Tragedy to triumph: Eight months after tornado, Sharkey-Issaquena Academy to play for football state title
Published 1:11 pm Tuesday, November 14, 2023
JACKSON — Spring football practice for Sharkey-Issaquena Academy included removing debris from neighbors’ homes. Summer workouts came before 15-hour shifts loading and distributing relief supplies from the school’s gymnasium.
It was certainly a path no other team in Mississippi took to a state championship game, and maybe that’s part of why they’re here.
Sharkey-Issaquena is one win away from completing a Cinderella story on and off the field. One year after finishing 2-8, and eight months after a tornado devastated their town, the Confederates (11-1) can claim the MAIS Class 1A championship by beating Calhoun Academy (10-1) Thursday afternoon in Jackson.
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The game will be played at 3 p.m. at Jackson Academy. All of the MAIS championship games are livestreamed on maisnetwork.org.
“I think it’s just adversity. These kids have learned to deal with it. They can conquer anything,” SIA coach Matt Homan said. “I think they just realized we can play. There’s nothing for us to do on Friday night. There’s nothing left of the town, nowhere to eat. Finally we’ve got a couple of restaurants that are opening back up, but for a while there was nothing — one grocery store and one gas station and that was it.”
SIA’s story is, of course, accompanied by tragedy. On March 24, a powerful EF-4 tornado roared across Rolling Fork and flattened everything in its path. Fourteen people in Sharkey County were killed, and dozens more injured. More than three-fourths of the buildings in Rolling Fork sustained some damage.
Like the rest of the town’s residents, SIA’s students immediately became part of the relief effort. They saved lives the night of the storm. They pulled people out of the rubble and helped friends and neighbors rebuild.
“Some of these kids were pulling dead bodies out. They were pulling people out of the rubble the night of the storm,” Homan said. “My son picked up a boy on the side of the road who had a punctured lung. Took him to the aid station and they flew him to Texas, and I think he lived.”
SIA itself was spared from the worst of the storm — the tornado passed just north of the school building — so its gym became the primary collection and distribution point for supplies.
Donations from across Mississippi came in, literally, by the truckload. Students served as a volunteer workforce to unload and organize all of it. At the height of the relief effort, water, clothes, food and hundreds of other assorted items filled the gym nearly from floor to ceiling.
“I was at the school 7 to 7 every day helping to unload stuff,” said J.B. Boykin, SIA’s senior quarterback.
Even as the immediate crisis passed, the work continued throughout the hot Mississippi summer. Traditional farming jobs were replaced or joined by clean-up and construction work.
“It was pretty bad, with everybody coming to town and dishing out food. I worked in a house in the summer, up in the attic. It was hot,” SIA junior Aiden Allen said.
As the gym was emptied of supplies and students returned to the halls in August, SIA’s football team began preparing for another season. Although Homan thought it was a team with some potential, the aftermath of the storm still left him uncertain.
Some families left Rolling Fork after they lost their homes. After barely finishing the 2022 season, he was concerned there might not be enough players to field a team this year.
“We didn’t think we were going to have school. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We still have family members who are dispersed all over the Delta,” Homan said. “We have a young team. They came back.”
They not only came back, they came back better than ever and the second chapter of their remarkable story began. SIA, which plays in the MAIS’ 8-man division, won two games in 2022 and finished the season with 10 healthy players.
“We were supposed to go play Riverdale (in the playoffs) and had to forfeit because we didn’t have enough players,” Allen said.
As soon as they hit the field in 2023, however, things turned around. The Confederates had three shutouts and allowed a total of 14 points in their first five games, all of which were on the road because the tornado knocked down the lights at their home field.
Boykin has thrown three touchdown passes in a game five times this season.
“The quarterback got better. John Barrett didn’t even play quarterback. He was my center in junior high. Last year was his first year, so he took his beatings,” Homan said. “I told him, ‘You’re doing fine, don’t look at the scoreboard.’ The kid’s never missed a practice or a day in the weight room in four years.”
Week 6 was a 64-46 victory over Briarfield Academy in a key District 2-1A game, as senior running back Gary Jackson, Jr. rushed for 263 yards and five touchdowns on only nine carries.
They added another win the following week against Tallulah Academy before taking their first — and only — loss to Porter’s Chapel Academy on Oct. 6.
“We’ve been road warriors all year. We went five weeks before we had a home game. Our senior night was Briarfield and that’s when the light went off that we can play,” Homan said.
As the Confederates gathered steam, a buzz also began about the team. Fans who stayed away during the difficult 2022 season returned.
“Last year we didn’t have a bunch of people coming to our games, but this year there has been,” Allen said. “The kids in the elementary are excited about school.”
Homan said the team’s success has given Rolling Fork as a whole something to cheer for during its darkest hours.
“It helps the community because they’re able to get behind something — something that’s not negative,” Homan said. “Every day you come out of your house and you see negative. There’s not a house there and there used to be a house there, my friend lives there. And on Friday night they can all come watch a ballgame. It’s an escape from that world. I think it’s helped the town to move forward and have something to look forward to that’s a good thing.”
SIA bounced back from the loss to Porter’s Chapel by winning its next four games. The final victory in that streak was last week, 22-14 in a rematch with Briarfield in the Class 1A semifinals. It sent SIA to its first state championship game since it won the second of back-to-back 8-man titles in 2014.
The MAIS has since split its 8-man division into two classifications.
“You can’t write stories like this. You can’t,” Homan said.
SIA still has one more chapter to write, and it’ll involve spoiling another impressive turnaround story. Calhoun Academy is in the Class 1A championship game after going 4-7 last season.
Homan is obviously more concerned with finishing his own team’s Cinderella story, and it’s one that he anticipates being remembered beyond this year. Picking up the pieces after tragedy, and working toward common goals on and off the field are things he hopes his players are able to do in Rolling Fork long after their high school days are done.
“These kids are the future of the town,” Homan said. “If this group of kids can stay together, and we’ve got a good mix, black and white, it doesn’t matter. You have a chance to take this town and make it over, and make it prosper and bring it back to life. It’s a big thing. We all bleed red and white here at Sharkey.”
MAIS CLASS 1A CHAMPIONSHIP
• Sharkey-Issaquena Academy (11-1) vs. Calhoun Academy (10-1)
• Thursday, 3 p.m., at Jackson Academy
• All MAIS football championship games will be livestreamed at maisnetwork.org