On an unusually cold night in the middle of the desert inArizona- minutes away from California and Mexico, but a million miles fromhome- a group of boys from a small junior college in Mississippi lived a momentthat will stay in their hearts forever. The East Mississippi Community Collegefootball team won a national championship. They don't even understand right nowhow dear this is to them. They're 18-20 year old boys and all they're thinkingabout now is what's next- what's the post game meal? Will that girl be impressed?When do we get our rings? Will a 4 year college notice me? Nope, they don'tcomprehend it now. But one day they'll know. They'll reunite one day twenty orthirty or forty years from now to remember this moment. I hope I'm there whenthey do.
In 4 years at EMCC, coach Buddy Stephens has won 36games, 2 state championships, and a national championship with his Lions. EastMS hadn't won 36 games - combined- in the 11 years before he came. To say theprogram has been turned around is an understatement. People just EXPECT theLions to win now. They've built a gorgeous football stadium. They have DanMullen flying in by helicopter to recruit their players. They have a schoolpresident, an athletic director, and -more importantly- FANS who have boughtinto building this football program into a championship caliber team. Andthey've done it. They have met, and exceeded, all expectations.
The EMCC Lions started the season off with a ribboncutting for their new stadium and a win over #2 ranked MGCCC. And they justkept on winning. The players kept quoting: "1-0, 12 times." They tookit to heart, and they did it. They finished the school's first ever undefeatedseason after 9 wins and made it to the playoffs. They won both playoff games towin their 2nd state championship in 3 years. 11-0.
To play in the national championship game in the NJCAA youmust finish 1 or 2 in the last poll before bowl games. EMCC definitely feltlike they'd done that, but the voters had been pretty iffy all year. But withteams ranked ahead of them losing in the final week, the poll came out- andEMCC was 2nd. They were invited to play in the national championship gamein Yuma, AZ against #1 ranked Arizona Western. To accept the invitation wouldmean getting the entire team, coaches, trainers, etc 1800 miles across thecountry. A huge feat for a small junior college -but the administration madethe call, accepted the invitation, and got busy making plans.
They chartered a plane for 165 people. After the team,coaches, cheer team, and administration there was still some room. They invitedspouses, some board members, and other people important to the program andschool. This school is committed to academics, athletics, and to (as they've reminded Derek over and over) family. The band and equipment truck would DRIVE to Yuma. They basically drove straight out there, spent one night, and drove straight back. They booked rooms at 2 hotels for all of the people coming out. EMCC fans from all over the country - yes, the country - came to Yuma on their own to see the game. The fan support in Yuma and that we were hearing about back home was awesome.
The support and welcome from Arizona Western was really nice - at first. The pre-game banquet the night before the game turned into an AZW pep rally that the Lions had to sit through. The coach even basically guaranteed a victory for the Matadors. The team also had to use the AZW locker room for practice, where there were untrue quotes from/about EMCC football players posted all over the room. Emotions were high leading up to the game and I am SO PROUD of how the team kept their cool.
The game was a high scoring, high penalty count thriller. Both teams had some personal foul penalties, but I am still impressed with how well EMCC handled the taunting and cheap shots from AZW. The Lions were in control most of the game, but Arizona Western did rally late. EMCC held on for a 55-47 victory and clinched the school's first ever national championship. Bo Wallace, who now holds the NJCAA single season records for touchdown passes, passing yards, and total offense, was named the EMCC's offensive MVP for the game. Bo is also this year's NJCAA Region 23 Offensive MVP and a leading contender for this year’s NJCAA Offensive Player of the Year award. Denico Autry was EMCC's defensive MVP for the game.
As soon as the on-field celebrating and trophy presentations were over, the team loaded onto buses to go to the airport. They flew back to Mississippi that night and arrived to a couple hundred fans at the Golden Triangle campus. The team had pizza and cake and got to watch highlights from the game that Derek cut and put together on the plane ride home. They were exhausted, they were sore, and they were ready to get home. But they were champions.
I looked around that room that night and wanted to cry. I'm not sure that I'll ever get to see some of these boys ever again. Some of them are finished with college football forever. Some will go on and play at 4 year colleges - some, I have no doubt, will go pro. I hope they all get their degrees. I hope life treats them all fair. I will continue to pray for Derek Wilson and be in awe of his strength and commitment to his family. Some of these guys have touched my heart, or made me laugh, or amazed me with their talent. They have had a cohesiveness, a love for one another and for their "Tech" that I honestly believe is what made them the champions they are. They played as a team - always. I'm not sure I'll ever get to be that close to a team this special again, but I hope so. I hope that we get to keep in touch with them to find out where they land in life. I hope if any of them wind up at State they'll know they have an invite for dinner or anything else we can help them with. I am SO proud of them - all of them. I hope they understand what they've done - personally, for their school, for their coaches, for their fans, for me - and I hope they always remember this. I hope they all come back to Scooba years in the future for a reunion.... and I hope I'm there to see them remember.
Thank you, EMCC and the 2011 Lions for letting us come along for the ride. My gosh, it was great.
Let's do it again! :)
Links for more info: http://www.njcaa.org/newsArticle.cfm?articleId=15866 (From NJCAA about game)
http://athletics.eastms.edu/ (EMCC's athletics webpage, as well as photos/pics from game)
http://www.clarionledger.com/article/20111202/SPORTS030105/112020341/Lions-Wilson-spread-thin-personal-battle (Please read - article in Clarion Ledger by Ross Dellenger about Derrick Wilson)
These are links to Derek's highlights from game and the video that showed at the pregame banquet: