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BHS faithful come from near, far for title test

The sun was diving for the edge of the earth and the big lightbanks at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson were just starting towarm up and turn white.

Out in the northwest parking lot, Phyllis Bratton’s “junk pot”-full of sausage, turkey necks, potatoes and corn-on-the-cob – wasbubbling hot. She would serve the hot junk and cold liquidrefreshments to about 45 friends and family of Brookhaven HighSchool Panther quarterback Duwone Harris over the next two hours,as Ole Brook’s game against the West Point Green Wave in the class5A state championship game approached.

“We’ve got to support the Brookhaven Panthers, baby!” Brattonproclaimed. “We’ve got to show them love.”

If football games were decided on love alone, the Panthers wouldhave won the championship game long before kickoff. As it turnedout, the Panthers fell to West Point 21-3.

Prior to the game, hundreds of Brookhaven supporters gathered inthe stadium lots Saturday afternoon to prepare for Ole Brook’sfirst attempt at a championship in six years, grilling, drinking,laughing, hugging and even shedding a tear or two. Fine white smokedrifted above the black asphalt as chicken, ribs, burgers andhotdogs sizzled for consumption.

It was fine food to feed fine spirits.

“Everybody’s feeling good. We’re ready. We believe,” Brattonsaid.

It was a long road for the Panthers in 2010, who overcame a 6-4regular season to win three straight playoff games as underdogs toget this far. With that kind of focus and determination, the teamdeserved a strong showing by the fans, said Linda Merchant.

“We’re going to hype ’em up. The more people they see, the moreintense they’re going to play,” she said. “If we’re ready to go,they’re going to be ready to go.”

Some fans that traveled to Jackson Saturday afternoon measuredtheir belief in the team in miles. Derrick Smith tallied more than750 miles, driving down from his home in Milwaukee, Wis., to seehis nephew, Panther offensive lineman Jawaun Merchant, play in thegame of his life. He did the same for nephew Jessie Bowman in2004.

“I told him all week I wasn’t coming. Hopefully, when he seesme, he’ll get fired up,” Smith said. “There’s nothing like comingback home to Panther country. You don’t ever know when this isgoing to happen again.”

Jennifer Ballard had five family members make a similar drivefrom Hampton, Iowa – 740 miles – to see her son, Panther offensivelineman Samuel Ballard, fight against West Point in the trenches.When she thought about that moment, the culmination of so manyyears of games and emotion and support, she wept.

“It means so much. Samuel doesn’t even know they’re here,”Ballard said.

Ethel Richardson, who came to support Panther running backTravorius Showers, has tallied up her own mileage sheet travelingto Brookhaven games all season. Her belief has not faltered, eventhrough the tough four losses of the regular season.

“We’re walking in faith. We believed they were going to be inthe championship,” she said. “This is our time. Tonight is ournight.”

While all the fans who tailgated in Jackson Saturday dideverything a little bit different, they also did everything exactlythe same – the same way they did in 2004 when the Panthers won thechampionship. Football is a superstitious undertaking.

“We had a caravan in 2004, too,” said Susie Patrick, whoorganized a procession of Ole Brook fans that traveled upInterstate 55 in unison Saturday. “We’re trying to have the samekarma. (The team) rode on the same buses, and we had the samepastor – Rev. Jerry Baldwin – speak to us. The only thing new isour slogan, ‘Keep Swinging.'”

No matter the outcome of the game, Patrick and the other OleBrook fans hold special places in their hearts for the Class of2011, football elites since they first joined together at AlexanderJunior High School.

“We’ve been taking care of these boys since they were in seventhgrade,” Patrick said. “I am proud of them whatever they do. Theyhave come together. They have stayed together. I’m going to lovethem anyway. We’ll celebrate – win, lose or draw.”