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Bogue Chitto athlete gets an assist from above

Basketball practice is over in Bogue Chitto.

The white jerseys and black jerseys gather up at half court, and a divided team is whole again. The coach stands in their midst and shares his analysis of the afternoon’s work. The region’s top team visits in two days, and these lessons are among the last. They are precious.

He finishes, and the players press in close. Sweaty hands reach out to clasp damp shoulders, and a dozen teenage boys connect as one. Eyes close and heads bow toward the hardwood as the team goes to God in prayer. The coach steps out of the circle, to keep the lawyers away, and junior forward Damarcus Godbolt leads the Bobcats in petition to the Almighty.

“I thank him for waking us up in the morning, for freeing our minds, for bringing us to school,” Damarcus said. “I ask him to give us a good practice without injuries. I thank him for all His blessings.”

It’s expected that Damarcus, 17, is the team’s spiritual communicator. He leads his team in prayer before and after every practice, before and after every game. Sometimes he asks one or two of his peers to take over, and sometimes they do.

Most of the time, it’s him.

He’s picked up a nickname in the locker room — Preacher Boy. He makes the most of it. He never shies away from lifting his voice in prayer. He’s active in his church. When he runs across a passage of scripture that moves him, he’s happy to record his explanation in a 10-minute sermon and post the video online.

He reads from his copy of the Word, a New International Version teen study Bible. It was given to him anonymously when he first became filled with the spirit, less than a year ago, and he keeps it in an oversized leather cover cut with John 3:16 in pretty letters. It was a gift from his mother, LaMeshia McMorris.

Wherever Damarcus goes, his little Bible goes with him. To school, to practice, on the bus, to basketball games. He reads it, at least a little bit, every day. He started where God did, in the beginning, and has read from Genesis 1:1 to II Chronicles so far.

“I prayed to God that I needed a Bible, and he gave me one. It meant a lot to me. Whenever I have spare time, I read it,” Damarcus said. “Even if there’s no time to read, I just like to have it around, for assurance.”

Damarcus craves the blessed assurance. He didn’t always have it. Like every sinner raised in the Bible Belt, he always knew Jesus Christ was out there, somewhere, but he wasn’t worried about it.

“My grandmothers, Sally Godbolt and Gladys Calhoun, taught me from an early age about prayer. But I wasn’t too faithful. I just didn’t think going to church and reading the Bible was important,” he said. “I was living my own way, devoting time to myself.”

But not long after he turned 16, Damarcus ran into some problems. He battled depression. He suffered panic attacks. He didn’t know why. Seeking answers, he took up an invitation to church.

“It convicted me in my heart. I wanted more of it,” he said. “I started working through it slowly. The depression went away. I always knew Jesus died for me, but I didn’t understand it until it hit me. I think God has to come prick your heart himself to get the message across.”

Damarcus said his conversion led to the time of his life. He was charged with Christian energy, engaged in scriptural discovery, sharing the fire with his friends and teammates.

And then, a nightmare.

On Sunday, May 28, 2017, Damarcus’s uncle, Cory Godbolt, was arrested and charged with the murder of eight people across Lincoln County.

“I felt empty,” Damarcus said. “I felt nothing. All I could do was pray.”

In Lincoln County, the name “Godbolt” brings about images of death. Violence. Murder. That day, several families lost loved ones.

Damarcus lost someone, too.

“Cory and I were really close,” he said. “He worked out with me, helped me get stronger, encouraged me to be good at football.”

The news spread across the nation on a dark Sunday morning. A hopeless sunrise found Damarcus lost.

Bogue Chitto basketball coach Mark Pitts left his home in Terry, drove to Bogue Chitto to find Damarcus and took him away.

“I don’t want to say, ‘trapped,’ but Damarcus was enclosed,” Pitts said. “His family, on the right hand, was affected by them being victims. His family on the left hand, by Cory being the perpetrator. I picked him up and took him away from Bogue Chitto.”

Pitts took Damarcus back to his home. They ate. They talked. They walked over Pitts’ property, a small farm where he keeps a few head of cattle and horses.

“I didn’t know what to say, you know? But my thought process was to get him out of the situation,” Pitts said. “Every man needs another man they can turn to. I tried to be that man for Damarcus. I try to do that for all my players.”

Damarcus said his coach’s intervention slowed things down for him, helped him heal. He got his head right and faced Bogue Chitto, ready to be judged for his name. But he wasn’t. Instead, he said the community loved him.

Eventually, he talked to Cory Godbolt by phone at the Copiah County Jail.

“I keep praying for him. It’s hard to forgive, but you gotta do it,” Damarcus said. “I can look at what’s left of his house after they burned it, I can think back on old times. But that hole in my heart was filled by Jesus — he already filled it. As long as I have Jesus, I’ll be alright.”

Damarcus also lost a cousin, 18-year-old Jordan Blackwell, in the shootings. Jordan was a regular around Bogue Chitto, knew the Bobcats and played pickup basketball with them in the gym.

His father, Shon Blackwell, has publicly called for the community — and the families involved — to seek healing. When the shock and hurt were fresh and tender in the middle of last year, Shon buried his son, cleared his throat and reminded everyone the Godbolt family was suffering, too.

“Our family is a close-knit family. People who are cousins act more like brothers,” he said. “I raised Cory pretty much like a little brother, and I know he’s someone Damarcus really looked up to. My heart goes out to Damarcus. I know he’s torn — he’s so close to both sides of the family, and he’s kind of stuck in the middle.”

Blackwell, a vocal Christian who serves as vice president of the Lincoln County Ministers Alliance, said even he, at 44 years old, still feels confused about the murders. He said he was impressed, thankful, that Damarcus’s faith has been strong against the tragedy.

“I love Damarcus. I’m proud of the young man he’s become. He’s showing what a Christian should do, what ‘Christ-like’ should be,” Blackwell said. “I’m excited to see his growth in Christ.”

For the Bobcats, Damarcus’ growth in his faith has led to his growth as a basketball player. His belief system has made him a leader on the court and in the locker room.

“He always had it in him before it came out,” Pitts said. “He always goes 120 percent. Now, his faith has made him more confident. He believes he can achieve. We always talk about faith without works being dead. Works are how you receive your blessings. At the same time, you can work as hard as you can, but if you don’t have faith, you won’t realize your gifts.”

Damarcus said there are similarities between Christianity and basketball. Neither one is easy. Both require practice, hard work, a commitment through hard times in the pursuit of a prize beyond value.

“It’s not an easy life. Sometimes you feel isolated,” he said. “But it teaches you perseverance. Next time you face a challenge, you’re more prepared. I have a hope that I’m God’s child, no matter if I’m poor, I’m lower class, I’m black, I’m white, I’m disabled. I have a hope and a joy, and I don’t have to be scared.”