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Wednesday, September 17, 2003
Updated: September 19, 11:25 AM ET
In the heart of the Delta

By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist

ROSEDALE, Miss. -- I want to introduce you to some people I met on Friday night at the Rosedale-Leflore County game, deep in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.

Here is Henry Phillips, standing near the end zone on this muggy Mississippi night to watch his high school alma mater play. His father was a sharecropper who couldn't read or write. His mother had an eighth-grade education and gave birth to her first child around age 14. She had 13 more children over a three-decade span.

Drum majors
In addition to strutting their stuff as drum majors, Marvin Williams and Joe Turner are starting guards for the basketball team.

When Phillips was a child, the family home had no running water. He took the bus to school in the morning, returned in the afternoon and then picked cotton with the rest of the family until dark. He would occasionally walk a couple miles to watch TV at a cousin's house, then walk back carefully along the road. "If we saw a car's headlights, we had to hide," he says. "It wasn't safe for black kids to walk around at night then. Someone would come along and you might turn up missing."

He is 48.

In Phillips' freshman year, Rosedale High School integrated. That was 1969, 15 years after the Supreme Court ruled that United States school systems must be integrated "with all deliberate speed." He graduated, went to nearby Delta State and eventually came home. He now is the superintendent of the school district, overseeing a K-12 enrollment of 1,200. His former school -- officially renamed West Bolivar, though most folks still call it Rosedale -- has gone from whites-only when he was a child, to a 50-50 racial mix when he was a student, to all-black today.

My sports tour down the Mississippi River has taken me to the monument of consumer spending that is the Mall of America, Elvis's personal racquetball court at Graceland and the major-league homes of multi-millionaire athletes in the Metrodome and Busch Stadium. And now it has taken me down a narrow highway and past cotton fields to a simple high school football field in the Delta.

The Mississippi Delta is home to some of the richest soil in the world. Its people, black and white, are some of the poorest in the country. According to the 2000 census, Rosedale has 2,414 residents, and per capita income is $8,534. Forty-six percent of the overall population and 59 percent of the children officially live in poverty.

Phillips points away from the football field toward the nearby Mississippi, which is close enough that the lights of passing ships are visible some nights. "You can still drive out there and find homes without running water," he says.

MIGHTY MISSISSIP TRIP
Here's a breakown of Jim Caple's journey down the Mighty Mississippi:

Miles: 103 (Oxford, Miss. to Rosedale, Miss.)
Total Miles: 1,553
Total states: 7
Moving violations: 0
Hours driving: 2
Diet Pepsi: 2 units
Sites: Drove past Cleveland high school, where John Grisham's old school, Southaven High, was playing a road game. ... Drove past Delta State University, whose nickname -- pay attention University of Mississippi Rebels -- is the Fighting Okra.
Weather: Continued hot and mostly cloudy in the upper 80s.
Miles to go: 500 (approx.)

Here is Violet Olevia Leggette, taking tickets at the stadium entrance. She taught Phillips in grade school; he says she inspired him to go into education. "He was a wonderful young boy," she says with a laugh. "He wasn't like those bad boys who brought a whole bag of frogs into my classroom one day."

Jordan Goins, who taught Phillips in high school and preceded him as superintendent, joins the conversation. His was in his first year of teaching at Rosedale when the school integrated. There he was, a young black teacher in a school that had been segregated the previous year. "I had no experience in the white world," he says. "You could count the number of black teachers in the school on one hand."

"And not use your thumb," Phillips adds.

"Students were very competitive back then," Leggette says. "You just don't find that anymore."

"There might have been 12 or 13 kids in a house back then, but there also was a momma and a daddy there," Goins says. "And the kids were expected to get on that bus in the morning and pay attention to the rules in schools. ... My parents didn't have an education, but they wanted you to get one and get out of there."

"We had motivation," Phillips says. "Wanting to stay out of the fields -- that gave us motivation."

Older teachers always complain about the changing of attitudes in the current generation of students. But the younger ones say it here, too.

"Our parents here in the Delta don't value education, and it trickles down to their kids," football coach Henry Johnson will say after the game. "They just don't seem to be concerned with school and interested in moving on to the next level."

Johnson is 30 and has been Rosedale's coach for four years. He graduated from Rosedale in 1991 and went to Delta State on a football scholarship. His mother was in the school's first integrated classes. The middle school gym is named after his grandfather, Morgan Brown. "The family is still all here," he says with considerable pride. "We're still in school to teach the kids."

Rosedale football players
La'Cedric Richardson, Kenzo Jones and Phanarus Edwards (left to right) hope to make it another winning season for the Rosedale Eagles.

When Johnson played here, the coach was Leland Young, a local legend. He was the football coach for a quarter-century. He led the team to three Class AA state titles (1981, 1985 and 1986) and coached future NFL receivers Fred Barnett and Tim Barnett when they were here. He passed away a couple years ago. The stadium is named for him.

"Coach Young was a great man. He raised a lot of men in this community and I'm just trying to carry on," Johnson says. "Most of them come from single-parent families, where there is just the mother. They need a father figure and that's what I try to be.

"I stay on them hard and I ride them hard. I expect a lot out of them and I let them know it. I expect them to play well, to work hard, to be disciplined and to get good grades."

The band is on the field now, and it is as spirited as it is spectacular. It performs a halftime show that would embarrass richer, larger schools. The bands plays and dances, performing moves I would have thought illegal in the state of Mississippi. And the thing is, the Leflore County school band is just as large and just as good. Each band stands by the sideline and watches the other perform. These are not just halftime shows; they're competitions.

SO FAR SO GOOD
Check out Jim Caple's stops along the way:

  • Lake Itasca, Minn.: At the headwaters
  • Collegeville, Minn.: The greatest coach ever
  • Bloomington, Minn.: The Mall of America
  • Dyersville, Iowa: Field of Dreams
  • Hannibal, Mo.: Mark Twain's hometown
  • St. Louis: Where baseball is king
  • Oxford, Miss.: Controversy at Ole Miss
  • Here is Cedric Evans, the chief band director, beaming with pride. When he arrived at Roseland in 1989, there were eight students in the band. Now there are 125 -- and there are only 312 students in the high school. "If the football team is practicing and we're practicing at the same time," assistant director Louis Williams says, "there's nobody left in the school."

    The band would like to find out how it would do at the big contests in Memphis or Jackson, but Evans says they don't have enough money to take a bus that far.

    Here is Willie Thomas, back by the end zone. He graduated from Rosedale in 1977 and went to Delta State. He's the athletic director here now and the boys basketball coach. And because of the tight budget, he's also the girls basketball coach. He holds the girls practice right after school and the boys practice right after that. During the season, the girls play their games right before the boys do, so that works out all right. The only problem is when they get into the state playoffs and the teams play in different gyms. Then he has to turn one team over to an assistant.

    "It's a good problem that everybody wants to have, because it means you have two teams in the playoffs," he says. "And I think the girls could win the state title this year.

    "It's a good little town. We just don't have many businesses to go to for help like a lot of the bigger schools can. We get by, though. We make enough at the gate to take care of our teams, but we don't have everything we want. To be honest, I prefer it this way. I'd rather be able to take care of ourselves -- as long as we can spend it on what we want. It makes you balance it out pretty carefully."

    He says the budget for the entire athletic program is about $40,000 for the year.

    The scoreboard clock is ticking down now and Rosedale has a comfortable lead. Johnson has had the football team in the playoffs each year he's been here, but this year's roster is a young one -- quarterback Kiderra Pleasant is a sophomore -- and prone to young mistakes. They are improving, though, and hopes are high. They were shut out in their first game, lost a close one in their second and now have beaten Leflore County easily, 32-14. "We've improved tremendously," Johnson says.

    The players are running off the field; and here are Phanarus Edwards, Kenzo Jones and La'Cedric Richardson, the team's three senior captains. They say they would like to go on to college, maybe get a football scholarship at a junior college and go into coaching or something else.

    "I'd like to have my own business someday," Edwards says. "Maybe a restaurant. I can cook pretty well. Some pretty good soul food."

    The three are like so many other high school players I've interviewed. They're young and filled with dreams of the future.

    That's the thing. The setting and bands aside, what stands out about the game is how closely it resembles virtually every other high school I've ever been to in the country. There are the cheerleaders unrolling hand-painted posters that read "Go Eagles!" There are the volunteers selling soda, candy and pickles in the concession stand. There are the boys standing around, nervously eying the girls. There are the older fans talking among themselves about past teams. There are the bored children running around the bleachers.

    It's Friday night in the Delta. It's Friday night in America.

    "I want to get teachers with local ties back here to help make their community better," Phillips says. "Otherwise, they come for a couple years and then they leave. We try to appeal for them to make a difference here. We tell them, 'We need you back home.'"

    At the beginning of this Mississippi tour, I watched Alex Rodriguez play in Minnesota. As I drive toward my next stop and the lights of Leland Young stadium fade in the background, I make some disturbing calculations.

    A-Rod earns more money per year than every citizen in Rosedale, combined.

    Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.