On school days at Denham Springs High School, Principal Kelly Jones finishes morning announcements with a familiar sign-off.
“It’s a great day to be a Yellow Jacket,” he says.
Sept. 8 at Yellow Jacket Stadium, as Denham Springs High hosted its first on-campus event since August record floodwaters severely damaged the school and ravaged the community, was clearly one of those times.
Students and fans joined the football team, the cheerleaders and the Jackettes dance team for what must have been the largest, most heartfelt pep rally in school history, one that celebrated not only the belated start to Denham’s football season one night later but, organizers hoped, a return of the city to some sense of normalcy.
The familiar sounds of the Denham Springs High band, with brass blaring and drums thumping, filled a stadium awash with purple-and-gold attire and abuzz with school spirit.
ESPN was on hand to chronicle the developments, part of a three-day stay in Denham Springs as football at the school made its return.
“It’s indescribable,” said season-ticket holder Shirley Carlisle, the widow of former Denham Springs High coach and principal and Livingston Parish School Board member Louis “Loody” Carlisle. “To see this many people come together with so many families that have suffered damages, this is unreal. People have just come together, and we’re real strong. This shows it tonight how strong people are.”
Four weeks earlier, Carlisle opened the doors of the house on Jackson Street where she has lived for 53 years, one block from the school where she has attended football games for five decades and watched 3 to 4 inches of floodwaters race through her home “like a river,” leaving her furniture and her floors in ruins.
In a city where a majority of the homes were flooded, her experience was shared by most who gathered for the pep rally that Thursday night.
Alicia Robertson, whose son, Matthew, began his senior year at Denham last month, reported nearly 3 feet of water in her home near Cockerham Road.
“It’s so much more than a pep rally,” Robertson said, seated in a section of bleachers near the 50-yard line. “It’s the way for all of us to come back together.”
The scene was one Jones may have envisioned when he and Denham football coach Dru Nettles, a fellow DSHS graduate, sat down in the days after the flooding and began charting their alma mater’s return.
Designating the home opener against Tara as the first game back for Denham football was one of the first public statements the school made in regards to its recovery efforts.
Why the pep rally?
“We just decided if we’re going to play football on Friday night, we’re going to have one heck of party on Thursday night to celebrate the fact that we’re back on campus,” Jones said.
The Denham Springs football players, wearing the purple game jerseys they’d don a night later, left their temporary lockers in indoor batting cages and joined thousands of fans who, like most of the players, had escaped the troubles they faced outside the stadium to enjoy a brief retreat inside of it.
For Carlisle, it meant putting on those Yellow Jacket earrings she usually reserves for Friday nights.
Students in the student section were in their usual gameday garb, as well, some donning face paint or sunglasses or purple bandannas. They held signs that read “The Hive Is Alive,” “Yellow Jackets Have Hope Against All Odds” and “Make Denham Springs Great Again.”
On the field, there were all the festivities typical of any school-day pep rally.
The Jackettes performed a dance routine. The cheerleaders and football players tossed gifts into the crowd.
As the band played the alma mater, students locked arms and recited the words.
” … Conquer and prevail. Hail to thee our alma mater. Denham Springs, all hail!”
On Monday, the Denham students began classes at rival Live Oak as part of a split-day platoon schedule.
The campus “on old Denham’s northern border,” as described in the alma mater, will not be fit to reopen for another few months.
When the pep rally ended, the heaps of furniture, drywall and debris outside the homes would wait.
But the community could put that aside as it celebrated the team and the school and the road to recovery.
“We, as a group, have to lead this community back,” Nettles said.
The night before beginning his junior season, Denham football player Hunter Scott recalled a meeting Jones had with the team in the days after the floodwaters receded.
“He said they weren’t separating us, that we were staying together and that football would help us,” Scott said. “He said we would shine a light through the city.”
The lights of the stadium were on last Thursday night.
The light shined bright.