Friday Night Football
Bringing River Parish communities together by the thousands
After a hot summer, the river parishes are gearing up for their favorite season — Friday night football season. High school football is no joke for the Port communities. It’s a time where all eight parish teams unite under competition, rivalry, school pride and incredible tailgate parties.
Lori Lyons is a freelance sports reporter in the river parishes who has been covering high school football since 1991. She’s seen the same generations that used to play football in the ‘90s now tailgating their own kids’ games; some of them even became coaches, and others like Jarvis Landry, Quinn Johnson, Ed Reed and many more River Parish high school football alumni simply joined the NFL.
“We play really good football down here,” Lyons said. “We have a lot of state championship trophies, a lot of NFL players come from here. Football for the river parishes isn’t just something to pass the time — we take it seriously, and we play it really well. It really forms a united bond between the river parishes.
We’re often overlooked as the no-man’s land between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, but when we consistently take state or send one of our players to the NFL, they remember us.”
The eight river parish high school football teams are spread across the East and West banks of the Mississippi River. The natural rivalries between teams like Riverside and St. Charles, East St. John and Destrehan, or Lutcher and St. James have a lot more geographical history than one might think.
“A lot of these teams are right in the middle of sugarcane fields,” Lyons said. “And there’s at least two teams per Parish, one on each side of the river. The symmetry is beautiful. It’s East bank vs. West bank.
“For centuries, our geography has created natural rivalries,” Lyons continued. “Like the Hahnville and Destrehan rivalry — they have been arguing over which side of the river is better for decades. It wasn’t until the ‘30s that they started playing it out on the football field. Before that, it was who grew the best sugar cane or who had the fastest mules. These are rivalries born out of more than just football, and that’s what makes our games so exciting.”
This season, the rivalries are heated, and as everyone is getting back in the swing of the school day coaches and students alike are gearing up to get back in the stadium. I spoke with three head coaches to learn firsthand what exactly Friday night football means in the River Parishes.
The Fighting Tigers
Dominic Saltaformaggio, or Coach Salt, is the head coach for the Hahnville High School Fighting Tigers. He has 35 years of coaching experience, but after only four seasons at Hahnville , Coach Salt has discovered the apex of high school football.
“I have never seen the Friday night experience that we have here duplicated anywhere else,” Coach Salt said. “We run out one by one to fireworks and the home side of our stadium is sold out every week. I tell the kids that they don’t know how lucky they are that every Friday night, they’re going to play to four to six thousand people. That’s no joke.”
The Hahnville football team has a special tradition before each game that Coach Salt believes is a small example of how the team and the community are intertwined. After school, the team gathers with their families for a team meal on Fridays, followed by a prayer service. Then they return to the already-packed stadium to prepare 2 ½ hours before kickoff. “At this point,” Coach Salt said about the game opening, “there are already people waiting for the game to start.
They’re cheering for every player that comes out of the locker room, and all along the street there are people tailgating and barbecuing.
“Hahnville is one of those places where it’s cool to love your school,” Coach Salt said. “The community has a tremendous commitment to the school and the school reciprocates. That’s what makes our Friday nights so special. Everyone treats the football game like an oasis, and it really has become one.”
Hahnville High School’s most noteworthy, emulous rival is the Destrehan Wildcats — and the competition is serious. As soon as school starts, it becomes the fiery topic on every football player’s palette. “Ten to twelve thousand people show up to the Destrehan game, even people who don’t have any affiliation with the school. They just hear how unbelievable this game is,” Coach Salt said. “We haven’t beaten them in three years, but each year that loss kind of propels us through the rest of the season. Last year we won nine straight games after the Destrehan loss.”
The West St. John High School Rams are notorious for their football edge. Coach Brandon Walters has been coaching at West St. John for 13 years. This is his third season as head coach, and like the rest of the community, he is anxiously awaiting the start of the season.
“West St. John High School football is the lifeline of the community,” Coach Walters said. “It’s been that way for decades. It’s a storied tradition that we have; it’s the heart of the community. Everything in Edgard stops for football. The locals and people from all over come to tailgate and eat our fried chicken and sausage.”
The “storied tradition” is emboldened with the rivalry between the West St. John Rams and the St. James Wildcats. Both schools sit alongside the same railroad track off of Highway 3127. When the train roars by with its whistle blaring during football games at West St. John or St. James High, the crowd goes wild. This shared phenomenon created the natural rivalry between the two teams. The tradition became known as The Railroad Classic.
“We play for an actual piece of a railroad,” Coach Walters explained. “Our rivalry is a fun one, but it’s as intense as the Saints and the Falcons. It’s broadcasted on TV all throughout South Louisiana, western Mississippi and East Texas. At the game, you’ll see people out at 7 a.m. tailgating and cooking.
The game isn’t until 7 p.m. They are there before we even come in for work that morning, cranking up their grills.”
This game was early this year. Starting off their season with the Railroad classic on Sept. 1, West St. John had the opportunity to win back the trophy that they lost last year after having it for eight consecutive seasons.
This year is Coach Dwain Jenkins’ second season as head coach of the Lutcher High School Bulldogs, but his history with Lutcher’s Friday night football community goes far beyond that. Coach Jenkins grew up three blocks away from the Lutcher stadium. Since he was a child, Bulldog football has been a part of his life and now, in his 14th season coaching at Lutcher, he is still captivated by the energy of the game and how much of an effect it has on the community’s identification.
“Football season is when the community comes together each Friday night,” Coach Jenkins explained. “It’s a really exciting time, and it plays such an important role in our collective identity. The parish rallies behind our team and gives them an incredible amount of support. It really shows in full color during our away games. Each week during our away games, our fans travel with us. When people are willing to travel to support their community’s school, it demonstrates how important the football culture is, and the students really benefit from it.”
It’s not just away games that the Lutcher community rallies behind. Last year, when The Bulldogs played their rival team, The St. James Wildcats, Lutcher High School had to call a half day.
“The campus was too crowded with tailgaters,” Coach Jenkins states. “By 11 a.m. we rounded up the team and had to leave campus to get away from all of the distraction. It’s a serious party during that game.”
The Wildcats and Bulldogs game is early this season, and Coach Jenkins is expecting quite the show.
The Spirit of The Sport
High school football in the River Parishes is not only the community’s Friday night hub to get together and enjoy the rush of the sport, it’s an opportunity to raise future leaders.
“High school holds a special place in the hearts of our students and alum,” said Coach Salt. “If you ask someone where they went to school, they tell you their high school, not their college. It’s a unique opportunity that we have to really influence these young men — to teach them how to be great men.”
And they do become great men. Whether it’s in the NFL, coaching a River Parish team, or supporting their community’s school on a Friday night, the alumni of River Parish football are prepared to deal with adversity, with success and failure, and with having a network of support that encourages dedication and teamwork.
OPPOSITE PAGE: The East St. John Wildcats take the field to start their 2017-18 football season.
By Kevin O’Sullivan