Columbia County loves its football.
A simple statement, but as firm a truth as the pine trees that stand tall along Highway 441 into Lake City.
"'Tiger Pride' goes beyond the campus. It means a whole lot to a whole lot of people," first-year Columbia High head coach Demetric Jackson explained at a recent practice.
As an alum and quarterback of the Tigers (1987-1991), Jackson understood his hometown's passion for the team when he accepted the position this summer, succeeding another Tiger alum in Brian Allen. As the head coach at nearby Fort White High School the past 15 years, Jackson also understood the challenges his alma mater faced during the 2020-2021 football season.
“Our district made the choice [in August 2020] that we couldn’t start football until Week Three," Jackson explained. Columbia High and Fort White are part of the same school district. "So, we missed the kick-off classic. We missed the first three games.”
”It really affected us. You can tell the difference this year when we had actual time to practice to see who the real team is," senior running back Jaelin Brown added.
Lack of practice time wasn't the only adversity the Tigers had to overcome in Allen's final season at the helm. Nor was it the only challenge they'd face in Jackson's first season.
“We just lost a coach. Coach Skip [Hair]," Brown explained. Skipper Hair, a Tiger alum and a former teammate of Jackson's during his playing days, served as the team's chaplain. Hair passed away in September after a month-plus long battle with COVID-19.
"And then we lost Coach Funk before," Brown said of another coaching staff member the team lost in Summer 2020. "COVID really took a toll on our team. But we gotta keep pushing and doing it for them”
Away from the football field, in the halls of Columbia High, it's been hard to escape these hardships.
“When you see young kids pass on? It’s heartbreaking," Brown said. "They didn’t have a chance at life yet. It’s just heartbreaking."
“It’s just been sad. People walking around school sad because their friend died or their family member died," senior wide receiver Marcus Peterson explained. Peterson, a Cincinnati commit, lost his grandfather during this trying, 20-month period as well.
But through it all, there has been another constant: Tiger football.
“One thing I’ve learned is that these guys will fight through adversity. They will go through all those things we had to deal with," Jackson said. The Tigers finished the regular season 6-4 and as District champions.
"Even this community. They’re still supporting us amidst everything that’s going on.”
It's that 'Tiger Pride.' More now than perhaps ever before.
“Football in this community is what keeps it going. They look forward to seeing us on Friday nights," Brown added. "All the losses and stuff have brought us together.”
Even as their season ended at the hands of rival Riverside in the first-round of the playoffs, this group of Tigers still won. The impact they had on their community during such a trying time will not be easily forgotten.
For Brown, he hopes his senior class' strength in trying times inspires the next generation of Tigers.
“I just wanna leave an impact on the kids. Because I remember how I felt as a little kid, wanting to play for Columbia."