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Ray Glier | September 3, 2013

A good kid

Football in Alabama, and the lessons learned from a tragedy in Choctaw County

This is why football is so important in Alabama.

Otties William Brewer III, a good kid, failed algebra his freshman year at Southern Choctaw High School, which meant he was ineligible to play for Coach Jeremy Noland at the start of his sophomore year, which meant Otties William Brewer II, his father, was not happy.

Mr. Brewer was not happy because William, who everyone called "BooBoo," was now missing football practice. Even though BooBoo was not even officially on the team, to his father, being ineligible was the same as quitting. William still needed to be out there, his father said, to learn the essence of playing football, which is discipline, teamwork and resolve. The elder Brewer, who drives a truck and looks like he could flip one over, wanted the grit and perseverance that football requires to rub off on his son. He wanted his son to be part of the team, part of something larger.

He ordered William to march into Noland's office and request some football-related duties. Noland agreed and made William a team manager. He became the guardian of the water bottles, so precious during practice in the August steam, the young man who would carry the footballs out to the field, and the guy who would scamper for ice whenever one of the Indian players turned an ankle. William, who likely would have played center, was also ordered by his father to pay attention to formations and what plays were called and learn as much football as he could without actually playing. There was always next year.

William was an enthusiastic member of the Southern Choctaw Indians right up until he died.

Bamawilliam_mediumOtties William Brewer III, courtesy of the Brewer family

William was an enthusiastic member of the Southern Choctaw Indians right up until he died at 12:03 a.m. Sept. 3, 2011.

William was in the second row, aisle seat, passenger side of the yellow Choctaw County school bus, No. 07-9, one of two team buses hauling the Southern Choctaw Indians back from a Friday night game at Flomaton, a 35-7 loss. They were being escorted by both an Alabama state trooper and Choctaw County Sheriff's cruiser, one in front and the other behind. The first bus, driven by the head coach Noland and carrying mostly veteran varsity players, safely rolled through the intersection of State Routes 84 and 69.

Bus No. 07-9 carrying the younger varsity players, did not make it through the intersection.It was struck on the left rear fender, driver's side, by a 1999 Nissan Maxima that hurtled through a stop sign.

The bus, driven by Judy Franks, the softball coach, the only occupant with a seat belt, had already traveled 93 miles when it reached the intersection at Coffeeville. The Indians still had almost 20 miles to go to reach sanctuary at the front door of the Southern Choctaw High School gym when the Nissan collided with the bus.

When the car hit, it drove up under the bus, lifting the back left side off the road and the larger vehicle rolled onto its roof. Except for Franks, everyone and everything in the bus -- football helmets and shoulder pads, water bottles and backpacks -- tumbled through the air inside, boys banging into the seats, the walls, the ceiling and each other. The bus slid, sheet metal screeching on asphalt, and finally stopped at the edge of a ditch on the side of the road in front of the GoCo gas and convenience store, equipment spilling out the windows and scattering over on the ground.

William Brewer, who authorities believe was asleep when the accident occurred, tumbled from his seat and died of a head injury. He was 15-years-old.

There were four men in the Nissan Maxima. Two jumped out of the car immediately, took off running toward the bridge over the Tombigbee River and had to be tracked by canines from a local prison. One went to the hospital. One stayed at the car to talk to police. The driver of the car, Brandon Randolph Jackson, who took off on foot, was arrested and is still in jail on charges of vehicular homicide and hindering prosecution. His trial is set for Sept. 4.

After the bus flipped and rolled, there was panic, of course, and screaming and hollering. Billy Covington and Dustin James, two sophomore players and pals of Williams', were in the back of the bus. Billy said Dustin opened the rear emergency door and all the kids and coaches scrambled out, either unhurt or with only relatively minor injuries, all except William. He left behind his father, his mother Allana, and younger sister Ashley, 13-years-old.

Dozens of friends will never forget his flashbulb smile. "He was a big-hearted kid," said his father. "William couldn't walk past somebody being sad without trying to make them smile."

Mr. Brewer looked out on the football field for moment, as if he was imagining his son playing center. This would have been his senior year. "He looked like me a few years ago," William Brewer said as he patted his ample stomach, "but he had lost some of this and he looked good, he was adding muscle for football, he was getting in shape."

In pictures, he always holds his head high, proudly showing his round cheeks on top of a wide smile. He was only 5'8, but his big personality made him seem taller. His principal, Dr. Leo Leddon, Jr., said William was an LSU fan and when the Tigers would beat the Tide, William would stand in the middle of the hallway and make sure Dr. Leddon saw this big fat grin.

William also played the saxophone in the band and wasn't at all shy. Covington said his friend had a politician's vibe. "He would see somebody he didn't know and stick his hand out and say 'Hi, I'm William Brewer.'

"He was a good kid," said Covington.

"He was a good kid," said Leddon, the principal.

"He was a good kid," said his father.

What happened in the next seven days in memory of a good kid -- and what happened over the following year in memory of a good kid -- is why Alabama is perhaps the No. 1 football state in the country. It's why 100,000 people squeeze inside Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, and 80,000 inside Jordan-Hare Stadium at Auburn, and one reason the national championship trophy of college football has lived in the state of Alabama for so long -- four straight years -- it needs to start paying taxes.

***

In the late summer and fall, football drenches nearly every household, neighborhood, town and city in the state. Sunday is a holy day, but they pray on Friday and Saturday, too, usually right before kickoff. When one local football coach declared his team would practice Sundays, some folks gasped, but most understood. There was plenty of time for both traditions on Sunday, Church and football -- in that order, of course.

Southern Choctaw is a small high school, located on Alabama State Route 17, about halfway between Silas and Gilbertown. The region is in the southern tier of what is known as the "Black Belt," in part because of the rich, loamy soil, but also because as many one million African-Americans were once enslaved working on plantations. Now small farms and other entrepreneurial endeavors have replaced the cotton fields and mills that once dominated the area. Georgia-Pacific, the Atlanta-based paper and pulp company, and its consumer products division, is the largest large employer in the area. While money may grow on trees, jobs don't. The pulp mills and the catfish farms in Choctaw and other neighboring counties employ relatively few people, and those who have those jobs tend to keep them for a long time.

One of only two public schools in the county of 14,000, Southern Choctaw serves 192 students grades 9-12, and, like the rest of the county, is split more or less evenly along racial lines. The other public high school, Choctaw County, is in Butler, 17 miles to the north, and there are also two private schools, which opened after integration, South Choctaw Academy and Patrician Academy.

they all know each other's names, and the bonds they forge with one another are deep, genuine and long lasting.

Southern Choctaw is 151 miles west of Montgomery, 94 miles north of Mobile, and 118 miles south of Tuscaloosa. Its students live scattered about the southern half of the county, in Cullomburg, Toxey, Bladon Springs, Barrytown, Isney and everywhere in between, but in such a remote, rural area, they all know each other's names, and the bonds they forge with one another are deep, genuine and long lasting.

Football is more than football in Alabama, and people here know what you mean when you say that. When they all hang together Friday and Saturday nights in the fall, they usually do so at a football game. So when tragedy struck the Southern Choctaw High School Indians, a small 2-A program, the school community turned to football to help cover the wound. They always have.

***

Gilbertown, with one stoplight, seems cryogenically frozen, with the same storefront buildings as it had 20 years ago. Due to the dwindling population and lack of jobs, there is virtually no new construction, and it's not much different elsewhere in the county. Tommy Campbell, the publisher of the Choctaw Sun-Advocate, the local weekly newspaper, said the county is losing 1,000 residents every 10 years. The young are moving out.

Although the economy may be sagging, there is still intense loyalty to this place. Campbell, a sixth-generation Choctaw County resident, and his wife Dee Ann, once left to take newspaper jobs in North Carolina. They stayed only a short while, and then moved back because their children were homesick.

Football endures. It is one of the few constants, one of the few things that move the communities forward together, even in the midst of what could drive it apart, sometimes has and sometimes still does.

Football endures. It is one of the few constants, one of the few things that move the communities forward together.

"New" Southern Choctaw High School opened in March 2005 in Gilbertown, but many still refer to the school and its team as Silas, the nearby town where the high school was located for more than 75 years before it moved.

The team "up north," Choctaw County High School, is usually referred to as "Butler" because it is in Butler, the county seat. To hear the Southern Choctaw-Silas folks talk, it's as if Choctaw County High School supporters fought for the Union at Gettysburg. Forget that when the folks in Butler give directions they say, "You go up a heel and down a heel," which is "up and a hill and down a hill" and all their "y'alls" are completely authentic. White or black, in southern Choctaw County residents of Butler and the students of Choctaw County H.S. are still regarded as "the folks up north."

Vernon Underwood, the Choctaw County superintendent of schools for seven years, said that, historically, the southern part of the county was more white than black and maybe that's how the intense rivalry between the two public high schools started, but now it's mostly just about football. Underwood is African-American and was elected by the white citizens on the south end of the county and black citizens on the north end. They could agree on some things, he says, but not everything, and for a long time, not even about football.

Both sides -- Southern Choctaw High School and Choctaw County High School -- refer to the school zone boundary that crosses Route 17 as the "Mason-Dixon Line." The road on top of that "heel" is inappropriately named Pleasant Hill. During football season, the fire tower might as well be a lookout post for intruders from either end of the county.

"The south end, we have always been a small school, while Butler was once a 5-A," said Wayne Banks, who went to Silas and whose son, Jeffrie, played there. "On the north end, the kids drive their own cars to school, their parents work in the paper mill, and the kids get more. [But] The north end does not have the control of their kids like we do in the south. You leave the south and go to the north, it's a whole different world."

Banks, who owns a grocery with his mother and also owns Banks Pallet Company, has pulled the chains and the yard markers at Southern Choctaw-Silas football games for 27 years, so, of course, he is somewhat biased against "Butler." His loyalty is intriguing because when Silas was integrated in the late ‘60s, all the white kids walked out. Banks was not even allowed to play football there because of the color of his skin, and Underwood, then the successful football coach at the black school, was not permitted to coach. Still, Banks refers to Southern Choctaw as "my school."

Coach Noland says of the Butler-Silas rivalry, "It's not that bad." But it's not that good, either.

The Campbells, who run the newspaper, said that when parents were surveyed about consolidating the two high schools in the small county, restructuring was ruled out. Parents said it had to do with the rivalry in athletics, a rivalry that also includes the two private academies, South Choctaw and Patrician.

"We proposed a fund-raiser for charity where there would be a four-school Jamboree. South Choctaw Academy, Southern Choctaw, Patrician, Choctaw County, would play each other," said DeAnn. "It would have raised a lot of money, but the people didn't want to hear of it, even for charity."

Wayne Banks will not admit the belief that the majority of parents sending their children to the two private schools do so for racial reasons. He thinks academics and the fact that in the private schools students can pray all day has something to do with it, but he believes it's mostly because of football.

He really means it. Football is really that important in Alabama.

"They go to those small [private] schools and they can play football," Banks said of the students that attend the two academies. "But if they come here to [Southern Choctaw] Silas, they don't get as much playing time."

Still, there's no lack of talent. South Choctaw Academy, which is in Toxey, has won a private school division state football championship. So has Patrician Academy, in Butler.

In one conversation, a prominent area man connected with Southern Choctaw High School football, who did not want to be named, leaned forward in his chair and smirked, "You know the one school around here that hasn't won a state title don't you? Butler."

He smiled wide and leaned back in his chair and smirked some more. Indeed, Butler has not beaten Southern Choctaw/Silas since 2001. Meanwhile Southern Choctaw/Silas has won three state championships (1998, 1999, and 2002) and played for the title in 2005. Winning a state championship is the dream of most boys who play football, or who want to play football, and William Brewer was no different.

"We call those state championships ‘national championships'," said David Lewis, a former assistant coach with Southern Choctaw. He was sitting in the 90-degree heat outside Banks Grocery on Route 14 explaining the culture of Southern Choctaw/Silas football and how, in the 1970s, after integration, the black kids from Shady Grove and the white kids from Gilbertown came together and created a powerhouse at the school.

"There's some pastor up on the north side talking that this is the year Butler takes down the Indians," Lewis said. "The man has been around here but three years. He don't know."

***

It doesn't always take a tragedy to get people to look after one another here, but when one does strike, it creates a bond.

Bamaprayer_mediumCourtesy of the Choctaw Sun-Advocate

Still, despite the divisions, this is a place where you look after theirs and they look after yours.

It doesn't always take a tragedy to get people to look after one another here, but when one does strike, it creates a bond. While that bond might loosen its grip when the tears stop, that doesn't always happen. Sometimes the goodwill can linger.

People in the county can cite examples of that. Jeffrie Banks was 13-years-old and working in his father's pallet shop when his arm was cut off below the elbow. He planned on playing football and baseball at Southern Choctaw. The accident was devastating to everyone but Jeffrie, who told his parents, "I'll be all right."

When the finally came home from the hospital, there were balloons lining the fence in front of the family's house for 100 yards on Melvin Road/Route 14, and they were put there by white and black folks. And with the help of the community, Jeffrie ended up all right, just as he promised. Even with a prosthetic arm he hit .456 his senior year at Southern Choctaw High School, played wide receiver in the state championship football game in 1998 and caught a play-action pass for a touchdown as Silas won a state title. That was a long time ago, but for Wayne Banks it is more proof that Choctaw County is special place, and the kind of place that makes Alabama special.

"This is a small county, but even from the private school sector, when something happens like it did with the Brewer boy and Jeffrie, all the boundary lines are torn down and everyone comes together, black and white, that's the truth," said Banks. "Trust me, these people will come together. They will pour out, private and public, white and black, to help folks.

"No matter the reason why we have these two private schools, when there is a tragedy this small little county comes together.It's really amazing. You would think this county is split black and white, but when something like this happens, people throw all that stuff out the window. It is an amazing thing."

It is a remarkable statement coming from a man, whose mother, Annie, was the first African-American to work in the sewing mill in Needham in 1966. On her first day her supervisor stayed home after somebody called to say they were going to blow up the building because the mill had hired an African-American. Annie worked by herself, alone in a room for six months because none of the white women would sit with her.

Tragedy is not reserved for Southern Choctaw High School, and it is not the only place in Choctaw County where football eases pain. In 2008,Randall Jackson, a Southern Choctaw graduate and local contractor, lost his wife, Becky, to cancer. In 2009, his little girl, Heidi, was diagnosed with leukemia.

The Jacksons live right across the street from the South Choctaw Academy football field. The day Randall brought Heidi home from a 17-day stay in the hospital, SCA was playing football. The crowd stopped watching and many came to the fence, waving balloons and signs of encouragement as they cheered for the little girl.

"All you could do was cry," Randall Jackson said.

***

Bus2_mediumCourtesy of the Choctaw Sun-Advocate

After the bus accident, half of the Indians' football equipment -- shoulder pads and helmets -- was strewn about and unusable. According to state regulations, when equipment is involved in an accident, it has to be re-certified as safe to use. Noland, the head coach, had to gather it up and send it to the manufacturer, Riddell, to be examined, a process that can take weeks. There was barely enough equipment left to hold a full practice.

Noland, just 32-years-old and in his third season as head coach, guided the program through the week and prepared the team, as best he could, to play Leroy the following Friday. Assistant coach Dana Adams, had his shoulder in a sling, an injury from the bus crash, and the boys were emotionally banged up, but wanted to play. Still, Noland didn't know if he would have enough gear.

And then something happened. It was the same kind of thing that happened when Jeffrie Banks lost his arm and the little girl got cancer, something that shows how much football matters in Alabama and something about the might and measure of the people -- both those who love the game and even those who don't, but understand what it means here.

On Monday, two days after the accident, the same day as William Brewer's funeral, several cars and a truck pulled up to the doors outside the Southern Choctaw High School gymnasium. A tailgate flipped down, trunks popped open, and shoulder pads and helmets of all sizes and colors were unloaded for the Indians to use in their next game. There were black helmets from the high school in Leroy, green helmets from the one in Millry, white helmets from Clarke County. The Indians' colors are red, but they probably would have played in pink, just so they could play, so they took the borrowed equipment with glee and got ready to play a game.

Play a game? Didn't a child just die?

"Somebody mentioned something about postponing the game," William's father said. "William would have wanted us to play the game. We were going to play the game. I never thought they were going to postpone the game."

A few days after the accident, Flomaton High School, which had defeated Southern Choctaw the night of the accident, sent a $1,200 donation and a William Brewer Scholarship Fund was started. The arms started wrapping around the kids left behind at the high school.

There was a service for William Brewer at White's Chapel in nearby Cullomburg, an all-black church, and a collection was taken up and given to the Brewers, who are white. The other three high schools in the county, Choctaw County High, South Choctaw Academy and Patrician Academy, also made donations. Goodwill and generosity just flowed.

"the students here found out how much people cared about them. That was important."

A delegation of coaches and starting players from Choctaw County High went to the funeral, a much-appreciated gesture of support. The Butler community sent food for the funeral service and left dozens of expressions of sympathy on Facebook.

Bamasign_mediumCourtesy of the Choctaw Sun-Advocate

"We were in mourning,"said Leddon, "and the students here found out how much people cared about them. That was important."

When Friday came, and time to play Leroy, the stands at the stadium were packed with 4,000 people. They stuffed themselves into the cement grandstands whether they had a child at the school, or not. Randall Jackson once attended Southern Choctaw. Even though his son, Brandon, played at the private white high school, South Choctaw Academy, and his daughter, Heidi, attends SCA, Jackson showed up and dropped money in a hat like a lot of others from all over the county. Now it was his turn to give.

The players wore black armbands that read "WB." A local insurance company made "WB" T-shirts. Leroy had won the 2-A state championship in 2010 and Southern Choctaw/Silas was a decided underdog coming off not only a big loss, but also a horrible experience, yet on that night the memory of William Brewer was the 12th man on the field.

"We wanted to win so bad for William," said Covington. "We dedicated that Leroy game to him. We were hyped."

Noland somehow prepared his team in spite of the tragedy, and Savon McCoy ran the opening kickoff back 80 yards for the Indians. For most of the next 48 minutes, it appeared as if Southern Choctaw could pull off an upset, only to lose on the last play of the game, 20-14.

"Not a dry eye in the place," said Jackson about the game. When William Brewer died, Jackson had remembered where he came from. In tragedy, it was as if Jackson had never left the school. Like everyone else in the county, he felt it was important to be there, to show he cared.

And in the time since William Brewer died, in ways large and small, people have kept caring.

And in the time since William Brewer died, in ways large and small, people have kept caring. A year after the accident, Under Armor donated brand new jerseys to the Indians and Phil Savage, the executive director of the Senior Bowl in Mobile, showed up to deliver them during an on-field ceremony before the 2012 Southern Choctaw-Flomaton game. The public address announcer was so overwhelmed by emotion he could barely finish introductions.

That same night, members of the Flomaton Quarterback Club walked up to Leddon at the concession stand and handed him another $1,000 for the William Brewer Scholarship Fund.

But it didn't stop with the death of William Brewer. Caring runs both ways on Route 17, north and south. Last March, a fire in Butler destroyed 25,000-square feet of a wing of Choctaw County High School. People came running to help, again.

The faculty at Patrician Academy, from which you can see Choctaw Count High through the winter woods, rummaged through closets and desks and for any spare equipment or supplies and carried them over to Choctaw.

"It haunts me, it still haunts me," said Noland about William Brewer's death. "It was an amazing thing to see the community pull together in a tragedy. It's too bad it took a tragedy to do it. It should be like that all the time."

Sure, there are communities all over America that take care of one another following a tragedy, but in these rural outposts in Alabama, football is as vital as air conditioning and it is especially vital when life turns upside down, when the pain of death burns deep inside. Communities want to mourn together, and in Choctaw County, that means a football game on Friday night.

That's maybe one reason William Brewer's father is still part of the football program at Southern Choctaw. He considers one of the players, whose parents are not very involved in their son's life, his "adopted son" and he badgers him over his grades like most any other father, keeping the young man eligible for football.

And even if his own son was still alive, he would probably still do so anyway.

***

In the wake of his son's death, William Brewer II wants a law for seat belts in buses for kids who ride these dangerous two-lane roads to school and to so many football games. It is a 120-mile trip for Southern Choctaw to Flomaton for a game and 39 miles to Sweet Water and 43 miles to Leroy and 17 miles to the Indians "cross-town" rival, Butler. Most of the travel is on two-lane roads with oncoming cars going 60 miles an hour just an arm's length away. "You don't drive and text on these roads," David Lewis said.

Driving here is hazardous. Noland got an assistant coaching job at Southern Choctaw in 2004 after assistant coach Cornelius Mitchell was killed in a motorcycle accident, and Leddon still shakes his head with despair over all the local students who have died traveling on the same roads. For years, many families have wanted the same law that William Brewer is pushing for, but their pleas, and his, have gone nowhere.

And so, you ask yourself, if William Brewer II can't get seat belts in a bus for kids going to football games, what impact did his son's death have on the community, really?

Leddon believes it had plenty. William Brewer's picture is up in the cafeteria as a reminder to students that people care about them, and will continue caring. There is also the William Brewer Scholarship Fund, now funded by the Southern Choctaw's boosters and coaches, providing a small scholarship to either a football player or a member of the band.

Eddie Abston, who works for the water department in Gilbertown and calls the football games on Internet radio, will not say that life rolls on the same way as before William died.

"People understand you got to live together in this county. That was a reminder."

"I think there is a little more harmony now since William's death," Abston said. "People understand you got to live together in this county. That was a reminder."

Abston thought about the local divisions and the rivalries and how, in spite of these, the community is pulled together by what they share -- their children and football.

"I think we can all agree why the private schools were started years ago, it was because of segregation," he said. "But things have never been that bad between communities. There is some ill will, especially with the football, but things have never been bad."

Dee Ann Campbell said the jealousies and rivalries are not going to the scrap heap with William Brewer's death, but the community grows closer when tragedy strikes and it turns down the heat on the feud between Butler and Silas and the other nearby schools.

"The bus accident did profoundly affect our community, from north to south -- as does nearly every tragedy that occurs here," Campbell said. "It is a fact of life here: We are divided in rivalries, differences and divisions of race and geographic areas. Yet we are a 'family' when one of our own is hurting."

That's part of living in a rural community in a lot of places. It is just that here in southwest Alabama, football is the where the community comes together. In his recently released documentary "Three Days at Foster" writer/director Keith Dunnavant insists the integration of the Alabama football program in the early 1970s helped integrate the rest of the state because black and white started winning championships together for Bear Bryant.  What happened after the bus accident that killed William Brewer underscores just how important football can be in such a place. Football was like a hero, providing something powerful to rally around.

Indeed, the allure of football here is so strong it washes over anyone who comes in contact with it. That's why Otties William Brewer II wanted his son to play football in the first place. He and Allana taught their son some basic values. They looked to football to provide the rest.

"When Nick Saban gets these small town Alabama boys they have some discipline," said Lewis of the kind of boys he once coached in Choctaw County.

"I had the sheriff tell me one time, ‘I can count the boys from the south side in my jail tonight.' There were none. The boys wanted to stay out of trouble and play football."

One the second day of school this year, which would have been his son's senior year, Mr. Brewer visited practice and was standing outside the gates to the field when Coach Noland got irritated at a player who was not paying attention to the coaching. The Indians had just 26 players dressed for practice, but when the player continued to be obstinate, Noland told the player if he didn't behave, he could quit and not come back, no matter how depleted it might leave his team. After a moment, the player conformed and practice rolled on.That's the kind of lesson Brewer was hoping his son would learn playing football in Alabama.

Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Glenn Stout | Copy Editor: Kevin Fixler

About the Author

Glier

Ray Glier is a freelance journalist based in Atlanta. He covers Major League Baseball for USA TODAY and MLB.com.

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