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Bidding farewell to a trio of greats

It was a week of lasts in the Black Belt. West Alabama head coach Bobby Wallace announced his retirement Wednesday. Then he went out Thursday and led the team to a victory over Valdosta State for the first time in decades. Wallace, a Division II Hall of Famer, ended an unparalleled coaching career at the Division II level the way he should have ended it, with a win over a big time program.

That is all assuming the Tigers do not get the unbelievable amount of help they need from other teams to make the Division II playoffs.

Wallace did a fantastic job at UWA. He took a program that was largely irrelevant on any scale and put life back into it. He validated university leadership’s faith in him and the athletic department and proved that winning is possible in Livingston.

Now the bar is raised and every time UWA takes the field there is the feeling that the Tigers may very well win the game. That may be just as great of an accomplishment as his three straight national titles at North Alabama.

Wallace’s tenure in Livingston was made easier by the career of quarterback Deon Williams. The signal-caller, who first made his name by torturing the Hoover High defense in the state playoffs on MTV’s now defunct Two-a-Days series, has virtually renamed the UWA record book after himself.

He owns the career mark for total offense and passing yards at the university, and Friday found his name on the list of 24 finalists for the Harlon Hill Trophy, the Division II equivalent to the Heisman.

Much like Wallace, Williams went out the right way if his career is indeed over.

The same cannot be said for Demopolis High’s DaMarcus James. His ending was a little more bitter Friday night as his Tigers lost in the second round of the state playoffs to Hueytown. But James’ career is like so few others before him. He finished his career with 6,496 yards rushing, a mark that is good enough for ninth all-time according to state records. James narrowly missed becoming the sixth player in state history to rush for 7,000 yards.

His accolades are well-documented. And his 42-carry, 293-yard performance in the Class 5A state championship game a season ago is little short of legendary.

With James, most will remember the numbers, the wins and the accolades. Some will remember the sheer joy of watching him run the football with a style that was reminiscent of a video game. But for those who really followed him, his career will always be indicative of the right way to play the game.

James, gruff and punishing on the field, proved the ideal teammate and person off it. He went to work each day at practice. He only spoke when necessary and always led by example. His approach and work ethic earned the respect of his teammates and brought about the results which earned the fear of his opponents. And when Friday night’s loss is a distant memory, it will be his class and demeanor that sticks with those who knew him best. It’s a bittersweet time for football fans in the Black Belt. A college coaching legend, a dynamic playmaking quarterback and a high-character, record-breaking high school running back have left it all on the field for the final time.

Jeremy D. Smith is the sports editor of the Demopolis Times