intervention” was gracing the team.

“We were fortunate to win that one,” said Blankenship. “Their kicker hardly ever missed. I kind of felt like Juuda (Lajavion Nichols) and J-5 (Javious Holden) helped blow the ball wide.”

Winnfield 22 JHHS 20: The first game of the regular season was against the Tigers oldest and most bitter rival. This year held a somewhat different feeling than the normal hatred of their southern namesake that they have played for over 100 years. The main reason was that the coach of Winnfield this year was one of Jonesboro-Hodge’s favorite son, Jay Watson, who is a best friend and former classmate of “Blank” as the JHHS head coach is fondly called.

“When we were kids we celebrate our birthdays together as they are only a couple of days apart. We lined up alongside each other since junior high and I consider him a great friend.”

What about when their two teams play against each other?

“I told Jay I would pull for him every game – EXCEPT THIS ONE,” laughed Blank. “When the whistle sounds it is Winnfield vs JHHS and that buddy, buddy stuff goes out the window.”

The Tigers lost the game when a last second pass in the endzone fell incomplete. Still there was a momentum felt following the game. One reason was the way the Tigers fought hard to almost pull of the victory. Another was for the second straight week it seemed like JHHS had received some “extra help”. Late in the fourth quarter Winnfield looked primed to put the game away when their running back broke free. A score would give them a two touchdown lead with just a little over two minutes to go. There was no one around when suddenly Jay Lewis came out of nowhere to not only strip the ball but recover the fumble giving a shot at victory from what looked like a certain loss. No, the Tigers didn’t cash in on the opportunity but the 85 yard drive and rally for a chance to win on the final play lended promise.

JHHS 41 West Ouachita 20: For the first time since 2010 a Class 5A school came to Caldwell-Peacock stadium. For the first time ever the Tigers beat a Class 5A school at home and it was no fluke. Granted West Ouachita wasn’t the stoutest of teams but the way JHHS dominated the game gave the Tigers tremendous confidence moving forward.

“It was a big win for us and kind of se the tone for the rest of the year,” said Blank. “We really needed something positive to happen and it was a good feeling to leave the locker room with a smile on our face.”

JHHS 2 Vidalia 0: Just before the Tigers were beginning to load up on the bus to take the long journey to Vidalia, Coach Blankenship got a call telling him not to come as Vidalia was forced to forfeit due a COVID outbreak.

“It was another situation that looking back it seems that we were getting help from up above,” recalled Blankenship. “We were really fortunate that they cancelled the game as if it had been played and our guys got exposed it could have really messed up the rest of the season.”

JHHS 47 Logansport 26: Three years before it was JHHS that payed homage to the Logansport team who was grieving over the loss of one of their athletes who had drowned that summer. In a class act this time it was the visitors that returned the thoughts. Emotions were at a peak after a pregame ceremony that had the two fallen players honored which carried over to a stirring effort. Devonate Mozee scored four times and Justin Calahan returned an interception for a score as JHHS broke open a 27-26 game by scoring 20 points in the fourth quarter. Xavier Atkins burst onto the scene following his 22 tackle effort that put him among the leaders in the state. Logansport would go on to play for the Class A state title.

JHHS 34 North Webster 32 (OT): The weather was dreary and damp but after JHHS fought back twice from a touchdown deficit against the home standing, Class 3A, to win in overtime the team’s spirit was soaring. Tydre Malone threw for three TD’s and ran for another while Justin Calahan scored twice including the game winner. The contest marked the first time Tiger fans got to see the “Heavy Package” when 295 pound lineman Cartavious “Hambone” Waters plunged over for the first score of the game. What was most important is that JHHS was establishing an identity of being able to come back from deficits which would prove to be most fruitful as the season progressed.

“Our guys simply would not be denied the win,” said Blankenship. “It was after that game that we began to realize that our team really did have a deep resolve which got us really excited about the future.”

JHHS 51 Bunkie 0: You almost had to feel sorry for Bunkie for catching the Tigers when did. Fresh off three straight stirring victories JHHS was flying sky high and hitting on all cylinders in every phase of the game. Calahan scored twice as did Mozee on two catches, one from his QB and the other from Bunkie’s. Xavier Atkins, who had moved to the top of the standings in the state in tackles, also returned an INT for a score. The victory gave JHHS their best start to a season since 1994.

“We had been getting better every week and put it all together for that one,” reflected Blankenship. “Sure made the long ride home more comfortable.”

JHHS 28 Cedar Creek 26: The Cougars who agreed to play JHHS just the week before to fill an open date for both teams did just what they did in the pre-season scrimmage. They dominating the line play and pounded the football at the Tigers. The difference in the game that counted vs the other one was that in the scrimmage special teams weren’t involved. They were in this one and in a big way as Mozee ran a punt back 65 yards for a score and Brantrel Thompson took a kick off back 85 yards. Atkins also padded his state lead with 21 tackles. JHHS was fortunate to escape with a win but the inability to stop the run left an uneasy feeling.

D’Arbonne Woods 22 JHHS 20: You can look back and see all the reasons for what head coach Terrance Blankenship called the most disappointing loss he had ever been a part of in his entire career as a player or coach. First of all it was Homecoming week with all the distractions that come with it. Secondly, school was out all week and perhaps the most debilitating issue of all was the team never even imagined they could get beat by D’Arbonne. In another words the confidence had become cockiness and the Tigers thought all they had to do was show up and win. They almost pulled it off anyway when they scored late but failed to convert the two point attempt that would have tied the game. The good side of the mind blowing defeat was that it brought the Tigers back to earth and forced them to refocus.

JHHS 26 North Caddo 20: This was supposed to be the defacto district championship game. Instead it was a do or die mission that saw the Tigers come ever so close to seeing their season go up in flames before one play changed the whole landscape in district play. JHHS was trailing 13-6 and North Caddo had driven to the Tigers one yard line with just eight second left in the half. What transpired on the fourth down play made even the most skeptic of those who didn’t believe the Tigers had heavenly divination working for them this season think twice. What looked like a sure touchdown pass instead got intercepted by Devontae Mozee and returned 99 yards for a Tiger touchdown that instead of leaving the half trailing by two scores saw JHHS head into the break even. In the second half JHHS pulled away and held on for the win.

“Other than the game against Bunkie when I was playing where we returned an interception for a game winner on the last play, I have never been a part of anything that changed a game so dramatically,” said Blankenship. “You couldn’t help but believe that we’ve had something working for us.”

JHHS 46 Lakeside 0: Thirteen of the most character filled seniors in Tiger history were honored before the final district matchup. It was no contest as Brantrel Thompson and Jamerriyea “Big Play Jay” Lewis scored twice. Couple d with North Caddo’s win over D’Arbonne Woods the Tigers claimed a tri-share of the district 1-2A championship. It was a first for Blankenship in his nine years at the helm and first for the team since 2005. The Tigers also got another “blessing” when during the week former JHHS grad and Tigers coach Shannon Brown and his son Eli, as well as, former Tiger, Josh Robinson, joined the staff. Focus now turned to the playoffs where JHHS would enter as the #7 seed.

JHHS 42 Oakdale 20: (Class AA 1st round)) The alma mater of Joey Pender, the Tigers all-time winningest coach, was no match for the Tiger aerial attach in the playoff opener. Tydre Malone not only threw for five touchdowns but set virtually every career and single season passing record along the way. With a pair of fourth quarter TD’s Jay Lewis was one of five players who reached pay dirt including Xavier Atkins, who was now the undisputed lead e r in the state in tackles, solo stops and tackles for a loss as well as in the top five in the NATION in solo stops.

JHHS 28 Mangham 18: (Class AA 2nd round) Justin Calahan scored an offensive and defensive touchdown and Tydre Malone passed for one score and ran for another to give JHHS revenge from the Dragons destroying the Tigers two years ago in the playoffs. What was especially impressive was the play of the Tiger defensive front in the game that had earned designation as “Game of the Week” by K104 Football Friday. Defensive lineman Peyton Smith and Calahan were named “Aaron’s Aces” for their effort.

JHHS 29 Franklin 28: (Class AA Quarterfinals) It will forever be remembered as THE DRIVE! JHHS lived more lives than the proverbial cat but somehow came away with the most improbable of victories. Franklin held 16-7 and 28-13 advantages behind the most dynamic athlete the Tigers had faced in years, if not ever. Four straight times in the fourth quarter the Tigers stopped Franklin from scoring after starting a possession inside the JHHS 25 yard line. JHHS won it after making a 16 play, 99 yard drive that Tydre Malone finalized by scoring with just seconds left. Then the Tigers rewarded Coach Blankenship’s faith by converting the two point attempt.

“The guys wanted it is all I can say,” said Blank. “They simply refused to quit. I have never had a more resilient team.”

Amite 35 JHHS 26: (Class AA Semifinals) After ten minutes it looked like the Tigers would waltz their way to the Class 2A state championship game as they bolted to a 13-0 lead over home-standing Amite. Ten minutes after that found the Tigers were in position to take a 20-13 lead into the half but a sure touchdown was dropped. One minute later it was Amite who had the touchdown lead after six Tigers failed to make a tackle on a 71 yard pass reception. Twice in the third quarter Devontae Mozee and Tydre Malone hooked up for long touchdowns. Twice the Tigers failed to convert the two point attempt that would have tied the game. Amite scored again to go up by nine but JHHS fought back to what seemed to be two scores, only both were nullified. The first when it was ruled that the receiver didn’t get his foot down on a fourth down catch in the end zone. Video shot at the game later proved different. The second came when the referees did signal a touchdown scored but also flagged the Tigers for holding. JHHS amassed 392 yards of total offense against Amite who the week before had shut out Lake Providence and the week after against Many in the championship game gave up only seven points.
It was a bitter pill to swallow as the players, coaches and fans knew they could have won the game. The loss did nothing to put a damper on the best season in Tiger lore in over 30 years.

RECAP: Looking back at the season one could say that the Tigers had “heavenly help” along the way. Maybe so. It would be shallow to think that God cares about who wins a football game but it would be also very narrow minded that not think God won’t use a tragic situation to help restore faith among people. An example is the year that New Orleans won the Super Bowl after suffering through hurricane Katrina. Did God care if the Saints won? Certainly not. Was the spirits of those who desperately needed it lifted and did those who were a part of it give honor to him for it. They certainly did.

The 2021 Jonesboro-Hodge Tiger football season had a similar theme. It began in tragedy. It ended in a triumphant season. It lifted the spirits of the players, coaches, school and community. For that it will forever be remembered.

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