The 2017 season set a high bar for football at East Central High School.
A school mostly known for baseball and softball became a title contender in 2017, rolling over the competition on its way to the program’s first Class 4A South State title.
If not for a separated shoulder for senior running back Tony Brown in the second quarter of the Class 4A title game against Noxubee County, the Hornets may have claimed the program’s first football state championship.
Instead, Noxubee County earned the trophy with a 41-35 win in Oxford.
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Nobody took the loss harder than Brown.
“It was sad, but at the same time I was very joyful,” Brown said. “Not everybody can go on this little journey we’ve been on this year. We were saying it all practice before we even played in the state championship, it felt like we were in a movie.”
While the Hornets came up just shy, this film has a happy ending in the small community of Hurley.
Brown and East Central head coach Seth Smith are this year’s Sun Herald Player of the Year and Coach of the Year for the 2017 season.
It marks the first time that one team has swept the Sun Herald’s top individual honors for football since Pascagoula coach Lewis Sims and quarterback/linebacker Stacey Warren did it in 2012 after winning the Class 5A South State title.
Building a winner
Smith built East Central from a 1-10 team in his first season in 2013 to a dominant 13-1 squad this year.
Smith points to this year’s seniors as being a special group, helping lift East Central football to an entirely new level.
“It’s kind of like parenting where you don’t want to have a favorite, but these seniors, they were just fun,” Smith said. “It was like coaching little grown men. They were mature enough to handle a butt chewing. At the same time, they were also mature enough to have a little fun with you. It was just a lot of fun. They’re great kids, great personalities and competitors. These were some of the most competitive kids I’ve ever coached.”
The 2017 season featured plenty of special moments, but Smith points to the 52-45 win at Poplarville in the Class 4A South State title game as one that stands out.
“I’ll remember that the rest of my life,” he said. “That atmosphere for a high school football game in a little old country stadium with all those people was just fun to be a part of.”
As far as what’s next for East Central, Smith hopes to keep the ball rolling despite dealing with the graduations of several key players.
“Hopefully you’ll see that we’re not a one hit wonder,” he said. “We’ve got to work equally as hard every year to keep getting better. We’re encouraged. Our freshman class went undefeated and our junior high did well. It’s to the point now where kids love to go to the weightroom, love working out and love getting better. That effort and attitude is becoming contagious in a good way.”
NYC to Hurley
Brown moved from Manhattan to Hurley at the age of 10 to live with his father.
It was not the easiest of adjustments in the early going.
“I didn’t want to come down here at all,” he said. “I wanted to stay up in New York. I was a little city boy. It’s a big change. I was thinking I was going to hate it down here.”
Fast forward 8 years later, Brown has changed his tune.
“I love it. I wouldn’t change it for anything at all,” he said.
Brown isn’t the first East Central running back to put up big numbers under Smith, but none of them were explosive as he was.
With a total of 92 touchdowns over his final two seasons of high school, the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Brown was always a threat to take it the distance.
He rushed for 6,065 yards over his final two seasons, averaging about 10 yards a carry during that stretch. He had 2,748 yards on 267 carries as a senior after putting up 3,317 yards on 364 rushes as a junior.
“He’s got a ton of God given ability,” Smith said. “Not all athletes have a great work ethic and not all are humble. To me, he had all three. He had ability, he was humble and he was a great worker. That’s why I know he’ll take him and his 92 touchdowns and go play college football and do really well.”
Brown currently only has one Division I scholarship offer – Mississippi Valley State.
While Brown may be overlooked by the region’s top colleges despite becoming the biggest high school football star to come out of Hurley, he’s happy to call that corner of Jackson County home.
“I came down here thinking I was going to keep to myself, try to go back to New York,” Brown said. “I built relationships here and it made me a better person.
“The people here, they’re like our team – very grateful and humble. They’re blessed. They’re people of God and I love them.”