I am a sucker for stories about out-of-the-way places. So when I came across this excellent piece by Joseph Goodman of AL.com about tiny Sweet Water in Marengo County, I had to take a peek.
The story was about this small 1A high school and their quest to win a state football championship last week. (Which they did on Dec. 7 by defeating Pickens County 20-6.)
But as is usually the case, well-done pieces such as this one reveal a lot more than just about blocking and tackling and touchdowns.
Let’s take a look:
“The heart of Alabama is Sweet Water High School, and it’s down a small country road in Marengo County, and then an even smaller country road, and then a piece of road so small and so familiar to the people who travel it, they know exactly where the lazy dogs will be resting every day as they drive by. Down that road, in southwest Alabama, is the heart of this state, and you can’t begin to understand it unless you go there.
There is a blinking yellow light in Sweet Water, but the logging trucks don’t slow down for it. Small clouds of ditch cotton rise up and dance down main street as they drive past. The local cotton gin has been in operation since 1840. This has been a big year for Alabama cotton, so they might be ginning in Sweet Water until February.
A lot of people have been questioning the heart of Alabama these days, and wondering what it is, and knowing what it is not, so I went for a visit. If there are such things as “Alabama values,” Sweet Water High School is where they teach them.
On the eve of Sweet Water’s proudest moment in years — an appearance in the Class 1A state football championship game on Thursday — I went and spent the day. It is a special place, and easy to love. The people of Sweet Water and Marengo County are proud of their K-12 school, which excels in both academics and athletics. They call it the “treasure in the forest.” It truly is.
Sweet Water is one of 12 remaining K-12 schools in the state. It is 61 percent white and 37 percent black. Almost 70 percent of those who attend receive free or reduced lunches. Some of the bus routes are over 90-minutes long. Much like the rest of Alabama, Sweet Water is a place shaped by its past, but looking to the future.
In the heart of Alabama, there’s a thing people value almost more than a nurturing classroom environment for their children. That thing is high school football. At Sweet Water, they play the game very well. Sweet Water has won eight state championships (1978, 1979, 1982, 1986, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010), and they’ll try to make it nine at 3 p.m. on Thursday against Pickens County.
Sweet Water’s football coach, Pat Thompson, grew up in the area. His father worked in the timber industry, but he was called to coaching. Like most everyone in Sweet Water, Thompson hunts and fishes and goes to church for fun. He was nice enough to entertain this reporter’s questions before his team’s big game. In the heart of Alabama, they are nothing if not accommodating.
What makes Sweet Water so special?
“The people,” he said.”
Coach Thompson could have been speaking about many rural hamlets across this state.