Mississippi football team focuses on healing after losing coach to COVID-19

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LAFAYETTE CO., Miss. — One high school football team forfeited their first-round playoff game this week because of COVID, ending their season. But this year wasn’t just about winning and losing for Lafayette High— it was also about healing.

Nacoma James is described as a nearly perfect football coach—a man who played both sides, getting the best from his players between the lines, while taking care of them off the field.

“He just wanted us to win, basically. And work hard, and make sure we do it right,” said DQ Watkins, Lafayette High Defensive End.

“He was tough on these guys,” said Lafayette High Head Coach Michael Fair. “He demanded their best and got it out of them.”

As the Lafayette High School football team started practicing this summer, no one in Mississippi knew if a season would be played, but the commodores prepared anyway.

The coaching staff says they took safety precautions, keeping players socially distant and vigorously cleaning equipment.

But after a few weeks of team workouts, James started to feel sick.

“Of course, he had sinuses flare up every once in a while, that’s what we thought he had,” said his wife Laticia James.

But things took a drastic turn, starting with breathing issues, then a fever. Eventually he was bed-ridden.

“To see my superhero laid out like that, I knew something was wrong,” Laticia said.

His first COVID test came back negative. But he was re-tested.

Less than a week after getting sick, he called his wife into their room.

“He started having serious conversations. He wanted to let me know how much he loved and appreciated me,” Laticia said.

As Laticia sat there, holding the love of her life, she noticed him slip away.

“He kinda started staring out into space you know? And I called his name,” Laticia said. “He was gone. Just like that in the blink of an eye, he was gone.”

James was only 42 years old.

The next day his family got a call. His most recent COVID test came back positive.

Five days after James’ death, Mississippi governor Tate Reeves declares football “essential” — the high school season can begin. 

The Commodores, unsure if they could take the field with such heavy hearts, had the most difficult decision of their lives.

The Commodores know that nothing can erase the pain of losing James, but after taking time to think and grieve, they decided to play their regular season as planned, honoring their beloved coach.

“Hey look, we want to do this the way that Coach James would’ve wanted us to do it. But that’s what we’re doing,” Fair said. “There’s no doubt in my mind, he would’ve wanted this football team to go out and never take a day for granted.”

“I know it warms his heart, that he has a big smile on his face every Friday night,” Laticia said. “I know it’s my husband, watching down.”

The Commodores wore a bowtie on the back of each helmet this season to honor James’ signature look.

His wife and the team named a kindness award after him, ensuring his legacy will continue for seasons to come.

But James is carrying an impact far greater than football, putting a face to the devastating effects the virus can have.

“With his passing, it just hit so close to home,” Fair said.

“It just made us think about how serious it was,” Watkins said. “We need to make sure nothing else like that happens.”

The Lafayette High Football team says this season is helping them grieve, and maybe even heal. 

“I believe God’s got a plan for every bit of it, and I really think Coach James is proud of what’s going on down here,” Fair said.

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