I recall moving to McKenzie in March of 1974. The community was still basking in the glow of a 10-1 football campaign that featured a thrilling 23-21, last-second victory over Huntingdon and a stint at No. 1 in the state for much of the season.
You’ve heard the names: Terry Bateman, Julius Sims, Murray McCaleb, Ben Howard, et. al. That team was dubbed “The Team of the 20th Century.”
That exuberance was exacertabted by the fact that the McKenzie Rebels’ basketeball team was en route to a regional basketball championship and substate battle. Guys like Donald Bobbitt and Wendell Moore spearheaded that effort.
I wasn’t quite sure what I was moving into, but it seemed like exciting times were nigh. I spent the last month (or so) of my seventh-grade year here.
But, soon, you learn that the best laid plans don’t always come to fruition. When my eighth grade year came around, McKenzie had a decent team, but so did everybody else. The Rebels went 4-6 in the fall of 1974. Maybe you can attribute it to my presence in McKenzie, but things got progressively worse. My freshman year, 1975, the Rebels were 1-9, a victory in a rainstorm at Bruceton as I recall.
My sophomore year seemed like a year of promise. The Rebels lost 13-0 in the home opener to Peabody, but stunned the world by beating heavily-favored Jackson-North Side 28-12, then we took down Bruceton the next week. Things would never be so good again. The Rebels would win only two more games through the next two seasons.
Things got so bad at McKenzie in the fall of 1977 that only 17 players were on the team. To simulate players, coaches used wooden logs on the practice field to represent opposing players. When McKenzie played Huntingdon at Pudor Field, which had its light polls on the inside of the stadium, Richard Chappell, a then-assistant, joked that he hoped players didn’t mistake the light poles as players. McKenzie did defeat Old Hickory Academy in Jackson that night.
By 1978, the Rebels were 0-10, losing overtime games to Chester County and Dyer County. My four years in high school, McKenzie was 5-35.
In the subsequent years, McKenzie managed some pretty good teams and had a few playoff runs that were exciting, but nothing that sustained. Again, you never know how your team is going to do because there are so many variables. McKenzie always has been that pinball between Class A and AA, sometimes, teams in the area have just been better. Success is attainable, but never easy.
You have to plan for it. You have to work for it. You have to have vision.
I remember learning about McKenzie’s ascension back in the late 1990s. Coaches I dealt with told me my alma mater was an up-and-coming program. In 2001, it seemingly came together. The Rebels were 13-0 and about to host Martin-Westview, also 13-0 and featuring future Green Bay Packer Justin Harrell.
I recall writing a letter to the editor about my closeness to both programs (I covered Martin-Westview for 11 seasons), which, I’m told, generated a lot of positivity. As good as the Rebels were that year, Westview was just better and defeated the Rebels handily in the state semifinals, McKenzie’s first foray in that round.
I covered that game that night for a variety of publications and radio stations that night. I introduced myself to MHS coach Wade Comer that night and congratulated him on the great season. A year later, I was covering McKenzie full time.
I recall walking into the field house on a Sunday afternoon to introduce myself again to the coach a few weeks before the season started. It was evident that Coach Comer and and I were going to get along fine.
People were still excited about a semifinal appearance, but I heard lamentations around town that it will be a while before McKenzie returns to that pinnacle again. The team lost too many seniors, the passing league results weren’t very good, the schedule was too daunting. I heard it all.
A funny thing happened along the way. These Rebels had caught a taste of success brought about by planning, hard work, scheming, belief in each other. There was a thrilling playoff run where everything seemed to fall into place. And the Rebels, for the second straight year, were back in the state semifinals.
The 2002 semifinals didn’t work out much better, but stepping stones were being laid. There were a few playoff disappointments along the way, but in 2007, a bulky Mt. Pleasant team fell victim and the Rebels were headed to the state championship, where an explosive South Pittsburg team exposed MHS to life among the elite.
There would be some disappointing moments. A costly fumble, a controversial mixed extra point and a few other things in subsequent semifinal games kept the Rebels on the sidelines.
It’s hard to get everything to line up. You can have everything go your way, but an injury, a turnover, a team with one more playmaker than yours can capsize plans for that gold ball. Indy 500 champ Gordon Johncock once said that luck is when opportunity meets preparation. Former Texas coach Darrell Royal, himself a national title winner, said luck doesn’t go looking for stumble bums.
It takes preparation, belief in the plan, belief in the coaches and teammates. And it takes a bit of luck and things falling into the right place.
McKenzie has had big-name football players like Ricky Mathis, Drew Hayes, Derek Carr, Colin Vinson, Marquez Taylor and Jackson Cassidy. This program has produced dozens of all-staters over the last 20 years or so. But to win at the highest level requires everything to fall into place.
Last year’s championship game was a bitter pill to swallow. The Rebels were oh-so close. But this team, individually and collectively, had subtle reminders admonishing them to finish the job this year.
For Comer, it’s been a long time in coming. He’s been close, but he forged the foundation and stuck with it. For these kids, they’ve taken seriously their commitment to this program and the stated goals. This championship is as much the players who began this journey back in the early 2000s as it is today’s heroes.
I think, given my association with folks across the state, it always was believed Comer would eventually hoist a gold ball. Coaches and media routinely said it was a matter of time. It took a while, but Comer always was on the right path.
Friday, that path was paved in gold.
Not bad for a guy who always wanted to be a football coach.
Jim Steele is a correspondent for Magic Valley Publishing and the host of The Pressbox radio show, which airs 4-6 p.m. CT, Monday-Thursday on 95.9 FM, WRJB, Camden, Tenn.