Farming & football: A story of growth at Wingfield High School

Jeff Gibson was stunned.

He sat on stage at ABC Studios in New York City with Cindy Ayers-Elliott, an investment banker turned Mississippi organic farmer, for a taping on the daytime talk show “Katie.”

They met the year before, when Gibson sought Ayers-Elliott for donations for the woebegone Wingfield High School football program he coached.

She didn’t give him money. Instead, she gave his players an opportunity that’s changed lives.

Gibson felt like he owed Ayers-Elliott a lot. So when host Katie Couric invited him to appear on the segment with Ayers-Elliott, it was a no-brainer. Of course he would.

Little did he know he was about to become a much bigger part of the story.

“He wanted to cry,” Ayers-Elliott said.

Football wasn’t on Gibson’s mind when he left Heidelberg, where he was athletic director and football coach, to come to Jackson in mid-August 2011. Family was.

His father was brought to G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery VA Medical Center after he fell while repairing roof panels at his Clinton home. The fall left him paralyzed from the neck down.

“The only place they had an opening was Wingfield,” Gibson said. “One of the (assistant) principals, Frank Terry, who I had coached with at Jim Hill (in 2005), recommended me to (Wingfield principal) Cynthia Johnson-Armstrong.”

Still, the football field kept luring Gibson, who often watched spring practices.

So when former Wingfield coach Veron Perry retired from coaching the following year, the first person Johnson-Armstrong reached out to was Gibson.

He accepted, even if “it was a lot different” than what he was used to as a program.

The problems extended beyond the football field, where the Falcons had lost 17 straight games heading into 2012.

It wasn’t surprising, considering the Region 2-5A school owned less than 500 pounds of weights and didn’t have a youth-football feeder system.

The booster club had less than $100 in its bank account, and, in addition to being physically weak (Gibson didn’t have a single player who could squat more than 300 pounds in 2012), the team lacked discipline.

“The guys didn’t care much about coming to practice, let alone getting to practice on time,” Gibson said. “They weren’t giving their best, weren’t sacrificing for one another. These all seemed like abstract concepts to the first group of guys I met.

“We had to lose a lot of people that were potentially great players.”

That included Quinton Carter, who began serving a 10-year prison sentence after being convicted of statutory rape this past summer.

He had transferred to Wingfield for his senior year in 2012. But he never played a down. He was arrested the week of the Falcons’ first game.

“We really loved him,” Gibson said. “But you can’t save them all.”

Other players have been luckier, like Dontarius McWilliams, who reluctantly transferred from Lanier to Wingfield during his junior year in 2012.

“I was almost charged of a (crime in 2012),” McWilliams said. He was arrested, but he was later released without charges.

“Some kids need a velvet glove; some need an iron fist,” Gibson said. “He needed a combination of both.”

So when McWilliams decided he wasn’t going to finish his bear crawls and assigned runs up a hill near the team’s practice field, Gibson stepped in. McWilliams was a tough kid, having grown up “in some of Jackson’s toughest neighborhoods,” according to his coach. But he had potential, as a player and a person.

Gibson gave McWilliams an ultimatum: Finish his assigned bear crawls in the allotted amount of time or be removed from the program.

It’s the same standard he uses for every player.

Given time to think about it, the middle linebacker stuck with Gibson. A year later, he’s a team captain.

“Without the kind of discipline and rigid rules in our program, he wouldn’t have ended up being the leader he is,” Gibson said. “A few years ago, he was probably heading toward the thug life. I think he’s one of the guys we changed and we saved.”

Gibson was in the midst of a full-scale culture change, one that extended beyond the walls of Wingfield High School.

“What they’re exposed to in everyday life is sometimes unfortunate,” Gibson said. “They come from a community of high poverty, high crime, gangs, drugs.”

He’s had players arrested for charges of statutory rape, armed robbery, house burglary and assault.

Gibson knew he had to try to change that culture.

He needed an outlet, something that could help him reinforce the notion that hard work is a means to success in both football and life.

And then he met Ayers-Elliott.

Ayers-Elliot remembers being in Miami on business on Sept. 11, 2001.

The Ashland native traveled frequently, holding jobs as an investment banker in San Francisco, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., along with New York.

But as she watched hijacked planes crash into the world she had once lived in, she knew that part of her life was over. She returned to Mississippi.

“I had a lot of friends and colleagues that I lost in that tragedy,” Ayers-Elliott said.

With the airports closed, she packed a rental car and headed north with two relative strangers.

“All I knew was their names,” she said. “Wherever we got to first, somebody got off.”

By 2005, she had finished her Ph.D. at Jackson State. During the next five years, she worked as president and chief executive officer of Delta Foundation, a nonprofit community and economic development corporation geared toward providing assistance to the Mississippi Delta.

It all spurred Ayers-Elliott in 2010 to research ways to extend the availability of cost-sharing funds to small farmers. She wanted to help them grow their businesses.

Partnering with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and land grant institutions like Mississippi State and Alcorn State, Ayers-Elliott began evolving her home just outside downtown Jackson into usable land. It became Foot Print Farms.

In January, a colleague introduced her to a coach at a struggling football program, who was looking for donations.

“Gibson talked about a lack of confidence in the players,” Ayers-Elliott said of their first meeting. “They didn’t have things other teams have.”

That included sweatsuits, T-shirts and lettermen jackets.

“I told him we can form a 4-H group, which we’d ask his football players to be members of,” said Ayers-Elliott, who negotiated a three-year lease with the group for two acres of land for only a dollar.

It gave Gibson, who was raised on a farm, an opportunity to generate revenue for the first time since taking over the football program.

Now, he had to convince his players to do it.

Gibson set big goals off the field: Team-wide perfect attendance, 90 percent of kids on honor roll and no disciplinary infractions. He figured it would take five to seven years to get his team to this point.

But at the center of all that was the farm, where each player worked five hours per week during the summer.

“A farm?” McWilliams said. “I had never farmed before, so I didn’t know what to do.”

Added sophomore Nicholas Harmon: “I didn’t want to be out there.”

With the help of Hinds County family consumer science agent Rocheryl Ware and Bill Evans, associate research professor at Mississippi State’s Central Mississippi Research and Extension Center in Crystal Springs, Gibson and his team began cultivating their land in February.

Evans donated the seeds and his knowledge, but the Falcons did the work. From soil preparation to tilling and planting to picking, it was all them.

“We really began to grow academically for the first time,” Gibson said.

In months, Gibson and his players grew more than 1,000 watermelons, one of their best sellers at market.

“It just made a huge impact on them,” Gibson said. “Seeing something that they made grow from the ground up that they can now go and sell and make a profit. It was quite illuminating.

“We were showing them that they can be producers in society.”

The profits from the summer, along with some other donations, bought weights, T-shirts and sweatsuits and pregame meals.

“Being out there helped us become as one,” Harmon said.

Now, they did everything together. That included loading watermelons in a truck for harvest. That’s when a camera crew from New York spotted them.

On stage, Gibson was fixated on one of the assistant producers of “Katie.”

He was wearing something new.

Gibson thought about the last year and a half, the kids and their hard work.

And now, his players can remember it all, thanks to the program’s newest booster, Katie Couric.

The veteran TV personality purchased lettermen jackets for the Wingfield players.

“Thank you,” Gibson said.

That was all he could say.

None of this would have happened without Ayers-Elliott. She promoted the work of the athletes to producers when they booked the segment, which will air “sometime in early October.”

“Yes, I was giving up my high heels,” she said. “Yes, I’m organizing farmers, but I’m also sharing this with people.”

That included the George Washington Carver Future Scientists 4-H Club at Wingfield.

“A letterman jacket is a reward that money can’t buy,” Gibson said. “You don’t get that jacket just because someone bought it for you. You get it because you earned it over a period of years.

“Now that tells a kid, ‘You’re part of something special.’ That takes the place of ‘I want to be in a gang,’ because now you’re part of something larger than a gang.”

Gibson’s culture change is underway.

He’s had help, especially from Johnson-Armstrong, who keeps track of each athlete through weekly academic and discipline progress reports.

Grades are better (50 percent of his athletes made honor roll last year), players are stronger (three Wingfield players, including McWilliams, won state power-lifting championships) and interest at the lower levels has spiked (freshmen enrollment has gone from three to 22 in one year).

Going into the season, Wingfield held Mississippi’s longest losing streak. It eventually grew to 31 games. But then came the program’s first victory of the season. And then another. And another.

Before Friday’s loss at Laurel, the Falcons had won three straight for the first time since 2006.

“We’ve changed the players’ self expectations,” Gibson said.

Even so, Gibson’s not finished.

One of his current pupils is Juanteaz McDonald, who arrived earlier this year after transferring to Wingfield. Months before, McDonald was charged with house burglary and now wears a monitoring device around his ankle at all times — including games. Since arriving at Wingfield, Gibson has witnessed personal growth in McDonald.

It’s the same with McWilliams, who aspires to join the Air National Guard, and the countless others Gibson’s impacted.

“He changed my life,” McWilliams said.

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