Why does high school football matter in Alabama? A tale of two championship schools

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Linden
Linden High School Patriot Head Coach Travis Lockett. Photo via Matthew Niblett for Bham Now

Last year, two Alabama high schools made football history when they won state titles at the AHSAA Super 7 State Championships in Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa. 

Linden High School, the smallest school system in Alabama, notched their first football title in the school’s 102-year history.

Perennial football powerhouse Fyffe High School, from the mountains and valleys in the Northeast corner of the state, won its third consecutive championship, extending a 45-game winning streak.

This month, we talked to both head coaches about their extraordinary championship journeys  and the impact high school football has on the lives of their student-athletes and communities.

Here are their stories.

Representing Your Community

Linden
LA stands for Linden, Alabama. Photo via Matthew Niblett for Bham Now

It didn’t make sense to me. The letters LA prominently displayed on the side of the bright red Linden High School football helmet. 

Puzzled, I asked Linden Head Coach Travis Lockett, “The L must stand for Linden, but what about the A, what does it mean?”  

He grinned at me, a visitor from Birmingham, and said, “Linden, Alabama” — we represent this town and community.”

Special Group of Seniors

Coach Lockett has coached at Linden for six years, three as the head football coach. 

He told me, last year’s senior class that graduated in May was special. 

“I recognized early on their competitiveness and talent beginning in the 8th grade,” he said.

The 2021 senior class went on to win not only the 1A state football title but also the 1A state track and field team championship as well.

Linden High School
Championship sign in front of Linden High School . Photo via Pat Byington for Bham Now

According to Coach Lockett, eight Linden students from the class received scholarships from colleges across the nation. That’s not a misprint.

Leading the way was Joshua Williams, winner of the Larry D. Striplin, Jr. Scholar-Athlete of the Year Award, an honor given as part of the prestigious Bryant-Jordan scholarship program.

Bryant -Jordan
Josh Williams, a multi-sport standout at Linden, the smallest city school system in Alabama located in Marengo County, was the recipient of the Larry D. Striplin, Jr., Scholar-Athlete of the Year Award. Photo via AHSAA

Williams, who scored a 30 on his ACT and maintained a 4.0 GPA, received multiple scholarship offers from Division I schools and the Ivy League’s Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Dartmouth. He eventually chose Rice University, where he has a good opportunity to play as a freshman this year.

“This is the real big deal. All the kids at Linden High School look up to Josh as to how things are supposed to be done,” added Lockett. “The City of Linden is like one big family. It is very supportive of the school and the kids. We take a lot of pride in the school.”

A Dynasty at Fyffe High School

Fyffe Red Devils
Fyffe High School wins 3A State Championship in 2020. Photo via AHSAA

Clear across the state in Dekalb County, I interviewed Fyffe Head Football Coach Paul Benefield, whose Red Devils won the 3A State Football Championship in 2020.

That might not seem unusual, but his team won its third straight state title after it was elevated a class by the Alabama High School Athletic Association from the lower 2A classification the previous year. 

In my phone interview with Coach Benefield, he never once mentioned wins and losses or the fact he has won 313 games during his coaching career, making him one of the winningest football coaches in Alabama high school history.

When I did ask him about the state championships and a 45 game winning streak, his answer was humble and moving. Here it is in its entirety:

“That’s a trillion dollar question. I get that question a lot. We don’t talk about things like that. Our kids probably do, but I don’t. We talk about getting better all the time, that’s all we’re trying to do. I hope to make tougher guys, somebody you could depend on to come to a job. Be good husbands, fathers, hopefully pick up some good habits along the way. My job is to keep kids grounded, trying to get better every day and not be worried about the games — play with class, play harder and with discipline. We’re gonna try to get better, win or lose. There’s always some way you can improve. Perfection is not ever gonna be reached, but we can jump out there, closest we can to it.”

Deeply Rooted

Fyffe
Fyffe Head Coach Paul Benefield carried off the field. Photo via AHSAA

Like many high school coaches in Alabama, Coach Benefield is deeply rooted in the Fyffe community. He went to both elementary and high school in the school system.

“All 12 grades, before there was kindergarten,” Coach Benefield laughed.” High school sports were a family affair. My mother was the secretary of the first Athletic Club in the late 60s. Both my older brothers played (high school sports) too.”

Other than college and a few high school stints, he has lived in Fyffe most of his life.

Win or Lose

Fyffe High School
Fyffe High School wins 3A State Championship in 2020 at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa. Photo via AHSAA

Championships and the winning streak means a lot to the Fyffe community, according to Coach Benefield. 

“We worked real hard to attain it. We know we’re not gonna win the rest of our games for the rest of our life. But I tell you the sun’s gonna come up whenever we lose a game. And the next week we’ll try to start another streak.”

In Good Hands

Thanks to Coach Lockett and Coach Benefield, whether it is in Linden, Fyffe or any other passionate community in Alabama  — high school football is in good hands.

Follow Alabama high school football all season long this fall at ahsaa.com

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Pat Byington
Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.
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