Anyone wondering how long it’s been since Warren Easton has played for a state title just needed to be at Joe Brown Stadium on Thursday as the Eagles went through one of the final practices of their story book season.
Music blared from the speakers as 75 or so black teenagers prepared for Saturday’s Class 4A title game showdown against Neville.
On the sidelines, six white males, all in their mid-70s, watched.
Yes, much has changed since the Fighting Eagles last played for a title way back in 1958.
The game has changed, as one could notice by watching Easton’s pass-happy offense, led by quarterback Deshawn Capers-Smith and receiver Tyron Johnson.
And the demographics of the school have changed, too, as indicated by the guys on the field practicing and the ones watching.
But one thing hasn’t.
“We’re all family,” said Billy Hatcher, a fullback on that 1958 team that lost 22-20 to Lake Charles High in the title game at Tulane Stadium.
Although that team came up a win away from a title, Hatcher and five of his teammates were at practice to give some words of encouragement.
“Take it to ’em Saturday,” said former guard Bill O’Brien.
“Create some good memories, and have no regrets,” advised J.T. Giardina.
“Kick (butt),” said Sid Anderson, an end on that team.
It was a blend of past and present for Warren Easton, the oldest public school in the state of Louisiana.
“They set the trail that we are trying to follow,” said Easton coach Tony Hull. “They made Warren Easton what it is today and we are just trying to continue the legacy.”
Easton’s last title came in 1942. The only other one was in 1921, almost a century ago.
To end that drought, Easton will have to beat tradition-rich Neville (12-1), a team that has won 10 state titles.
“Neville is the biggest, strongest and most disciplined team we have seen this year,” said Hull, in his eighth season. “They are a perennial powerhouse in Louisiana and they are the flagship team in north Louisiana.”
Neville, undefeated against Louisiana teams this season, is going for its third title in six seasons. They last won it all in 2011.
Easton, 12-2 this season, won just four games that year when the current seniors were freshmen.
“When we first got here, we were just focused on winning more than four games,” said defensive end Kendal Franklin. “Last year was our first winning season. So this is like a dream.”
Just five years before 2011, Easton didn’t even field a team. The school was still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.
“The only word I can use, to be honest with you, is ‘humble,’ ” said Hull. “It’s humbling to see hard work finally pay off. To see our school persevere and press through the trials and tribulations right now. We haven’t reached our overall goals, but to be able to be in reach of it is a humbling experience.”
Hull isn’t looking at his team as the underdog in a game against a Neville team that has made trips from Monroe to the Dome almost an annual December pilgrimage.
“We take it as inner-city kids in New Orleans against the rest of the state of Louisiana,” Hull said. “We have a set of trials and tribulations of kids that grew up in the city of New Orleans that separates us from everyone else in the state. But we don’t look it as a crutch. We look at it as a great thing, to come from where we come from and to survive and persevere to do the things we are doing.”
Now the Eagles have one more obstacle to hurdle, beating one of the premier programs in the state.
“We want to write our names in the history books,” said Johnson, who scored the game-winning touchdown last week in the final seconds.
Hull says watching his team rally late last week was easy compared to some of the hardships his players face growing up in the inner city of New Orleans.
“That’s nothing compared to going home and your lights are turned off and not knowing where your next meal is coming from,” he said. “Going 60 yards in a minute was like a slice of cake. We embrace our circumstances and will represent the city of New Orleans and the Warren Easton community as best as possible.”
The players on that 1958 team will be there watching and cheering them on.
“This is a fitting tribute to all the hard work that has been done over the years,” said Jimmy Shields, a wide receiver and defensive back in 1958. “It’s really symbolic. If they win, what a statement.”