Photo | Mark Almond
All season long, the Vigor football team considered itself a vagabond, a team without a home, a team always getting on a bus to go to its next game, even when it was a so-called “home” game. It played “home” games at Ladd-Peebles Sports and Entertainment Complex until that venue was no longer available to it following a shooting during one of the Wolves’ games. It played “home” games at Blount (its rival), finished a game at Theodore, and was scheduled to play a “home” playoff game at Citronelle until questions as to why the Wolves were being asked to drive more than 30 miles to play a “home” game led to the game being played at Blount.
Vigor was a visiting team even for home games.
Turns out, the Wolves, who crushed Oneonta 52-14 last Friday afternoon at Birmingham’s Protective Stadium to win the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) Class 4A football state championship, had a home all along — Prichard. The entire community.
While the team no longer plays its games at dilapidated Prichard Stadium — school officials refused to continue playing games there last season based on the terrible conditions, not only for teams but for fans as well — the community has continued to show its support for their team.
That was made obvious Friday night when the Wolves, on its final bus trip of the season, returned to the school after its victory to find, according to head coach John McKenzie, more than 2,000 people waiting to greet the team. And not just greet the team, but embrace it and celebrate it and thank it — not just for winning a football game or title, but for restoring a sense of pride for the entire community.
“I thought [winning the state championship game] Friday was the cream of the crop and when we got back there were about 2,000 people here on campus and they were blocking the street. They stayed here from 8:30 [p.m.] when we got back to about 12:30 that morning,” said McKenzie, who had no idea those in the community would be waiting on their team.
“It was different. You would have thought we won a Super Bowl instead of a state championship. It was good for our community. And the thing about it is I didn’t see a lot of students out there. I saw a lot of grown people. That was the amazing part. It was older people — Class of ’60s and ’70s and ’80s people.
“And I didn’t think anything could top that off and the parade [on Sunday] topped that off. There was a big ole crowd out there and everybody was so happy about the accomplishment. I thought, Lord have mercy, this is mindboggling for a community and a city to rally around like that. So I guess it’s even bigger than what I thought.”
Quite a bit bigger, actually.
Vigor’s victory meant a return of the community’s identity, a return of the City of Champions.
“It’s huge,” said former Vigor standout Willie Anderson, who is a semifinalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year. “We’re trying to get a stadium for these kids. This city — our name is Vigor, and this city is the City of Champions. Our school is the school that spirit built. To have that spirit all season long and having that spirit of the city, these kids fighting, knowing what the history of Vigor football is, everybody supporting them, it’s a great feeling for the city, and it’s great for Vigor High School.”
Anderson is one of several former Vigor players who made his way to college teams and the NFL, including Robert Brazile (a Pro Football Hall of Famer), Paul Crane, Mitch Davis, Rickey Young, Scott Hunter, SenDerrick Marks, Roosevelt Patterson, Jalston Fowler, Marico Portis, Kevin Lee and others. Anderson said the community is celebrating Vigor’s state title this season as if they had won it themselves.
“This is my first state championship watching Vigor win,” said Anderson, who was on the sidelines in Birmingham last Friday. “Everyone knows this started back a few years ago. Watching these young kids come in and go through all the adversity they had this season with no stadium and being displaced all season, this is a great feeling for the city of Prichard and for these kids and for the history of Vigor and the history of Prichard. I’m super happy for these kids.
“It was great being here. I’ve caught several Vigor games over the years but I’ve never caught a state championship game. I didn’t want to jinx them. I talked to them on Thanksgiving back when we were in Prichard, but I’m happy for these kids. The whole city is proud right now.”
And like the members of the team, the whole community is celebrating. Still.
“I know our players prepared for it and worked hard to accomplish it, but I didn’t know the drive and the desire that the community had for it,” McKenzie said. “It just lit a light back into everybody, just added life back into everybody. [It was like they were saying,] ‘We’re back, we missed it so much.’
“Just to see everybody that was out there and cheering and with so much passion, it was a joyous occasion to see them celebrate the way they did. It really meant something to them. I would have hated to have been wearing the other shoe [losing the title game]. Now I realize that it meant something to the people in this community, a whole lot more than I ever perceived it to be.”
Vigor reached the state championship game back in 2018, but lost that game by a single point, 43-42. The school’s previous football state title was won in 2008 and there are the back-to-back state championships won in 1987 and 1988. The school was awarded a mythical state title in 1960 as well.
Now it has a state title in 2021 and the goal is already set — repeating as state champs again next year. Vigor has been selected by Mobile County Public School System (MCPSS) officials to be one of two schools to have a new on-campus stadium built and completed by next season; LeFlore is the other. Plans are for construction to begin on a $5.5 million structure soon, one to be completed, or such is the plan, in time for the 2022 season. It will be a home for the team and for the community. A real home. Other MCPSS schools are expected to get on-campus stadiums in the future.
“Each day you learn more about this team and its legacy,” said McKenzie, who is in his second season as the Wolves’ head coach. “I’m from a high school that is built similar, that has that kind of legacy, so I understand. I know that this is the rightful place where Vigor belongs, where Vigor is supposed to be. You hear kids talk about the 1987 and 1988 teams, the back-to-back championships, and that’s the goal. We’re going to wait and hold off on the work part for that right now, but they know what’s at stake and they know what it takes and we’re going to try to prepare for that at another time.”
As he kept his grips on the state championship trophy much of the day Saturday and Sunday — “This [trophy] ain’t going to the school, it’s going home with me,” he joked at the postgame press conference — McKenzie said the best part of all the celebrations and recognitions has been the smiles on the faces of his players.
“They feel like superstars,” he said. “Just to see the fruit of your labor. They know they put a lot of time into this and they knew they had a good football team. But they knew they could be beat because St. Paul’s beat us [in the regular-season finale]. So they always had that in the back of their mind, too.
“You know, since Dec. 7 we set two goals for our program — we said we wanted to beat our rival, Blount, and we said we wanted to win a championship on Dec. 3. … My kids wanted to play and my seniors wanted to finish. … I’m proud of them. We worked extremely hard. I don’t think anybody in the state of Alabama outworked our guys. We get them from 1 [p.m.] to 7 [p.m.] and they get Saturdays off. The rest of the time they worked toward their goals. It’s been a great run.”
Roosevelt Patterson, sporting a white Vigor jersey with green numerals and lettering, couldn’t contain himself as the final seconds ticked off the Protective Stadium scoreboard clock on Friday. He and others in the community had waited a while to celebrate and he was ready for the party to get started.
“It’s a blessing and it’s a great feeling for me to be here amongst these young kids,” he said. “They’ve done a wonderful job. I’m proud of Coach and these kids and they’re bringing this thing back to Prichard. Just to let everybody know, this is the first school [to win a state championship] in 6A, 5A and now 4A. It’s a blessing.
“They had a great year. We’re looking forward to more great years. They’re a young team, they’ll be back next year and we’re looking forward to it. Go, Wolf Pack. Love ’em.”
Winning the state championship was the goal all along, of course, and McKenzie wasn’t shy about announcing those goals to whomever would listen. At the postgame press conference, he reminded everyone of the team’s two goals.
“The process came last year. I was new to the high school game and I’m still trying to learn the landscape of it,” McKenzie said. “COVID-19 had a major effect on my first year and then we went through the season and got in the playoffs as the fourth seed and we ended up playing Handley, with me still not knowing the landscape. Handley beat us 32-25 in the first round of the playoffs and I said, ‘Whoa.’ Then when they went on to win the state championship. … We could have easily beat Handley that night with some things [happening] differently because I was still learning the landscape.
“So I said, if Handley could go on and win the state championship with all of our guys coming back, we could win this thing [this season]. We knew if we got back in the playoffs that we could win it. We had a great winter program and we went through a great spring. I think [quarterback Anthony] Mix helped our spring tremendously — that’s when his leadership started to kick in, during the spring. Then we started summer camps; we went to Auburn, LSU, West Alabama and we played against some great competition and we held our own. Then we went against some 7A schools in Mobile and we held our own. We kind of dominated everywhere we were asked to play.
“After that, we said we’re going to set two goals, with everybody working hard. Like I said, we worked extremely hard, we worked harder than anybody and we planted that seed early in our spring and summer workouts. We said we wanted to beat our rival, Blount, and we wanted to win a state championship. Then we went to work towards that. Everything we did was preparing.”
Mix, whose direction of the offense gave Vigor the edge it needed on that side of the ball, said it was a great feeling to win a state championship, especially with teammates who have formed a great bond.
“One of the biggest things, to walk out of the stadium as a state champion — it’s a different feeling,” he said. “It’s really surreal. I’m glad I get to enjoy this right now. We’re going to have fun.”
After cranking up the music in the locker room and sharing the moment with family members, the players eventually began heading for the team bus to begin the journey back to the school, back to Prichard and the unexpected celebration that awaited them.
It was some kind of bus ride, McKenzie said, who admittedly missed some of the trip as he napped along the way.
“It was enjoyable,” he said of the trip. “Just reminiscing. There were a lot of good feelings. It was a nice, smooth bus ride. I did catch a nap and tried to catch up on some sleep. But the times I was up, the phone was always ringing and the texts were continuing to come in, and that hasn’t stopped yet. Every time I think I’ve slept about two or three hours, it would just be an hour. It’s been a whirlwind, but I’ve been enjoying it. I’m still kind of tired, but I’ve been enjoying all of it.”
The road to the title began with beating Blount, which was followed by eight more consecutive wins. In the 10th game of the year, a non-regional, season finale against Class 5A St. Paul’s, the Saints defeated Vigor in a close game. Instead of the loss ending the Wolves’ momentum, it only served to refocus the team toward its remaining goal.
The Wolves shut out their first two playoff opponents, then pushed aside the three opponents that followed, including scoring 40 unanswered points against Oneonta, 34 coming in the second half.
The title game began at 11 a.m., just one of several different start times the Wolves faced this season, as well as different days of the week and, of course, different stadiums. All along the way, through all the many bus trips, either across town or across the region, an entire community was traveling with the team, pushing it along, wishing it well, sharing in a season that won’t soon be forgotten in Prichard, once again the City of Champions.
“We played on Saturday, we played on Thursday, we played on Monday, we played on Friday; we played at 11 o’clock, we played at 7 o’clock, we played at 5 o’clock. It didn’t matter,” McKenzie said. “We got on the bus every single week. It didn’t matter for us wherever you wanted to play, when we wanted to play, it didn’t matter. We knew we were going to be a great conditioned team, we were going to discipline ourselves and have a little character as to how we were going to play and we weren’t going to take second from nobody.
“I’m glad our guys stayed focused. We talked about holding on to the rope all year. Then we got to this stage and this was a great atmosphere. This is my first state championship. … It’s a great feeling and I’m going to enjoy this to the fullest. We’ve got to go back to work. I’ll give them a month off and we’ll get them back together and see if we can’t come up with some more goals.”
Vigor is back. Prichard is back. The City of Champions is back.
The celebration continues.
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