South Delta Bulldogs give new meaning to ‘Rebuilding Year’ with help from Archie Manning

Published 1:22 pm Friday, August 4, 2023

Rick Cleveland is Mississippi Today’s Sports Columnist, Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022.

By Rick Cleveland
Mississippi Today

ROLLING FORK – High school football coaches often bemoan “rebuilding years,” but few, if any, have ever faced anything like what South Delta head coach KePatrick Barnes is up against.

His Bulldogs have no place to play, and no uniforms to wear and no dressing room in which to dress – and that doesn’t even begin to describe the obstacles they face.

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The EF-4 tornado that blew through Rolling Fork on March 24, killing 14 people and injuring many more, left South Delta High School in shambles and unusable. Two of Barnes’ players lost their mothers in the storm. Another lost the grandmother who was raising him. Far more lost their homes. Some of those who have made it to summer workouts have been living with friends or relatives in Greenville, Leland, Yazoo City and Vicksburg.

The decrepit football stadium, which wasn’t much to look at before, is unusable now. Light poles are down, the ticket booth blown over, concession stands ruined, scoreboard inoperable, bleachers warped, press box windows smashed – that’s for starters. Most of the team’s uniforms were either lost in the storm or badly mildewed.

Where spectators would normally park for games, a tented, portable laundry operates to serve the community. The old gymnasium, which once housed the Bulldogs’ weight room, is now a distribution center to provide tornado victims with household necessities. The football team moved its weight equipment into the old band hall, where on a recent blistering hot, humid morning they lifted weights, dripping sweat, while shouting encouragement to one another over the loud clanging of barbells. There was no power, no air conditioning. On occasion, the Bulldogs have paused their summer lifting regimen to go move heavy boxes from an 18-wheeler into what used to be the distribution center that was once their weight room.

“It’s a different kind of lifting,” says Barnes, 45, a stocky former Alcorn State football player. “We try to help out when they need it”

School is back in session this week, but high school students are crammed into the middle school building five miles away in Anguilla where they finished the 2022-23 school year last spring. “It’s crowded but we make do,” says Coach Barnes, who guided the Bulldogs to a 9-3 record and into the second round of the state playoffs last year. “We are rolling up our sleeves and making the best of a really horrible situation.”

Some help is on the way, thanks to Ole Miss and NFL football great Archie Manning, who nearly six decades ago played for the Drew High Eagles in this same football facility in such sad shape now. Drew and Rolling Fork were in the same Delta Valley Conference in those days. “Rolling Fork was the Green Bay Packers of the Delta Valley Conference,” Manning says. “They beat everybody, they tore us up. They were a bunch of big, old farm boys who lifted weights back before it was fashionable.”

Archie Manning

Manning says when he first heard about the deadly tornado of March 24, his first thoughts were of those Delta Valley Conference days “and the most fun I ever had in football, except when we had to play Rolling Fork. We at least scored on them my senior year. Most teams didn’t.”

Manning made some calls, including one to the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi, and learned more about the South Delta situation. He knew of an NFL program where the league will match contributions (up to $5,000) of NFL players and former players to high school football teams. He wrote a check and the NFL has matched it. Hernando businessman Cal Wilkins heard of Manning’s donation and also matched it.

Manning also talked to Riddell, the football equipment company that serves as a major sponsor of the Manning family’s Manning Passing Academy. Riddell has made a sizable donation of equipment, including custom fit, state-of-the-art helmets. The company already has sent a representative to measure the players. The equipment is on the way.

“I hope it helps,” Manning says. “Lord knows, they need it.”

The school and the football team need much, much more. Erra Kelly, superintendent of South Delta School District, says she is still working with insurance company, FEMA and state authorities. What she says will be a first payment of insurance money – $750,000 – has been received. She awaits a final settlement before spending what has been received. A new school building, including new athletic facilities, would be the preference.

Kelly, the superintendent, and Barnes, the coach, are much appreciative of Manning’s assistance. Says Barnes, “To have a man of Archie Manning’s fame and stature reaching out and helping us means the world. We’re still a long way from getting back to where we were, but it’s a start.”

The roof on Barnes’ own house was just recently replaced because of extensive tornado damage. Three families – 12 people – currently live in the three-bedroom home. “Making do, the best we can,” is the way he put it, adding, “We’re better off than lots of others.”

Barnes has tried to be there for all his players. “So many of the guys are living somewhere else right now,” he says. “They haven’t been able to be here for the summer workouts, but we’re happy to see them when they do get here, and I text ‘em or try to talk to ‘em every day.”

South Delta and Rolling Fork have a strong football tradition. As with many small Mississippi communities, the high school football team is a rallying point for the town and surrounding area

Labrodrick Williams, a 17-year-old senior, returns as a starter at quarterback and free safety. “I really think this whole thing has made us stronger,” Williams says. “We have to be strong for our community.”

Roderick Catledge, a 10th-grade center and linebacker, was among the many players displaced by the storm. He has spent the summer commuting from 40 miles away in Leland, riding with his mother who works two jobs in Rolling Fork. He arrived in time for 9 a.m. workouts and sometimes didn’t get back to Leland until after 11 p.m.

The Bulldogs will open the regular season on Aug. 25 at Yazoo County. They will play in Port Gibson as part of a pre-season jamboree at Mississippi Delta Community College on Aug. 18. Their first home game is set for Sept. 8 against Leflore County. A decision is not expected until next week on where that game will be played.

Barnes believes the Bulldogs will be formidable again, no matter where they play and what equipment they wear.

“We’re going to make some noise,” Barnes says. “We’re going to try to put Rolling Fork on our backs, give people something to smile about.”

Anyone wishing to donate to South Delta High School or the athletic programs recon era efforts can do so with a tax-deductible donation through the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi. Contact foundation president Keith Fulcher at 662 719-1732 to learn how.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.