Journal class

Running out of water, prep football adapts in Mississippi’s capital

Marcus Gibson never realized how much water a high school football program was using until it was gone.

Even so, he considers his team one of the luckiest as a water crisis rocks Mississippi’s largest city.

The football coach at Murrah High School — smack in the middle of Jackson, Mississippi, not far from the state capitol — says his field has about 40 to 50 crates of bottled water stacked along the walls thanks to the players’ parents, administration and other benefactors. That should be enough to keep his team drinking over the next few days in training.

“Hydration is not really an issue,” he said. “That’s all the rest.”

Many Jackson residents have had no running water to their homes and businesses this week due to outages at the city’s main water treatment plant. Torrential rains caused the Pearl River to flood, exacerbating pump problems.

Jackson schools have moved to online classes and canceled some of this weekend’s high school football games due to water uncertainty. Some restaurants have closed, while others are bringing in drinking water tankers from the suburbs. People line up to receive bottled water to drink or unsafe water to flush.

Even before water pressure fell dangerously low, Jackson’s water system was fragile and officials had warned for years that widespread loss of service was possible.

It has now happened – right in the middle of the hottest part of the football season. While there are certainly bigger things to worry about during a crisis, football is an essential part of the state’s cultural identity. Coaches and players are trying to find ways to move forward, even under less than optimal conditions.

“We’re kind of used to it,” Murrah receiver Christian Jackson said before practice Wednesday. “After two years of COVID-19, we are making it work. You bring your own water to practice if you can and make the most of the opportunities as some of our practices have been cancelled.

Gibson said keeping everything clean is the biggest challenge. He said assistant coaches are making plans to wash practice and game uniforms at out-of-town laundromats or any other location with sufficient water pressure.

Callaway High School coach Dameon Jones said he takes his team’s clothes home and washes them himself since he lives a few miles out of town.

“We take it one day at a time,” Jones said. “What I tell my kids – adversity is going to happen. This is how you are going to deal with it.”

Murrah and Callaway are among the four largest schools in the city preparing to play in a “Graduation Classic,” which was originally scheduled to take place at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium. This was canceled due to lack of water, although there is hope the games could be moved elsewhere. Thousands of fans were expected.

Three high school football games remained on the schedule on Thursday and Friday nights starting Wednesday.

“We’ll definitely have a lot of hand sanitizer and different things,” said Sherwin Johnson, executive director of public engagement for Jackson Public Schools. “Although our toilets do not have water, we reserve and will have portable toilets at each of our stadiums, enough to accommodate the crowds we anticipate.

Johnson added that no other sport was affected by the water shortage.

The downsides weren’t limited to high school sports. Jackson State football coach Deion Sanders said Tuesday the water crisis has left his players without air conditioning or ice at their training facility. In a video which one of his sons posted on social media, Sanders said he wanted to move the players to a hotel so they could shower.

“We’re going to find a place to practice, find a place that can accommodate whatever we need and want to be who we want to be, and that’s dominate,” Sanders said. “The devil is a lie. He won’t get us today, baby.

The make-do attitude is common these days around Jackson. Gibson and Jones – the high school coaches – said they were still optimistic about their matches.

“We’re just waiting to find out where the game is going to be,” Jones said. “Give us an hour, a pitch and we’ll be ready.”

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AP reporter Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Mississippi, and AP sportswriter Gary Graves contributed to this report.

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