The other Friday night, I was on one of the state-wide football score updating websites, and was intrigued by the colorful and even improbable names that some Mississippi high schools have given their sports teams: the Stringer “Red Devils,” the Wesson “Cobras,” the East Lincoln (Blue Springs) “Urchins,” the Taylorsville “Tartars,” etc.
As I have taught in two Lamar County high schools, I have a good idea how such names were picked: at some point in a school’s early history, students were probably asked to submit a list of candidate names, and everyone voted. Sometimes, schools even decide to change such names for whatever reason – as Tylertown did not too long ago when it morphed from the “Blue Devils” into the “Chiefs.”
I actually named a sports team once myself. When we put the battleship New Jersey back into commission in 1981, we had a contest to come up with a shortwave radio call sign, and I suggested “Heavy Hitter” as the ship’s 16-inch guns would shoot a shell weighing as much as a Volkswagen Beetle over 20 miles; and shoot so accurately they could drop the shell inside a swimming pool. The Old Man liked my idea, and we became the “Heavy Hitters.” Since I was also the Athletic Officer, in charge of the ship’s many sports teams, I made sure the name carried over.
The teams were funded by the ship’s Welfare and Recreation fund, which I was also in charge of, and I kept this cash cow topped off with the proceeds from the weekend bingo games that we ran on the mess deck while underway. I worked out a deal with the ship’s Supply Officer (the “Chop,” as in pork chop) to provide Rolex watches as grand prizes, so we had lots of participation and made lots of profit. We made enough money, for example, to buy letterman jackets for the members of our soccer, baseball, rugby, and boxing teams, which were the terror of the Far East. On that same cruise, we were sent halfway around the world to Lebanon, where we actually dug a bunch of swimming pools among the camps of Druse terrorists in the Beqaa valley.
While I was scrolling through the football scores the other night, several things caught my attention, although these lists are just a “snapshot” for one Friday night only and certainly not all inclusive. First of all, it became obvious that certain names are more popular than others, so here’s my informal tally of the most popular ones: Tigers (11), Bulldogs (9), Panthers (7), Eagles (7), Rebels (6), Wildcats (6), Saints (5), Blue Devils (4), Lions (3,) and Jaguars (3).
There’s also a wide range of animals and creatures represented, other than the ones listed above: Rams, Bobcats (2), Wolves, Falcons, Wolverines, Hawks (2), Cardinals, Cobras, Mustangs, Tomcats, Falcons, Gators (2), Yellow Jackets, and Hornets (2). Sometimes a little alliteration is nice: Bogue Chitto Bulldogs, Pearl Pirates, East Webster (Maben) Wolverines, etc.
There are several teams named after Native Americans: Warriors (2), Chiefs (2), Choctaws, Seminoles, and Indians. I guess the cancel culture hasn’t settled into Mississippi high schools yet; however, several of the above high schools have a large number of Native American students. Some team names seek to invoke human qualities, noble or otherwise, depending on one’s point of view: Spartans, Trojans (2) , Cowboys, Admirals, Oilers, Fighting Irish, Tartars, Rebels, Conquistadores, and Pirates. And then there’s some you just wonder about – what were they serving in the cafeteria on the day they voted to elect the East Lincoln (Maben) “Urchins,” or the Pisgah (Brandon) “Dragons,” or even the St. Stanislaus (Bay St. Louis) “Rock-a-Chaws?”
Whatever the team name, one can’t help but wonder about its provenance. The young people who proposed most of them were either well-read, had good History teachers, went to the movies a lot, or had big imaginations. Even in the menagerie, the catalogue of familiar animals, as well as several others, there’s some serious ideas at play here. Let’s look at just a few: the Panther, the Tornado, the Red Devil, and, my favorite, the Urchin.
It’s understandable how the panther ended up as a popular team name – strong, lithe, swift, deadly, mysterious. While black panther sightings have been reported for decades in Mississippi, the last official confirmation was around 1900. However, two years ago, a Natchez man reported he saw “a black cat that was roughly the size of a Labrador retriever” running across his field. Wildlife biologists generally agree that mountain lions, cougars, and panthers were “extirpated” in Mississippi a long time ago. On the other hand, there is always the possibility that a so-called “Florida Panther,” the only puma species currently found east of the Mississippi River, might have wandered into the northwestern sections of the state. Be that as it may, many local hunters will swear on a stack of Bibles that they have personally seen or at least heard one scream during close encounters in the woods and swamps of south Mississippi. In any event, panthers are a federally protected species, whether they are running amok in our woodlands or not.
Although at least three high schools in Mississippi (Laurel, Piney Woods, and Purvis) claim the name, “Tornados,” as the team name, Purvis seems to have the most legimate claim to the moniker, courtesy of the 1908 tornado which essentially destroyed the town. A long track tornado which originated around Pine, Louisiana, and died about Richton, Mississippi, it hit around 2:00 p.m. on April 24, and moved the train depot across the tracks, toppled railroad cars, and leveled the town’s business district. More than 65 citizens were killed, around 340 injured, and nearly 2,000 left destitute. Over 125 homes were destroyed.
According to an eyewitness, it was nearly dark for about four minutes while it lasted. The earth rocked, and rain poured down in torrents. After the clouds passed, the swirling wind carried all that stood in its path. For a moment there was silence. Then, with the light, came pitiful cries, groans, and screams that arose on all sides. People were dying; others were hurt, still frightened but alive. Within 24 hours, the Red Cross, the army, the navy and other relief organizations had agencies on the ground.
Governor Noel sent military tents and hospital equipment. Groceries and mattresses were sent from Hattiesburg. The two Hattiesburg hospitals were filled with the injured. The tornado was rated as F-4 on the Fujita scale, and it was part of a “family” of tornados that killed a total of 173 persons throughout the state that day, the third worst total in history. (Number 1 was the 1840 Natchez tornado with 318 deaths, and no. 2 was the Tupelo F-5 tornado of 1936 with 216). The estimated damage in Purvis totaled around $1.57 million or around $33.3 million in today’s dollars. Whether they realize it or not, every time the Purvis sports teams hit the fields or courts, they honor the memory of that faithful day. As far as the Stringer Red Devils, what does the devil really look like? At least three other schools seem to think he’s blue (Simmons (Hollandale), Ashland, and Booneville). Even a source as authoritative as the Bible is a little sketchy on his appearance: a serpent; an “angel of light”(2 Corinthians 11:14), a spirit who can disguise himself anyway he wants to; however, the emphasis is on his deceitful nature rather than his physical appearance. It does state that before his rebellion against God, Satan was a beautiful, glorious being (Ezekiel 28:12-15). What he looks like now is a mystery, and the common, pop-culture portrayal of Satan as a scary-looking, goat-like beast with horns is not found in the Bible.
This is a medieval creation, reminiscent of the gargoyles atop European gothic cathedrals to ward off evil spirits, and really owes more to Dante’s “Inferno” where the devil is portrayed as a giant demon, frozen mid-breast in ice at the center of hell. As he beats his wings, he creates a cold wind that plagues the sinners trapped around him. In his three mouths, he chews on Judas Iscariot, Marcus Junius Brutus, and Gaius Cassius Longinus, the betrayer of Jesus and two of Julius Caesar’s assassins. Our idea of the devil in a red suit, a tail, with a pitchfork, and horns probably came out of a medieval passion play.
As I said earlier, my hands down favorite is the East Lincoln “Urchins.” I like it because I really don’t understand it. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall there when some kid explained before the vote why he had submitted “urchins” for the school’s consideration and tried to sell it. To me, picking an urchin to represent you is about like saying “Our team may be small, but we are slow.” Did he explain that it’s a “maritime echinoderm that has a spherical or flattened shell covered in mobile spines, with a mouth on the underside and calcareous jaws?” Or, did he or she just say “This is a nasty little sea critter that you better not step on when you go wading at the beach?” – the implication being: “Don’t step on our sports teams.”
But, you never know; he might have just read “Oliver Twist,” and was thinking of “urchin” as in street urchin – a waif, an orphan against the world - as made famous by Charles Dickens in early 19th century English literature. These were some tough kids who had a reputation of getting into trouble and who would not back down from anyone, as in the “Artful Dodger.” Strangely enough, “urchin” comes from the French word for “hedgehog,” which is an animal you don’t want to mess with. What throws me off, though, is that the school’s logo is a sea horse, which, as far as I can tell, has nothing to do with an urchin of any type.
One of the schools with perhaps the best claim to a nautical-themed team name is St. Stanislaus College (really a Catholic boarding high school) perched on a bluff overlooking the Bay of St. Louis on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Instead, they hit the playing fields as the “Rock-a-Chaws” which is the literal translation of an ancient Choctaw word meaning “devil grass,” or what we might call sand burrs or “stickers.” School records indicate that there were once so many of them that the coaches had to drag blankets across the fields to pick up the rock-a-chaws before games could begin.
I had a personal experience early on with stickers on a football field. When I was about 12 playing peewee football for Lumberton, we had an away game at Purvis. We had helmets and shoulder pads, but most of us played bare-footed. We ran out on the field and it was covered with stickers. They had shoes and we lost.
Founded in 1854 by Brothers of the Sacred Heart and in continuous operation ever since, St. Stanislaus has produced some famous football players, including Doc Blanchard who won the Heisman Trophy while playing at Army in 1945. A running back known as “Mr. Inside,” he teamed with Glenn Davis, who was known as Mr. Outside and they won the national championship. Blanchard’s Heisman trophy is on display for all to see inside the school’s administration building. Stop by and take a look.
I’ll admit it – I was just being specious. I know that the sports teams for Delta State University in Cleveland, up in the delta, are really called the “Statesmen;” but if you go onto the campus, as I have, you will find that many students and faculty fondly refer to them as “The Fighting Okra.” I’m old enough to remember, too, when the teams of Mississippi Southern College were proudly referred to as the “Southerners.” I wish I had been allowed to vote on “Golden Eagles.” I would have probably crossed that out and written “Urchins” on my ballot.
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby of Oak Grove is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Visit his website, bennyhornsby.com, or email him: email@example.com.