Curtain call for a legend Vicksburg coach Alonzo Stevens winds down as a football coach

Published 11:57 am Friday, November 4, 2011

While breaking down what’s likely to be his final game coaching in Memorial Stadium, Vicksburg’s Alonzo Stevens extolled the virtue of having homefield advantage.

“You know every hole, every dip, you know the cracks,” Stevens said.

He should know. Having spent most of his 59 years on Earth patrolling the football fields of Warren County, Stevens is not only intimately familiar with all of them, he has a story to match.

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Victories. Losses. Pickup games from 40 years ago. Just pull up a chair and listen, and you’ll hear what amounts to an oral history of high school football in the River City.

He’s worked with and played for coaching giants like Jackson State’s W.C. Gorden, and Alcorn State’s Houston Markham and Cardell Jones. As an assistant at Alcorn in the early 1990s, he helped mold Steve McNair into a Heisman Trophy finalist and recruited longtime Green Bay Packers receiver Donald Driver. On the high school level, he’s coached too many future college players to count — although he’ll gladly try to rattle off the list.

“It was like a who’s who, and watching those careers intertwine,” Stevens said.

Soon, Stevens will become just another story. He’s retiring at season’s end, which could be tonight. If his Gators lose to Clinton, they’ll miss the playoffs. A win would extend the season at least another week, but either way his coaching days are numbered.

“It’s great, because I got to give back. I had the opportunity to leave this area a few times, but there’s nowhere else I wanted to be,” Stevens said. “I watched this

community and the adults grow up. If I missed them, it’s when I was at Alcorn and then I recruited them.”

Stevens was born and raised in Vicksburg — and, by and large, grew up on its football fields. He was an offensive lineman on the great Temple High School teams of the late 1960s and, even during the days of segregation, got to match up with some of Vicksburg’s best players of the era.

“We used to play with guys like Jimmy Winstead from Cooper and Eddie Ray from St. Al. Eddie had the keys to that field and we’d all go play there,” Stevens said.

Stevens was good enough to play at Alcorn State, then went into coaching immediately after graduating in 1974. After brief stops at North Natchez and McCall in Tallulah, he returned to Vicksburg as an assistant coach in 1976.

Except for another stint at Alcorn as an assistant from 1990-98 — a job he took for the chance to work with Jones, one of his mentors — he never left Vicksburg again.

“My whole life has been green and white,” Stevens said.

Take a trip to Stevens’ home on Main Street, and you realize that’s not a cliché. The house serves as an unofficial hall of fame for Temple and Vicksburg High athletics.

In the driveway, Stevens’ truck sports two green VHS flags on the cab and the license plate reads “GATA 2.” His previous vehicle, a purple pickup from his days at Alcorn, was “GATA 1.”

Two concrete alligators guard the front porch, which is, of course, painted dark green. The house itself has green doors.

Inside, a corridor features more than 100 trophies, plaques, framed newspaper clippings and team pictures from the 1960s to the 2000s. Stevens calls it his “wall of fame.” He said his wife, Linda, calls it a nuisance.

“She’s told me that’s enough, but I’ll still try to sneak a few more on there,” Stevens said with a laugh. “She said to keep it in the hallway. I’m trying to get another room for them. Maybe the den.”

Stevens became the Gators’ head coach in 2001 and enjoyed immediate success. His first team went 10-4 and reached the Class 5A semifinals before losing a close game to Starkville.

The following year, he led the Gators to their first win over archrival Warren Central in more than a decade.

In all, Stevens has gone 63-64 in 11 seasons as head coach, but the record is a bit deceiving. Two bad seasons in 2009 and 2010 accounted for 19 of the losses. Before that, Stevens had a .589 winning percentage.

The numbers, though, are just a small part of what Stevens has done on Drummond Street. Like all great coaches he’s touched countless lives and shaped several generations of young men.

“There have been some guys that had problems at home. He took them in, and wherever he went, they went,” said VHS offensive coordinator Bobby Huell, a friend of Stevens since childhood. “I can think of at least two people he took in. Both of them went on to be good young men. One is a pastor now and the other one works for the state. He helped them get their lives straightened out.”

Stevens has also gone the extra mile in smaller ways. Ben Shelton, who played for Stevens from 2001-03 and is now a member of Vicksburg’s coaching staff, recalled several unprompted gestures.

“My grandmother died and he sent flowers. He came to my wedding. I didn’t ask him to, he just showed up. Stuff like that, that you just don’t think about. He’s just a good guy,” Shelton said.

To those he cares about, Stevens is always there — and one of the things he cares for most is Vicksburg High. During his tenure as coach, he’s been one of the school’s biggest ambassadors. Stevens is rarely seen without some item of green clothing on his back and has tirelessly served as a fundraiser and cheerleader for the football program.

In the summer, he was usually the coach who drove players to various football camps across the south.

“He’s been like that all his life. It’s something about him. He has that leadership quality that stands out,” Huell said.

Despite his passion for coaching, Stevens said it started to wane in recent years. The losses took longer to get over. Today’s kids were getting harder to deal with. Overall frustration was beginning to mount.

It was time to step away.

“Vicksburg, I think I’ve done everything I can for the community from the standpoint of being a teacher and a coach,” Stevens said. “I opened my house, raised money, funeralized. I did everything I think God wanted me to do. It’s time to pass the baton.”

As his days in the football fieldhouse grow shorter, Stevens alternates between obvious joy and sadness. He laughs about the good times, the great teams, the colorful stories. Moments later, apparently realizing he won’t have too many more to add to the collection, he chokes up a bit.

His cluttered office is slowly being cleared out. Mementoes have been tucked away into a half-dozen large tote bins that are stacked like cordwood in a storage closet.

At least a half-dozen more will probably join them before the walls and shelves are cleared. An unopened box of equipment sits on the floor of the office, seemingly there just to fill the void.

“I’m going to miss the kids. I’m going to miss the coaches. I’ve made some lifelong friends,” Stevens said.

No one associated with the Gators’ football program expects Stevens to just fade away — not even Stevens. He said he’ll still do what he can to help the team, whether it’s fundraising or just being its biggest fan.

The big man with the big laugh, will certainly cast a big shadow on the program.

“We’re going to try to keep all the core values he had, so his imprint is on the team,” Shelton said. “Even though he’s not going to be here, he’s going to be a part of the Vicksburg Gators for a long time.”