Saahdiq Charles manhandles a Jackson Prep player during the championship game.
Saahdiq Charles manhandles a Jackson Prep player during the championship game.
CLINTON – Hayden Davis was a bundle of emotions as he took in Friday night’s Division I-AAAA championship game here at Mississippi College’s Robinson Hale Stadium.

At times, the injured MRA quarterback nervously paced up and down the home sideline. At times, he just stood still with his hands crossed, hardly saying anything. He cheered when his teammates did something good, he slumped when things didn’t go so well. He yelled. He encouraged. He consoled. He helped his dad coach. He even managed to smile and share a few laughs with his teammates even though Jackson Prep rolled to a 34-7 victory. He did just about everything he could except play.

And for those who know Hayden best, they know that’s the one single thing he wanted to do more than anything else on this rain-soaked night - to play. Sadly, he couldn’t. Injuries, which robbed him of much of his high school career, sidelined him for this, his entire senior season. So, he essentially traded in his helmet for a pair of headsets and became an assistant coach.

 “It was tough, of course,” said Hayden, shortly after exchanging hugs with family members following the game. “I love football, so it was tough not playing this year, and it was tough not being able to play tonight. I wanted to be out there, no doubt. I thought I may be able to work my way back in time to play tonight, but it didn’t work out that way. I was glad I was able to do something to help out the team, though. I wore headsets every game, and I enjoy that part of it, too. I’ve been through a lot of negative things. . . I kind of got that out of the way during the season, and just tried to stay positive as much as I could.”

That hasn’t always proven to be easy for the young Davis, once considered one of the top quarterback prospects in the state, certainly in the private school ranks. In fact, it’s been downright difficult. Beyond words difficult.

There was the morning earlier this season, on the day of the regular season game against Jackson Prep, in which Hayden broke down in tears during break period. The same happened on the bus trip to Meridian, where MRA faced Lamar School in the final game of the regular season. Once the team arrived, he sat all alone in the end zone for about an hour prior to the game, saddened and thinking about all that he has been through.

His whole life, all he wanted to do was play football. And be a football hero. That had all been taken away from him, and that’s what has hurt the most.

“It has been tough, really tough,” said MRA head coach Herbert Davis, Hayden’s father. “It has been really hard, not only on him but our whole family. People just don’t know. It has been very difficult. It’s been a tough career for him, and this year has been especially hard because it was his senior season. I’ve worried about him a lot, and I still do worry about him. But, he’s been a trooper so far.”

Hayden has been forced to miss significant playing time in each of his four high school seasons because of injuries and coinciding surgeries. As a freshman at Lawrence County, he suffered a torn meniscus halfway through the season, sidelining him the rest of the season. In the second game of his first season at MRA – his sophomore year and Hebert’s first as head coach at MRA – he experienced a high ankle sprain, once again sidelining him for a few games. He returned, but was never the same although he did help lead the Patriots to the championship game. He played in that game despite a dislocated shoulder, an injury that would require off-season surgery.

Then, he tore his ACL and MCL late in the first quarter of the second game of his junior year and was forced to miss the rest of that season. He worked his way back from that setback and had just been cleared to play again when, yes, another injury hit. He broke the fibula and tibia in his left leg and also dislocated his ankle after making a catch in a 7-on-7 game in late June. Once again, he was out. Only this time, it meant him never again taking a snap in high school football.

Certainly, nobody saw Davis’ career playing out this way. He smiled when a reporter recalled Davis’ first play in a MRA uniform – a perfectly-thrown 82-yard touchdown pass to Ian Dixon in a season-opening blowout win over Glenbrook.

“You never know when your last play is,” he said. “It’s hard to understand that unless you’ve gone through that experience. That’s something I’ve tried to pass along to my teammates . . . you just never know.”

Hayden was hoping to be cleared to play late in the season, but he gave up on that thought about five or six weeks ago. He hadn’t dressed out the entire season before Friday’s title game. He went all out, in full uniform, although he wore No. 5 instead of his customary No. 15 jersey. He donned a brace on his left knee, and his left ankle. He wore shoulder pads, albeit smaller ones than normal because he knew he wasn’t going to play. He even taped his wrist.

“Had to look good for pregame warmups,” he joked. “I’m glad I dressed out and got to be a part of it with the rest of the guys, at least. Unfortunately, we came up short.”

Herbert Davis didn’t know if it was a good idea for his son to dress out for the game or not.

“Didn’t know how to handle it,” he said. “I didn’t know if it would be a good thing or a bad thing. I didn’t know if it would be a downer for him, or if it would feel good him being back out there. I don’t know exactly how he handled it, but it looked like to me he handled it well.”

As it turned out, MRA certainly could’ve used a healthy Hayden, and then some. Prep jumped out to a 21-0 first quarter lead and never looked back, cruising to their record fifth straight state championship – the last three coming at MRA’s expense.

Once again, big plays proved to MRA’s demise. Prep started off the game with a 51-yard flea-flicker pass from quarterback Chance Lovertich to Jerrion Ealy, setting the tone for the evening. Two plays later, Ealy scored from two yards out, and the Patriots from Flowood were off and running. A few minutes later, Ealy, considered the top player in Mississippi in the Class of 2019, raced 67 yards for another touchdown to stake his team to a 14-0 lead. Late in the first quarter, a 52-yard pass from Lovertich to Jacob Crawley set up a 1-yard scoring run from Lovertich.

Then, just when it looked like MRA was going to score about midway through the second quarter, Prep’s Tate Fowler returned an errant pass from quarterback Hunter Hulsey 95 yards for a touchdown for a 28-0 Prep lead at halftime.

Hulsey later connected with Lee Tanner on a 42-yard scoring strike with about three and half minutes remaining in the third quarter to pull MRA to within 28-7, capping an impressive 99-yard drive. However, Prep responded as Ealy scampered 42 yards for another yet another touchdown – his third of the night - in the waning seconds of the third quarter, killing the little momentum MRA had gained.

Ealy finished with 114 yards on eight carries on the ground to go along with the aforementioned reception covering 51 yards.

“He is special,” Hebert Davis said. “You know they are going to score some points, you just have to be able to score with them. And we weren’t able to do that tonight. We had some opportunities . . . we had some chances to do some things, especially in the first half . . . we just didn’t execute the way we needed to execute. I thought we showed some fight in the second half, too. We just didn’t have enough. It was kind of the same story, different chapter.”

MRA drove inside the Prep 20-yard on its second drive only to be snuffed following back-to-back sacks of Hulsey. The Patriots from Madison drove all the way to the Prep 2-yard line the next time they had the ball only to see that prime scoring opportunity wiped out by Fowler’s pick 6. MRA once again drove deep in Prep territory late in the second quarter, but a dropped pass on a 4th-and-3 play halted the drive.

 “We knew coming into the game there were going to be some big plays,” MRA running back Jake Reeves said. “When you’ve got a guy like Ealy, there’s going to be some big plays. You’re not going to stop him the whole game. You just can’t do it. We knew we had to be able to get some stops on defense, which we did. We got a couple of stops, but we gave up too many big plays. We knew the offense was going to have to be able to match their points, and hold possession of the ball. We did a pretty good job of possessing the ball, we just couldn’t finish and put it in the end zone. We got in the red zone a few times . . . we had our chances, we just didn’t capitalize.”

MRA actually led in time of possession by a large margin. The Patriots had the ball for 29 minutes, eight seconds compared to only 11 minutes, 11 seconds for Prep. And MRA ran 72 plays, while Prep had only 33. In addition, the total yardage was about the same, with Prep holding a slight edge (293-278) in that statistical category. Yet, Prep won going away.

Prep finished 13-1, winning for 34th time in its last 35 games. The lone loss during that stretch came to PCS earlier this season, a loss Prep avenged in the semifinals a week ago to earn a spot in this year’s title game. The Patriots extended their win streak to 12 straight over MRA, with MRA’s last win in the series coming in the 2010 postseason.

MRA, seeking its third state title and first since 2004, finished 10-4. The Patriots have now finished runner-up 10 times, including the last three to Prep.

“We wanted to win tonight, obviously, but when you look at it overall, we were able to accomplish a lot of good things this year, especially with all the injuries and our (lack of) numbers,” said Davis, who has guided the Patriots to 29 wins in his first three seasons. “And, looking at the big picture, we’ve accomplished a lot the past three years. Are we where we want to be? No. Are we closer? I think we are. We had a lot more positive plays tonight than we had the past two years against them. We just have to be able to finish some drives, and make some plays.”

As for Hayden? He plans to continue his football career at Co-Lin or Northwest Community College. He plans on making his decision in the coming weeks.

“It’s time for me to move on now, and try to be the best player I can be at the next level,” he said. “I’m still working at it. I should be able to start running again in five to six weeks. I still think God has a plan in store for me playing football. My goal is to win a state championship wherever I go, then get recruited at the next level.

“I watched a lot of film in my off time, even though I haven’t been able to play,” he continued. “I got a lot of experience over the last couple of years doing that, and trying to help these guys out and help them win. That’s helped me a lot. I’m not where I want to be right now physically, but I feel like mentally I’m sharper than I would’ve been if I hadn’t been injured probably. I’ve grown a lot mentally. Now it’s just a matter of getting back where I need to be physically.”