The National Football League's Bradley Sowell returned to his old high school gym Friday as his Tiger gold jersey, No. 77, was officially retired.
A throng of cheering students looked on from the bleachers at Hernando High School as friends, family, former classmates and teachers paid tribute.
"It's an awesome experience," said Sowell, who currently plays offensive tackle for the Chicago Bears. "The leadership from the town that I got when I was here enabled me to become what I am today."
Sowell credited his hardworking parents, Diane and Keith Sowell, his former coach Anthony Jenkins and teachers with spurring him on to achieve excellence both on and off the football field.
"I didn't come from the most privileged of families, but I learned to appreciate the things I had been given," said Sowell in an inspiring address to fellow Tigers inside the school gym as his jersey was retired from the roster.
Earlier, during a reception at the Gale Center, Sowell wiped tears from his eyes as he recounted how his parents had sacrificed so that he could play sports.
"We didn't have a lot growing up," Sowell said during a brief address at that reception. "I know it broke your back."
His mom Diane worked several part-time jobs throughout the years that Sowell was in high school.
Sowell's father, Keith Sowell, said his son never gave him any trouble and showed an inclination to play sports at a young age.
"He was always a good kid growing up," Keith Sowell said. "He has always loved playing ball since we first took him to Walmart. It didn't matter what kind of ball it was."
The elder Sowell said his son was always glued to the television to watch sports.
"He always wanted to watch ESPN, even when I wanted to change the channel," Keith Sowell said. "He watched every football game there was."
Sowell, who graduated from Hernando High School in 2007, would go on to letter in three sports and would be ranked among the top 14 athletes in Mississippi.
Keith Sowell said his son was "humbled and honored" for his jersey to be retired and for the entire town to come out and help celebrate his accomplishments.
"He loves this city like we all do," said Keith Sowell, adding that the Sowell family has lived in the Hernando area for more than four generations.
Hernando Mayor Tom Ferguson said he grew up with Keith Sowell and went to school with the elder Sowell. Ferguson graduated in 1982.
"He's a mentor to young children," Ferguson said. "He's achieved a lot in life. He's a good role model for our youth."
For his part, Sowell said his life has been a struggle but it has been rewarding.
"Once you get older and you go on to college and then the NFL, it's (playing football) is your job," Sowell said. "It's no longer a little boy's game. You have to take it seriously."
Ward 2 Alderman Andrew Miller said Sowell is among several NFL athletes to call Hernando home, such as the Houston Texans' Deljuan Robinson and the New York Giants' Kevin Dockery, who also played for the St. Louis Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers. Robinson and Dockery were both previously honored with retiring of their jerseys as well.
Former Principal Freddie Joseph also lauded Sowell.
"He was always very kind and respectful," Joseph said. "Well-mannered. He lived by example. He was an excellent role model for his peers."
Former DeSoto County Superintendent Milton Kuykendall was also on hand to pay tribute to Sowell.
"I got to watch him play for eight years," Kuykendall said. "Both in high school and at Ole Miss. It's easy for us to say all of these accolades but I know the sweat and hard work to accomplish all that you did. I want you to know how proud I am of you."
During the jersey retirement ceremony, Sowell paid a special tribute to DeSoto County Athletic Director Anthony Jenkins, who was the Tigers football coach when Sowell enjoyed a stellar career as tight end and offensive tackle. Sowell would go on to earn a business degree from Ole Miss.
"Coach Jenkins came and got me when I was in the ninth grade and convinced me to play," Sowell said. "He found me walking in the hallway. I don't know that I would be where I am without him," Sowell said of Jenkins.
Sowell confessed to the more than 1,000 students gathered in the bleachers that at one time he was "scared of playing football."
"I quit football in seventh-grade because I was scared," Sowell said, adding that following a brutal one-on-one matchup known as the "Oklahoma Drill," he almost walked away from the game of football. "A few years went by and when I was in the ninth grade, I heard a voice say, 'Come here.' It was Coach Jenkins. He said have you ever played football?"
Sowell said he kept quiet about the fact that he had been "scared to play football" at an earlier age.
"I said, sure, I'll come out and play football," Sowell said, adding that, by then, he stood 6 ft. 6-inches tall and weighed 280 pounds in high school.
Jenkins returned the praise when it came his turn to introduce Sowell.
"This couldn't have happened to a better person," Jenkins said. "You have represented all of us the right way."
As Sowell strode to the podium, he was given a standing ovation.
"I want to say thank you," Sowell said, as wife Jessica sat nearby, looking on admiringly of her husband of six years.
Sowell echoed what he said earlier during the Gale Center reception in his honor. "It's an honor to be back in my hometown. The Sowell family has been here since the 1800s. To be able to cement my family's legacy at the high school is something really special. The retiring of my jersey is something that we share together. The leadership of the town got me to where I am today."
Sowell also thanked Danny Phillips, longtime Hernando Youth Sports program director and current National Commissioner of Dizzy Dean Baseball, for enabling him and his brothers to play sports, often when times were hard for the family financially.
"A lot of the things I learned from Danny Phillips and Dizzy Dean Baseball," Sowell said. "Many times we didn't have the money to play and you made sure my brothers and I were able to play."
In the high school gym, Sowell told the students in the audience they needed to keep on trying, even when the chips are down or obstacles might be in their way.
"Even after going to Ole Miss and all the success I had there, I was an undrafted free agent in the NFL. Even today, I show up and there is a new wave of young guys trying to steal my job. There was one gift I was given and that was a struggle. I have learned that at the end of every struggle comes a great blessing. Pick something out and follow your dreams."
Robert Lee Long is Community Editor of the DeSoto Times-Tribune. He may be contacted at email@example.com or at 662-429-6397, Ext. 252.