Jinx Tucker Award: Mart met challenges on and off field

Mart seniors (from left) Terrell Pride, Hunter Dawson and Leonard Williams led the young Panthers to the Class 1A Division I state semifinals this season.

Anyone who grows up in Mart knows what the expectations are on the football field.

A district championship is nice, but almost a given, a deep playoff run a necessity and a state crown always a possibility.

This season was a little different.

Question marks abounded in Mart after losing 18 seniors off the 2010 Class 1A Division I title team, and nobody knew exactly what kind of product the inexperienced Panthers would put on the field.

Mart did more than overcome its youth and uphold the tradition. This year’s team has the rare distinction of having exceeded expectations, scratching and clawing its way to an 11-3 record and a return to the state semifinals for the third time in five years.

“I’m extremely excited about how the season turned out,” Mart senior Terrell Pride said. “When the season started, I really didn’t believe myself that we could make it that far. I didn’t really think we could make it through district, but the younger guys pulled through for us seniors. They came through like they were supposed to.”

Mart’s adversity wasn’t limited to the field.

In fact, the worst of the challenges the Panthers faced was on the morning of the state semifinal game against Stamford, when the home of senior quarterback Leonard Williams and his family burned down.

The community’s response was quick and overwhelming to Williams, who played in that night’s game.

“They supported me so quickly, and in a big way,” Williams said. “I felt like I basically owed them something, to at least see me go out there and play. I felt like they had my back no matter what, and I wanted them to feel the same. Whatever they could do to help, they did. I’m thankful for that, so that made it a lot easier to be able to go out and at least play for them.”

For getting every last drop out of its season, and the strength the team and community showed in the face of adversity, Mart is the Tribune-Herald ’s 2011 Jinx Tucker Award winner.

The Jinx Tucker Award is given annually to honor the memory of a man who gained national respect in his 33 years as the Trib’s sports editor until his death in 1953. The award was founded in 1956 by Tucker’s successor, Dave Campbell.

The award is emblematic of Tucker, who stressed sportsmanship, fairness and team play. The winner must exhibit overall team success, improvement throughout the season, sportsmanship, fan support and a will to win in the face of adversity.

“We’re excited because this award is all about tradition and a lot of things outside of necessarily wins and losses,” Mart coach Rusty Nail said. “Anybody who knows anything about me knows I’m big on tradition and one of my No. 1 priorities whether we win or lose is everyone that’s played here before us leaves the game feeling like we’re representing what the tradition and the expectations that have been around here for a long time.”

Mart rolled out to a 3-0 start before facing what Nail called his team’s “toughness test” in a two-week stretch against physical teams in Rogers and Goldthwaite. The Panthers dropped both of those contests, but gained a measure of confidence

It didn’t carry over to district play, as the Panthers hit their crossroads moment against Rice. Mart had 155 yards in penalties and an ejection in a 28-6 win, and Nail was less than thrilled.

“It really came to a head because we lost focus on what we’re all about,” he said. “After the game we shut the locker room doors for about 20 minutes, and we had a grass-roots meeting. We got down to the grass roots, and I feel like when we showed up that next Monday, we were a whole different machine. We called some of the key people out and told them you’re either on board rowing with us, or we’re about to throw you overboard.”

That moment solidified the Panthers, and they got back on a roll, shutting out their final four district opponents. Mart then finished off Collinsville, 33-12, got a late score to edge a talented Clarksville squad, 33-28, then stormed past Muenster, 35-29, to win the regional championship.

“It would’ve been great to go one more game, but coming off of last season and losing 18 seniors was difficult,” senior Hunter Dawson said. “We made the best of it. We didn’t have much chemistry at first, but it was great to get to know everybody and just start hanging out like we did. We made a bond with everybody. The season was great to my expectations. We outshined what everybody thought we would do by far.”

Nobody meant more to this team than Williams, the District 8-1A Division I MVP with 1,606 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns, 1,211 passing yards and 15 scores, and seven returns to paydirt.

Williams doubled that production with being the undisputed vocal leader, so it’s no surprise that the community swarmed to work when his house went down.

Nail, who couldn’t hide his emotions talking about the response, said the family has a new place furnished with all new appliances and beds, and that some people who wanted to help had to be turned away simply because “the house wasn’t going to hold any more.”

“That was probably the high point of my season,” Nail said. “Not the fact that he lost his house, but all of the good that’s come from it. I’ve told our coaches and our kids that it’s a shame that something has to happen like that before you go help people that might need help, but it’s amazing. I couldn’t even list the help that’s come in.”

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