BROOKHAVEN, Miss. — The Brookhaven football team finishes every practice with a question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
One Panther player yells it, followed by the team in unison replying, “Yes, I am.”
Brookhaven finishes the chant by exclaiming, “We are Ole Brook” before breaking its huddle. They’ve done it every day this season, which continues Friday with a second-round 5A playoff game against Laurel.
It’s a tradition the team has practiced for years, before coach Tommy Clopton arrived in May 2012 and long before tragedy first struck this team in October of 2014.
For Brookhaven, this saying has always meant I have your back and you have mine. The Panthers protect each other.
There are some things though they couldn’t protect each other from. After losing three teammates in four years the Panthers response to the question means a little bit more.
“They’ve had to learn how to be their brother’s keeper in a lot of different ways,” Clopton said. “I think those words have a huge significance to them. It’s been a rallying cry for a long time but it’s also who we are.”
In October 2014, three days before Brookhaven’s homecoming game, Shaquan Richardson and Javonta Dickey were killed in a car accident.
This year’s senior class were just a group of freshman, and it was the first time most had ever experienced a loss like that. It was then that they learned how to put one foot in front of the other and keep pushing. Today, that’s all they know.
“I’m not sure we know how to play without adversity anymore,” senior offensive lineman Trace Clopton said. “It’s just kind of been here. My freshman year losing Quan and Bud it’s felt like it’s been one right after another.”
Three years later that same group of freshman had worked their way to becoming seniors. It was the end of May and the team was enjoying summer break while preparing for a season that was expected to be one of the best in years.
The group of seniors included Jordan Blackwell, a star linebacker and the complete embodiment of what it means to your brother’s keeper.
He was 18 years old when he died shielding his 15-year-old cousin from bullets after a man came into their home in the middle of the night and opened gunfire.
It’s been nearly six months since that day but the Panthers haven’t forgotten. Blackwell is still listed on the roster, his jersey is still carried out before every game and he still represents his team as a captain. This season is for him.
Jordan’s mother Tiffany Blackwell and father Shon Blackwell were there for the Brookhaven season opener. Tiffany hasn’t missed a game all season. She says it’s important for her to be there because she knows Jordan is still there.
“For me, it’s like I had to go,” Tiffany said. “If Jordan was playing I would be at every game. Jordan would want me to be there to support his teammates, his brothers. That’s something he would want me to do.”
The Panthers won Region 3-5A, are riding an 11-game winning streak and are playing in the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2013. They are a favorite to make it out of the south in what is expected to be a 5A state championship matchup against No. 1 West Point.
Tommy Clopton said his team’s experience is a factor in the success they’ve accomplished this season. He also said sometimes you need a reason why.
“We went to practice after the first loss and we told each other on both sides of the ball that we weren’t going to lose anymore,” defensive back Jemaurian Jones said. “We’ll do it for Jordan and that’s what we’re doing now.”