Courtland to Sundays: John Jerry’s football career comes full circle

Published 9:12 am Friday, November 12, 2021

By Jared Redding

John Jerry has lived every football player’s dream over the last 20 years. He was a coveted high school football recruit, he was an All-SEC selection and back-to-back Cotton Bowl champion then sustained a long playing career in the National Football League.

He eventually returned to wearing red and navy when it was all said and done. This time, however, he’s teaching a defensive line unit he was part of back in 2004 under the man who would serve as a father-like figure to present day.

“One thing about (Ricky) Woods is that he’s the same guy every day,” Jerry said. “That’s one thing I truly appreciated about him as a player. Coaching for him now, he’s real easy to work for. He’s all about doing the right thing… Some of the speeches he gives the kids now, I think ‘man, I remember these.’ He’s spot on with what he’s talking about. He’s someone you can talk to on and off the field. Someone who is a man’s man.”

Jerry, like many in his area, knew exactly what he wanted to do when he was old enough. He wanted to not only play football, but represent his community and be part of what would be the most storied high school football program in the state of Mississippi.

“For me, football was everything, especially coming from a small town like I came from,” Jerry said. “Growing up around all the older guys in the neighborhood playing, everyone wanted to be a Tiger. That’s a big thing in Batesville.”

His arrival on the varsity squad came conveniently timed. The Tigers won 5A state championships in 1993 and 1998 under Willis Wright and Ed Stanley, respectively, but the program experienced a brief downturn following a 5-6 record in 2001. Then, everything changed.

Ricky Woods arrived after a dominant 90-8 run at Ackerman and inherited a sophomore and junior class that would forever change the landscape of Mississippi high school football.

South Panola won their next 14 games, but ran into a Wayne County juggernaut at season’s end, failing to bring back a third gold ball. The Tigers wouldn’t lose a single game until 2008. They ran the table in 2003 and 2004, laying the foundation and setting a standard that today’s Tigers still try to live up to.

Jerry starred on the defensive line where he racked up a total of 205 tackles, 13 sacks and his only interception which he returned for a touchdown against rival Olive Branch. Jerry claims the latter was his favorite high school memory along with winning two gold balls.

“It was one of those where you knew it was coming. I told our D-Line coach if they run this play, I’m running it back for a touchdown. He said if I did, we don’t condition next week. We didn’t run, I promise you that,” Jerry said.

The Tigers went 44-1 from 2002-2004. However, of all the teams Jerry has been a part of, he believes the 2003 squad was the best. South Panola capped off a 15-0 season with a state title and outscored their opponents 674-127, the second largest point margin in school history behind only their national championship team in 2010.

“That team was pretty special,” Jerry said. “We didn’t many many people play both sides of the ball. We didn’t have egos. We had a common goal and that was winning a state championship. We lost the year before, so we had a bitter taste in our mouth. We righted the ship at that point and got it right.”

Throughout his career, Jerry played alongside some of the best to ever dawn the red and blue, including his older brother Peria, Jamarca Sanford, Derek Pegues, Travis Sanford and Darius “Tig” Barksdale just to name a few. Naturally, it became a gold mine for elite college recruiters, including one who ironically would become Jerry’s head coach not long after. Following the dismissal of former Ole Miss head coach David Cutcliffe, Ed Orgeron accepted his first head coaching job in Oxford, just 15 minutes east of Batesville.

“I remember the first night Coach O got hired at Ole Miss,” Jerry said. “I saw him on TV and then 15 minutes later, he was at our principal’s house with all of us. That was pretty cool… The main thing for us was just having our family come and watch us. We knew they weren’t able to afford going anywhere else. Being 10 minutes down the road, it was the best of both worlds.”

Jerry would have to wait another year before joining him and some of his former teammates in Oxford. Jerry attended Hargrave Military Academy before arriving at Ole Miss in 2006. Although he dominated on defense in his time at South Panola, his future was on the offensive line and therefore played the position the rest of his playing days.

His teams won just seven games in his first two years on campus, before Orgeron was fired after a disastrous 2007 season. In came a competitive Houston Nutt from Arkansas, and the Rebels went 9-4 twice with back-to-back January bowl victories. With all that, the attention on Jerry grew as he was considered among the best offensive linemen in the 2010 NFL draft. The Miami Dolphins made him the 73rd overall pick and he played there until 2013.

As a free agent in 2014, he signed with the New York Giants where he was tasked with guarding one of his high school idols: Eli Manning.

“It was surreal. Me being 10 minutes from Oxford, Eli was a rock star. To go to the pros, sign with the Giants and get a chance to play with him, a kid from Mississippi couldn’t ask for more,” Jerry said.

Jerry stayed with the Giants until finishing his playing career with a brief stint with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2019.

Less than two years later and after getting his degree from Ole Miss, he got a call from his legendary mentor to return home and help coach today’s South Panola Tigers. When he returned, he saw how the legacy of his teams and those before and after him have paid off.

Inside South Panola’s new field house, there is a mural with John, teammates Peria Jerry and Jamarca Sanford along other South Panola players that played in the NFL sitting near 11 gold balls and a national championship trophy. Not too far away from that is a 25,000 square-foot, 40-yard indoor practice field. The field is something that even Jerry’s former team, the Cincinnati Bengals, doesn’t have currently.

“It’s amazing to see how far facilities have come,” Jerry said. “Woods told the kids a few days ago that when I first got here, we practiced in a cow pasture. They tore down the fences, mowed it over and we practiced there. Eventually, Coach made them build a practice field across from the middle school. To see where they went when I came back and see something that even the Bengals didn’t have, it was amazing. I tell the kids that all the time that they need to be grateful for what they have because I didn’t have any of this stuff. Could be a lot worse.”

Nearly 15 years later after graduating, the footprints left by Woods, Jerry and Tigers of that era remain to this day for the school’s tradition rich football program.

“They know that nothing is going to be given to them,” Jerry said. “We have competitions every week for reps. Whoever competes harder in practice, they’re going to start. We have a great group of kids. The worst things these kids have done this year is be tardy.”

Looking backing on his long football career, there was always something particularly special about being under the lights on Friday night.

“The awesome thing about Friday nights is that it’s a kids game,” Jerry said. “You go out and enjoy it. That’s why it’s so special. It was a lot of fun. Batesville is a blue collar town. There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears poured into this place.”

Main Photo: Ole Miss lineman John Jerry celebrates with the Cotton Bowl trophy after he and his teammates beat Texas Tech 47-34 in Friday’s Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Billy Smith II/Chron