'I never saw us not playing tonight:' How Raleigh football honored Isaiah Strickland two days after his death

MADISON – Football usually takes over Ryan Higdon’s mind on Friday nights. The Raleigh coach has his eyes fixated on bringing the Lions a state championship after reaching the MHSAA Class 3A semifinals last season.

This Friday was completely different. There was a collection of thoughts roaming through Higdon’s mind – much more than making sure his Lions were aligned correctly offensively or motivating his players.

Higdon’s mother, Cherie Higdon, died Monday. Then junior defensive back Isaiah Strickland died early Wednesday morning in a car accident. Strickland was the second Lions player to die this year; 16-year-old Ethan Adcock drowned on June 23.

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Raleigh running back Suntarine Perkins carries against Madison-Ridgeland in Madison, Friday, Sept. 23, 2022.
Raleigh running back Suntarine Perkins carries against Madison-Ridgeland in Madison, Friday, Sept. 23, 2022.

Raleigh (4-1) traveled to Madison-Ridgeland Academy (5-2) Friday as a final tune-up before district play, but the outcome was much more than the game. Higdon, his program and the Raleigh community were grieving. Football – at least for a few hours – would become the main focus as the community clings together

Higdon is usually just a football coach on gameday. Friday, he had to show strength in the face of tragedy – he didn't have any other options.

“It was very important (to honor Strickland),” Higdon said. “I never saw us not playing tonight.

“I gotta be strong. We got to come back Sunday and we got to get better. We got to move on. We start district next week. We start our second season. We want to win a state championship and that’s when it starts.”

Strickland’s father, Floyd Strickland, led the Lions onto the field donning his son’s No. 11 jersey. Isaiah’s best friend, Jermaine Keyes, wore his jersey during the game. Also, both teams wore stickers with “I.S 11” to honor Isaiah. Floyd was touched to see the outpouring of support, especially because of how much Isaiah loved the program.

“Everytime I asked Isaiah how the game was, even though I would be at the game, he’s always telling me about some other player on the team,” Floyd said. “How they did well or how they stepped up. I would have to pry to get him to talk about himself. He was such a team player. He loved the team. Seeing how they embrace him and reciprocate that just tells us about the character of our team.

“I couldn’t be more proud of my community. The love, support, and generosity. Just everything you could ask for. Ethan’s family and my family are connected in a way that we have not been connected before and the community has really corralled around both families. For that I’m grateful.”

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Isaiah, known for his “infectious smile”, was a first-year starter and had 22 tackles and two fumble recoveries this season.

Raleigh lost 39-28 to MRA behind three touchdown passes from Southern Miss commitment John White. However, for the Lions it was all about honoring Isaiah.

“We just put up a fight for him,” Keyes said. “Fight and pray. That’s all we can do. He was like a brother to me.”

Javarious Walker scored three TDs for Raleigh, including two kickoff returns and a 19-yard TD run. The Patriots had a 17-0 lead with 7:56 left in the first quarter before Walker rattled off back-to-back TDs. Higdon watched his team go from still figuring out how to handle their emotions in the first quarter to pushing the defending MAIS Class 6A champions to the brink.

“We stick together; we fight together,” Walker said. “We do everything as a family. We’re brothers.

“It felt amazing. We’ve all done it for him. We’ve all done it for each other. We fought all the way to the end.”

This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: How Raleigh football honored Isaiah Strickland two days after his death