For Missouri football team, trip to Arkansas about more than football

Pulaski Academy and Jennings players shake hands before Friday night's game. (Photo: Sheldon Smith)

Pulaski Academy and Jennings players shake hands before Friday night’s game. (Photo: Sheldon Smith)

If you’ve played high school football, or even if you’ve just attended a game, chances are you know what it’s like when you’re under the Friday night lights. Whether you’re from a small town or a big city, public school or private, the atmosphere on a Friday night is undeniable.

However, students at Jennings (Mo.) High School don’t have the opportunity to play under the bright lights. Jennings play its games on Saturdays, thanks to its close proximity to Ferguson, the site of immense social unrest and protests after the August 2014 shooting death of 18-year old Michael Brown.

“We actually missed some days of school, which meant missing a lot of practices. Our area was shut down because it was so dangerous,” Jennings coach Mark Harris said. “No, we aren’t the Ferguson School District, but we’re neighbors separated by one street, and there’s a lot of things that have given the area a bad look.”

Jennings had an opening in its schedule for this season after a local high school in its conference dropped its football program after the schedules were made last spring. Harris and the athletic director Ryan Wallace decided they didn’t want to have an open week, and that’s when something just short of fate happened. The result was a unique opportunity to mix football and education and those elusive Friday night lights.

The buildup

Last school year, Wallace got a call from a company that sets up out-of-state games, saying that Pulaski Academy (Little Rock, Ark.) had an opening that same week.

“So I went on the web and thought ‘Wow…these guys were state champions last year…they’re pretty good,’” Harris said. “Then I saw they were in Little Rock and noticed the game would be on Sept. 25, and I thought it had to be a sign.”

The “sign” that Harris was referring to was that the game would be played on the 58th anniversary of the integration of Little Rock Central High School, where the historic Little Rock Nine were officially admitted into the school.

When the light bulb went off, Harris jumped at the opportunity to take his team on an “educational football trip.”

More than just a football game

In the days leading up to their trip to Little Rock, the team watched two films – The Ernest Green Story, and Little Rock Central: 50 years Later – and did worksheets created by their teachers. The team watched The Ernest Green Story a second time on the drive down to Little Rock and took a 20 question quiz.

“We graded them and they earned 100 percents,” said Harris, who’s in his fourth year as the head coach. “The kids know why and how it happened and what this all means for them.”

Before Friday’s game, Harris took the team on a tour of Little Rock Central High School.

“We try to use football as an educational tool, and that’s my biggest thing as a coach … I’m trying to teach them to use football and those long days as training for life,” Harris said. “For us to be able to come down (to Little Rock) and experience where history was made and play a football game, it’s a win-win despite the score.”

Even though Jennings is unlike the usual Pulaski Academy opponents, the four-time state champions didn’t hesitate to invite Harris and his Jennings team to Little Rock. Located about six hours south, Pulaski provided Jennings with about $4,000 for accommodations, including a joint-team gathering after Friday night’s game where the players were given the opportunity to interact.

“If you can do something for someone else, it’s always great. The more you’re blessed with, the more you have the chance to give back,” said Pulaski senior Justin Charette. “It’s amazing that high school football gave us all the chance to do something like this.”

Charette, who plays offense, defense, and moonlights as the team’s rare kicker (and even drop-kicks field goals), said the experience to play and interact with kids from a completely different background gave him a whole new perspective, which is exactly what Pulaski coach Kevin Kelley wanted.

“Their coach was up front and said, ‘We’re the closest school to Ferguson, and I don’t want to alarm you with that, but we’re trying to teach our kids and be proactive in that area, and show them that it doesn’t have to be that way,'” Kelley said. “When you start thinking about the Ferguson thing and the racial tension and that whole episode, it’s a chance for our kids to interact with guys who went through that. It’s a real life situation and a learning experience for both our kids.”

“Even more than that, it’s a chance for two schools from completely different backgrounds to meet on the football field, and then when it’s over, to realize we’re all just people and kids who want to play the same game,” said Kelley. “That’s a great story in itself.”

The game

Kelley and Charette didn’t mince words when describing the atmosphere of a Pulaski Academy game on Friday night. Both referenced the stadium and environment as a “party” with its loud music and fog machine and the student section that numbers nearly 300.

“At PA we really do put on a show. The lights and the feeling of running through the tunnel, the fog machines and everything … It’s not even like playing a football game. It’s like a big party,” said Charette. “Usually everyone from Little Rock comes to our games to check us out. We’re always doing something outside the box or crazy.”

Jennings couldn’t wait for their opportunity, either.

“The excitement had been building, and it got to a fever pitch the last few weeks when the reality set in,” Harris said. “We were about to make school history and going to play a team that’s nationally ranked under the lights. How often in high school do you get to do that?”

Not very often.

It was a lopsided game, with Pulaski winning 56-12. But for both sides, it wasn’t the score that mattered, it was the experience.

Jennings hopes to be able to create a home-field advantage just like Pulaski in the future. The school had lights installed at its field and intends to play on Friday nights next season. It also will be the only school in its district to have a turf field.

“It felt as if it was a college game and environment. It was big time,” said Jennings senior Bobby Sanders. “The trip was a great experience for my team and I to go on. To be in the same hallways as those Little Rock Nine students felt unbelievable.”

Harris knew the impact this trip would have on his players.

“For my kids to come down here and get to finally play under the lights, knowing Pulaski is gonna bring the whole town out, a lot of them knew it was going to be more fun than any other game,” he said. “They weren’t worried about the score, they were just excited to play football.”

“For most of my kids, this was a once in a lifetime trip.”

Pulaski Academy and Jennings players after last Friday night's game. (Photo: Sheldon Smith)

Pulaski Academy and Jennings players after last Friday night’s game. (Photo: Sheldon Smith)

Special thanks to Sheldon Smith for providing photos. You can follow him on Instagram @sheldonsmithsports


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