St. Gabriel youth football champions honored

Zachary Junda
St. Gabriel's 10-0 senior football team coached by Gerald York (far left), Frank Cushenberry (blue hat), Juan Darville (second right), and Khristopher Grace (far right).

The community of St. Gabriel gathered together Monday evening in the St. Gabriel Community Center to celebrate yet another Super Bowl victory for the St. Gabriel Tigers youth football team.

The Tigers have been a dominant force in the Southern Youth Athletic Conference, winning the league's championship four out of the last six years and finishing as the runner up in the fifth year.

"It means a whole lot to me and the community," Melvin Craige Sr. said. "To participate in six Super Bowls and win four of them, runner up in another, it means a heck of a lot. Our sports program is moving in the right direction."

The success of the football program might be the attention, but in St. Gabriel it's the community's ascension that means most to Craige and all the others who call the Eastern part of Iberville Parish home. St. Gabriel has a dominant youth sports program, yes. But East Iberville High School is on the rise as well, now a B-school.

School and community come first in St. Gabriel. That's why Craige Sr. invited Mayor Lionel Johnson and Jillian Dotson and Dr. Calvin Nicholas, principals of MSA-East and East Iberville High, to speak to the athletes about the importance of placing the emphasis on the "student" in the phrase student-athlete.

"Everybody has athletic ability," Mayor Johnson told the team. "Don't rely totally on your athletic ability. You are one slip away from ending your career. What are you going to do next? Go to school. Make school an important part of your life. Go to college, get a trade. Do something to make your life a better quality."

Also invited to speak to the Tiger youth football team was a St. Gabriel football legend. Eugene Daniels played cornerback collegiately at LSU and enjoyed a 14-year career in the NFL, 13 with the Indianapolis Colts and his final year with the Baltimore Ravens. He was even coached by Craige growing up.

But Daniels wasn't able to play high school football for St. Gabriel. He had to play in Baton Rouge and is glad that this current generation of football players has a chance to play for their hometown.

"I didn't have football when I was here," Daniels said. "The program that they brought to them and what they've got now is huge.”

On the field, the Tigers were a dominant group. The senior team (ages 11 and 12) went 10-0 this past season. The Tiger defense was an immovable object, only allowing 21 points over the course of the season. St. Gabriel's biggest test came in the Super Bowl against the No Limit Steelers. The Tigers trailed the Steelers 14-6 at halftime but came roaring back to win 19-14, claiming the program's fourth title in six seasons.

Monday night was not simply a celebration of the Tiger youth football team, it was a celebration of St. Gabriel as an entire community. The mayor, principals of the area's high schools, and the town's chief of staff all came out to support the toast of the town Monday night.

The boys got their championship rings in front of virtually the entire town. That, as Craige said, was by design.

"That's what we wanted to do, bring the whole community together," Craige said.

Community and football. They go hand-in-hand in St. Gabriel. It's fitting then, that as the youth football program emerges as a powerhouse, the town that supports it increases in its prosperity. And for the previous generation like Eugene Daniels said, there's nothing more meaningful than keeping St. Gabriel's future in St. Gabriel.

"When I was those kids age, I had to go to Baton Rouge to play football. There was no football team," Daniels said. "And then to see this now what they're doing with this program and to let these kids know that you can play football here, you can get an education here, and you can still be good and prosper and all those other things that are coming in the future. I think that's the biggest part."