ROCHELLE — Sunday, just west of here along the road to Cordele, there was a funeral at the Pitts Church of God.
In fields nearby, the harvest season’s cotton crop beamed in sunshine; fall’s halftime show, aglow as game time at the football stadium back in town where Bobbie Brown had herself been a beacon Friday nights.
She sometimes arrived hours early to nab a seat on the 50-yard line to survey her Wilcox County High School Patriots and, on occasion, snap at referees. In her early 70s and suffering from heart trouble and leukemia, she still ventured to road games even if, every so often, she had to stop and catch her breath on the hike from her car to the visitors’ bleachers.
Win or lose, when games ended, she hugged players’ necks. For the last two decades of her life, the Patriots were her extended family and she was their grandma.
Brown, who was 72, died on Thanksgiving. She was buried three days later, outfitted in a brand-new, royal-blue Patriots sweatshirt. Six football players decked out in jerseys served as pallbearers.
“The funeral home asked us about doing visitation Friday,” her son Lenny said earlier this week. “I told them, ‘My mama don’t want nobody looking at her Friday night. She wants everybody at the football game.’ ’’
At the game, the Pats, who’d trekked north of Atlanta for a third-round playoff tilt, knocked off top-ranked Wesleyan and advanced to the state semifinals for the second time in three years.
The Wilcox squad, made up of about a sixth of the school’s 386 students, hails from a town of roughly 1,800 people and a county of about four times that many.
One of 70 or so Class A teams in Georgia, Wilcox has never, since it began fielding football teams in 1956, won a state crown. Tonight, with a berth in the state title game on the line, the Pats travel to Homerville, in south Georgia, for a clash with Clinch County.
Lenny Brown, whose oldest son is the team water boy, says his mother, Bobbie, “may not be in the stands, but she’ll be looking over them.”
So, too, will a community.
When they are successful, teams from these out-of-the-way places tend to attract all-hands-on-deck followings, heralding affirmations of country living.
“We’ve got football and we’ve got peanuts and cotton,” Mark Ledford, the head football coach, says. “That’s what we’ve got.”
Before last week’s upset win, Lenny Brown, who paints tanks and Humvees at the Marine base over in Albany, ran across the online sports message board posting of a fan of No. 1 Wesleyan, where tuition runs $17,500 a year. The posting, a dig at Pats fans considering the trip from Wilcox County to Norcross, read, “We have no tractor parking.”
That irked Lenny Brown. He fired back, “I hope you ain’t talking with your mouth full when you’re talking about our tractors, because if it wasn’t for us down here, what would you eat up there?”
Rochelle, incorporated in 1888, was named by a railroad honcho’s daughter who was passing through after a voyage to Europe. It translates to “little rock” in French.
Twenty-five miles south of Hawkinsville, the town has embraced its footballers. You can’t miss the “Go Big Blue” in the window at Trisha’s Beauty and Tanning Salon on First Avenue, the main drag.
Amanda Keene Brown, who manages Mashburn & Fitzgerald, the downtown hardware store, considers football “family business.”
“Most all of us are related to somebody on the team,” she says.
Just up the street, Wendell Barwick, Wilcox class of ’76, who works at Doster’s peanut warehouse, says, “It’s just a tight-knit family. You can be at odds with somebody, but when it comes to a football game, everybody’s friends.”
Bobby Gibbs, the county tax commissioner over in Abbeville, who starred on the Pats’ first-ever final-four team in 1970 and went on to play at the University of Georgia, says, “We don’t have a lot of big business. One of the main commodities we have is our children. ... Our people look forward to this.”
None more so, perhaps, than the stadium’s namesake, Donnie Clack.
Clack, the school’s athletic director, played on the Pats’ 0-10 team as a freshman in 1962. He took the helm as head coach in 1980, guiding the squad on final-four runs in ’86, ’88 and ’89.
“We’re playing for what we never have had, that ring. That’s what’s driving us. ... State championships are not easy to win for a little old place like we are,” Clack says.
“A place like this, you don’t get a guy to come in here and coach from Alabama or Tennessee or South Carolina and stay. It’s too small. There’s just nothing to keep you here if you don’t want to be here to start with.”
Clack, who says he “lasted” 19 years as coach before stepping down in the late ’90s, calls Ledford another “hometown boy” like himself.
Technically from next-door Pitts, Ledford, a former Wilcox quarterback who took the coaching helm in 2001, has piloted the Pats to three straight seasons of double-digit win totals. This coming after low-point, back-to-back two-win campaigns early in the decade.
With the team at 11-2 this year, Ledford says it’s nice to still be playing when you can turn and look beyond the stadium’s north end zone and see yards on Seventh Avenue full of Christmas decorations.
“It’s kind of like the morale of our county is resting on what our team does,” Ledford says. “We’ve practiced on Thanksgiving now for four straight years. If you’re not practicing on Thanksgiving, you haven’t had a good year.”
When the team wins, parents and fans grill chicken and feed players after practice on Thursday nights.
“When we lose,” Ledford says, “we get hot dogs.”
This week, a man from a company in Atlanta that is printing programs for the state finals in the Georgia Dome next weekend called and kept pestering Ledford to e-mail him the Patriots’ roster.
Ledford had faxed it, and the man didn’t want that. The guy didn’t want to have to re-type it.
So he called back. He said, “Out of 20 schools, you’re the only one that hasn’t sent yours in. I’ve got a tight deadline.”
“Let me tell you what,” Ledford replied, having already assured the man that someone was working on e-mailing the roster. “I’ve got a tight deadline, too. Friday night I’ve got a football game, and I’m trying to get ready for it. ... Thank you, bye.’”
Later, Ledford thought about it. Here people way up in Atlanta were on the horn to little Rochelle.
Ledford knows that if his boys pull off a win tonight, about half of Wilcox County will flock to the Dome next week.
And, shoot, the home folks, they won’t need a program.
“Our people,” he says, “know who we are.”
To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.