There's a sign leading to the football locker rooms at Eagles Stadium in Paris with the words "If you aren't prepared to put the team first, TURN AROUND."
It would've been easy for Paris players to turn around and quit when the Eagles were going 0-10 in 2018 and 3-7 in 2019. But they refused to bail on coach Tyler Clark, who was the offensive line coach at Marion before taking over at Paris three years ago.
"When coach Clark came in as the new coach, we switched from the Wing-T to the Spread offense and it was a little hard for us at first," said Keller Keen, one of nine seniors on the Paris roster. "But Coach Clark showed us 'FITE, which stands for focus, intensity, toughness, and effort and we lived by that every day until we got better and better.'"
The year 2020 will long be remembered for the disruptions, restrictions, and cancellations inflicted on the sports world by the spread of covid-19. But high school football fans in Paris will also long remember 2020 as a breakout season for the Eagles, who improved to 11-1 after beating Greenland 35-12 Friday in the Class 3A state playoffs. The win advanced Paris to the quarterfinals at Hoxie (12-0), which eliminated Newport 48-28 on Friday.
Jett Dennis of Greenland entered Friday's playoff game as the leading rusher in the state with 2,082 yards and 22 touchdowns on 300 carries. Dennis had touchdown receptions of 39 and 10 yards after catching screen passes from Gabe Wilson, but the Greenland offense was mostly contained by the Paris defense. The Eagles' defensive line kept up the pressure all night and contributed to three interceptions, two by Duke Walker and one by Alec Highfield.
Walker also contributed a 3-yard touchdown run in support of Ely Fore, a senior who scored on touchdown runs of 1, 11, and 22 yards for Paris, whose only loss is 28-20 to Booneville.
"Our defensive line and, really our whole defense, has played really well all year," Clark said of the Eagles, who beat Salem 40-32 in a first-round game. "They've been the backbone of this team all year and we continue to prove people wrong."
Greenland was devastated by a penalty in the third quarter that nullified a touchdown pass that would've cut the Paris lead to 21-19 with a successful extra-point kick following the score. Forced to throw again on fourth down, Walker killed the drive when he intercepted a pass from Wilson at the Paris 13. Walker then opened the fourth quarter with a 3-yard touchdown run to extend the Paris lead to 28-12.
The loss ended a seven-game winning streak for Greenland (9-3), which beat Perryville 49-7 in a first-round game.
Twenty-eight teams won playoff games Friday in Arkansas but none were more notable than Paris, which started 8-0 for the first time since the 1950s and was picked to finish fourth in a league dominated by Booneville. The Eagles are one of the state's biggest stories not only for where they are in the quarterfinals, but because of where they've been after enduring 0-10 and 3-7 seasons. Their success is a message to all athletes who must decide whether to fight through the hard times or just simply turn around and walk away.
Coach Clark knew the answer and he got the Eagles to believe it, too.
"If you'll just keep plugging away and trusting the process, things are going to turn around for you," Clark said. "So many coaches don't ever get to say that. But I'm fortunate enough to coach a great group of kids and they kept believing in us when nobody else probably did. I'm so happy they're seeing the results now."
Rick Fires can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NWARick.