CHOCTAW — As Ferrell Thomas’ and Eric Billy’s introduction to stickball came at later points in their lives, the two had later-than-usual starts with the sport.
Today, as coaches, they’re doing everything they can to make sure others don’t.
Wednesday evening, Thomas and Billy paced up and down the sidelines of Choctaw Central High School’s football field, pausing every so often to offer instruction to their youth stickball teams.
Billy’s Koni-Osi team took a resounding 7-2 win over Thomas’ Lil’ Unified squad in the opening round of the State Games of Mississippi youth stickball tournament.
GALLERY: State Games Stickball
Photos by Paula Merritt / The Meridian Star
“I’m blessed to be put in this position,” Billy said. “I have been playing since I was a teenager — I kind of started late. But I guess it’s in my genes to love the game. I wouldn’t rather anything but to play stickball or coach.”
Unlike Billy, most of the youngsters participating in this year’s tournament have been around the sport ever since their tiny hands could first clutch a stick.
Each year, the State Games competition serves as a primer for the ever-competitive adult tournaments at the annual Choctaw Indian Fair in July. The youth tournament, however, does more than just whet the yearly stickball appetite. For the players in the 9-to-11 age bracket, it marks the first time they can play competitively in tournaments.
“Some of them, it seems like they’re born with it — they come right out of the womb with it,” Billy said. “Some of them start late, some, it’s as soon as they start walking — maybe even before.”
Thomas was 18 years old when he began playing tournament stickball. He’s now in his 10th years as a head coach.
“We didn’t have anything like this,” Thomas said with a laugh. “It’s really important. It keeps the tradition going, and when they get up to the men’s group, they’ll be pretty good.”
At just 11-years-old, the significance of the tradition of the sport isn’t lost on Seth Lewis. He watched older brother, Speedy Lewis, over the years navigate the youth stickball tournament, so he enlisted his help with practices ahead of the State Games competition.
The youngster said he’s doing his best to carry on a family tradition.
“It’s like an honor because I’m playing for my dad and brother,” he said.