If you hear someone mention Florence, MS and know about the small Rankin County town down Highway 49 south, the first thing that comes to mind is food. Florence is home to historic Jerry’s Catfish House as well as Berry’s Seafood Restaurant and both have been serving patrons since the late 1970’s.
A quick turn right off Highway 49 onto Highway 469 and across the railroad tracks, not much has changed in Florence over the years.
Yes, population has boomed in Rankin County and sure Florence’s schools have almost doubled over the last 20 years, but downtown Florence is still home to the Baptist Church, the Methodist Church, a local Dentist, a general doctors practice, the local Western Auto, Polk’s Drugs and the local Ramey’s grocery store as well as the iconic Bridges Quickie.
Florence has a rich tradition filled with southern hospitality, and has been called home to some of the greatest people you will ever meet.
Florence is a part of the Rankin County School system and has had many a person to go on to achieve high academic success, open successful businesses, as well as win state championships in multiple sports like soccer, women’s basketball and more.
But – up until now, Florence has never had or rarely ever had much success on the Football field.
This Friday night however, Steve Pruett’s Florence Eagles look to make history and change the narrative as they travel to Poplarville with a berth in the 4A State Championship on the line.
Pruett, who is in his seventh year as the Eagles head coach is 51-36 during his time on 469 and taken the Eagles to the highest points in program history, but it hasn’t always been that way; I along with many know that and have lived it.
While Florence has had some success during their history; that success has been far and few in between. The Eagles have only 11 winning seasons dating back to 1981 data bases, have only punched 12 playoff cards and have had 23 losing seasons. The Eagles also have had four winless seasons, one of those I took part in personally in 1993.
To put things into context, Mississippi super power South Panola has only had three losing seasons in the history of their program.
But, Florence doesn’t lack for nor has it ever lacked for a love for football or a pride in the gridiron.
This writer found his love for the game as early as six years old on a dusty practice field behind now Florence Middle School with some of his closest friends named Lee, Porter, Weathersby, Simmons, Sanders, Clark and others, and playing football on Sunday evenings in the hay fields of Florence, dreaming one day to take the Eagles to the playoffs.
This writer use to stand on the fences at Eagle Stadium as a small child, hoping to be one of those older players and am still thankful today that was able to happen.
This writer spent many a day in an old weight room on campus, dreaming of taking Florence to heights unseen, much like the young men that will hit the field this Friday night in Poplarville.
This writer also remembers his last game as an Eagle on a cold November night against Raymond high school and how it felt knowing he would never wear that uniform again – a feeling high school seniors have to face year in and year out.
This writer remembers like it was yesterday being told by an older gentleman at a small country store in Florence, “boy enjoy and embrace your last game; you’ll remember it forever.”
23 years later as I watch this special group of Eagles conquer way more than any of us other guys could, boy that older gentleman was he telling the truth.
Watching from a distance at what this group of Eagles are doing sends a sense of nostalgia into the air.
You still remember the smell of the grass, the sadness of defeat and a part of your life ending, but the jubilation of a new chapter. You remember the regret, but also the great times.
Florence was all of that for me and molded me into what I am today. While life moves you way beyond your roots and you plant new ones and create new lives, your roots are just that; it’s always home and Florence is that for me and many others.
This Friday, guys named PawPaw, Dennis, Lewis, Walters and more will set out to do something none of us could ever do – make it to a State Championship.
Names before them like Langsford, Jimmy Webb, Grantham, Lee, Clark, Houston, Ross, Simmons, Sanders, Brunson, Weathersby, Cline, Jackson, Graham, Newman, Gerald, Hemphill, Williamson, Daniels, Wall, Ball, Cannoy, Brinson, Richards, Byrd, Hooks, Desper, Harris, Pardue and more will be somewhere or down at Poplarville pulling this group of Eagles on –encouraging them, hoping that this group can do what we all failed to do.
I’ve been fortunate to cover high school football for well over a decade now and you get to see the passions and sites around the great state of Mississippi from the MAIS to the MHSAA and it doesn’t matter if you’re at a mega school or a small one or somewhere in between; the passion for Mississippi High school football is the same and Florence is no different.
That town and their people are riding a wave like never seen before and their kids are carrying the weight of several decades on their shoulders this Friday.
But, regardless win or lose, the 2016 Eagles are a special group and have achieved heights unseen down on Highway 49; heights that makes this writer take his impartial hat off for just a minutes and salute his old high school, and hope this group can do what others always wanted to.
Play for a state championship.
This Friday Florence can make history and excuse me for a few minutes while I root for this special bunch of kids. I was one of them one time, and wanted this moment to happen over 20 years ago, for some of you – even longer.
It’s Florence – Poplarville Friday night for a trip to State on the Line. Just typing that makes this writer tear up just a bit and I don’t apologize.
I wouldn’t be who I am today, if I wasn’t ever a Florence Eagle first and on this Thanksgiving week, I’ll always be thankful for that.