PASCAGOULA - Keith Joseph Jr. and his father were known by many for their accomplishments on the football field, but the Pascagoula community rallied together Friday to recognize the two men for their faith and love of family.
Union Baptist Church was packed for Friday's funeral of the two men. Family, friends, teammates, coaches and others simply wanting to pay their respects all gathered in the church. Just as many people watched a video broadcast of the funeral in a gym across the street.
Keith Joseph Jr. and his father were killed in a single-automobile accident near Leakesville on Nov. 6. They were traveling from Starkville to attend the Pascagoula-Gautier football game in Pascagoula that night.
Friday's funeral marked the culmination of an difficult week for the Jackson County and Mississippi State communities.
The closing of the casket for Keith Joseph Jr. brought about the most emotional moment of the funeral as sobbing family members huddled on the first row, embracing each other and tending to those who had become overwhelmed by grief.
A framed No. 93 Mississippi State jersey that read "Joseph Sr." sat in front of Keith Joseph Sr.'s closed casket.
"Anybody in this room that knew these two men, knew that their bond was inseparable," Rev. Larry G. Hawkins said.
Hawkins spoke of how Keith Sr. had turned to his faith in the last couple of years and made more of an effort to engage in the lives of his children.
"In almost 30 years of pastoring, I've never seen somebody running toward the Lord as fast as Keith was running," Hawkins said. "Keith met the Lord and God changed that man, transformed him."
Somber moments for team
Both men played football at Pascagoula High School and were members of the Mississippi State football team. Keith Jr. was in his freshman season at MSU and was being red-shirted. Keith Sr. was a member of the 1987 Class 5A state championship team at Pascagoula and was a standout linebacker at Mississippi State from 1989-92.
For the second time in less than three years, Pascagoula High School athletes made the somber walk across Market Street to Union Baptist Church Friday morning.
The caskets carrying the two men arrived at the church just before student-athletes, coaches and teachers made the short walk from the high school to meet with family of the two men and pay their respects.
They all walked in with serious faces and many of the teenagers left the church in tears.
Pascagoula senior Jakwaize Walker leaned on his brother, junior running back Javarous Walker, as the two walked back to the school. Others quietly wept as they walked back through the doors.
"This will make you a man quickly," Pascagoula coach Lewis Sims said.
In May of 2013, Sims also led his players on a walk to Union Baptist Church following the deaths of teammates Brandon Rich and Caleb Sweeten, who died in a water-skiing accident.
Gautier head coach Chris Peterson and his staff also were in attendance at the Friday morning visitation. Keith Jr. played football at Gautier in his first two years of high school. Keith Sr. grew up in Gautier, but attended Pascagoula when both communities attended the same high school.
For the Jackson County community, the loss of a promising student-athlete and his proud father served as another major blow.
"There have been a lot of prayers and a lot of thoughts coming from all over Mississippi and pretty much the United States," Sims said. "There has been an outpouring of support for these young guys. They are riding a wave of prayer and support they might not even realize now.
"We've talked all week about honoring M.J. (Keith Jr.) not with a win, but with our effort and being excellent in our pursuit of academics and athletics in our personal lives. We talked about being those men that we want to be, living to a higher standard."
As Sims turned to walk back into the school, he looked back and said, "I hope we don't have to do this again anytime soon."
Like father, like son
Prior to the funeral, chatter outside the church often wandered back to the football careers of the two men.
Among those there Friday were former Pascagoula head coach Bill Matthews and some of his staff members from the 1987 team that went 14-0 and won the Class 5A state championship.
Ted Taylor served as the defensive coordinator for that team and he was Keith Sr.'s defensive line coach.
"He had tremendous talent, was overall a hard worker," Taylor said. "He was very smart, very coachable on top of all that. We did a lot of technical things and he was good at that. He was a great high school player and he went onto State."
Keith Sr.'s pride in his son was always evident and Keith Jr.'s decision to follow his path to Mississippi State made him even prouder.
"It meant the world to him," said Bryan Jackson, who graduated from Pascagoula with Keith Sr. "His son was able to go to Mississippi State and attend. That was an excellent. He loved that. (Keith Jr.) had other offers, but he wanted him to go to Mississippi State and follow in his footsteps. That meant the world to him."