Williston-Elko head football coach Derek Youngblood heard something Thursday at the Blue Devils' opening ceremony that summed up what football means to a community that shuts down every Friday night during the season.
Williston School District chairperson Ferlecia Cuthbertson, a former Williston-Elko classmate of Youngblood's, commented to him that football is the religion of their community in that that's what brings everyone together.
To see that, just take a look on a Friday night at what's happening on the football field – after the game has gone final.
That's where you'll see a rapidly-growing community circle, one that started as a few individuals after practice and has become so large that it nearly encircles the entire field.
"Over the years, parents have become involved, people in the community have become involved, and it's just to kind of lift up our community and pray for our community and anything that's going on in our community," Youngblood said. "… Just kind of closing with a word of prayer and ask for safety for everybody until we get to come back and do it again the next week. To me, that's very unique."
Youngblood said it's a postgame tradition that began after his first game as Williston-Elko's head coach in 2014. After Friday night, the Blue Devils generally don't see one another as an entire group until Monday, so the circle is a way to ask for safety and health and to get them back and ready to go after the weekend. It's grown beyond the football family to include the entire community, and it's something Youngblood never imagined would become such a big part of the culture of the program.
"As much as I may be in awe of it, I can't imagine how some of (the players) are," he said. "Again, that was all started by a group of kids who were then-freshmen and now are seniors. So it's just become a part of their every day deal.
"Hopefully that's something that we've just kind of thought you take it from here and you take it to wherever you go to next, whether it's your family or whether it's your college team or whatever it is. It's just something that hopefully becomes a part of that and it kind of grows with you."
The community circle caps a Friday night that starts several hours before kickoff, when the area behind the home bleachers opens up for a large pregame tailgate where members of the community can catch up on the week's events. To Youngblood, it's unique in that it's a college-type atmosphere at a high school game, something he's not experienced anywhere else he's ever been.
Of course, there's plenty that goes on during games at Williston-Elko that's different than anywhere else in the area, and that extends beyond mere visuals – a Williston-Elko football game sounds unlike any other around, thanks to a combination of noisemakers in the crowd.
The most noticeable is the blaring train horn which Youngblood traces back to the 2008 state playoffs and a trip to Ware Shoals for the Class A Upper State title game. Ware Shoals was calling itself the "Pain Train" at the time, and a horn would blow inside the stadium when the Hornets scored or made a big play. The Blue Devils won that night to advance to the state championship game, and the two met again the following year.
The 2009 game, also for a berth in the state title game, was played at Williston-Elko, and the talk during the week was how the Blue Devils had taken the "Pain Train" from the Hornets the year before. That night, a 44-20 Williston-Elko win that was followed the next week by a state championship, was the first time Youngblood remembers hearing the horn in Williston.
"You know that you're doing something right when you get ready to play teams and they're calling you and saying, 'Make sure that train horn doesn't come here,'" he said. "So you know it's a difference-maker. Our kids love it, our fans love it. To me, it's just what high school football is supposed to be about. It's supposed to be different, it's supposed to be exciting."
Youngblood said Hal Mundy, whose son Dalton was the Blue Devils' starting quarterback in the past, is responsible for the horn and that he's very special to the program for reasons beyond just that – Youngblood said he also takes hundreds of photos of the players during games throughout the season so that they'll have action shots from their playing days.
"Hal doesn't miss a game. He doesn't miss a Friday night game," said Youngblood. "Hal probably hasn't missed a Friday night game in his life."
In addition to the horn, cowbells can be heard throughout Williston-Elko games, something Youngblood attributed to a Mississippi State family in the crowd. Like the tailgating, community circle and train horn, that also has spread.
Those are all aspects of the game day experience at Williston-Elko that makes Fridays with the Blue Devils unique. It's something that Youngblood has experienced as in multiple eras – he's a 1999 graduate – and he's not taking it for granted just because he's a hometown guy.
"I tell people all the time I'm blessed to be able to coach at home, but I'm blessed to coach at a place that loves football," he said. "It's fun every Friday night, no matter where we go.
"There's a lot of times we go to places and we'll have more people than they will, on the road. And that's just a testament to our community and the way that they rally behind our kids and support our kids. There's definitely not a place I've ever been that supports their kids the way Williston-Elko supports theirs."