Tracey Cooper never had a doubt.
If JaRon Toney got behind “Moses” as much as he could down the stretch, the state record for rushing touchdowns in a season didn’t have a chance.
Cooper felt the nickname “Moses” was the best fit for Alcoa High School senior Derek Evans.
“I told him, ‘I call you Moses because when you go through that defensive line, they part like the Red Sea,’” she said.
Oh, it parted big time.
Toney tore through the state record for rushing touchdowns - and then some - falling in behind the blocks of Evans and fellow Tornado offensive linemen Jon Burchfield, John Tucker Rankin, Justin Marsh, Marcel Walden, John Weatherly, tight ends Tyler Robinson and Caleb Mangum and fullback Taharin Tyson.
Cooper knows them all. Each football season her Alcoa Highway Exxon becomes the unofficial headquarters of Tornado-mania for 15 weeks. An alumnus of the school and one of its proudest boosters, she was looking for a way to show her support for the team four years ago.
Customers tend to like a quick read when standing in line, so Cooper began clipping results from the team’s games from newspapers each Friday, enlarging the photos and stories and affixing them to poster board, then ringing the ceiling of the store with week-by-week highlights.
It’s become quite a show.
“I’m an Alcoa alumnus, and my brother played football there way back,” she said. “We’ve known most of these kids since they were in Pee Wees.”
The mini billboards are only the start for Cooper.
The football team’s roster has experienced explosive growth during Gary Rankin’s four seasons coach. The Tornadoes (15-0) won a record sixth consecutive state championship last weekend in Cookeville, shutting out then-unbeaten Milan, 21-0, in the Class 3A BlueCross Bowl at Tennessee Tech.
The title was a record-tying 11th overall for Alcoa, pulling the Tornadoes even with arch-rival Maryville, who set the new mark two seasons ago.
You’ve got to go the extra mile to show your support for such a team, Cooper felt, especially the seniors, most of whom had been Tornadoes in one fashion or another all the way back to youth football. Along with the poster-board highlights that season, Cooper made the first of what’s become an annual visit to Angel Nails in New Midland Plaza.
There, artist Michal Lee gives Cooper the hook up, airbrushing the jersey number of each senior in silver on her nails, the numbers set against a maroon background. In years when the team has more than 10 seniors, she rotates them each week. The whole thing is a time-intensive operation, but it’s one Cooper feels matters a great deal.
“You have so many kids that are from different backgrounds,” she said. “You want to take care of all of them.”
There are many things a high school kid can get into, she says, and not all of them are good. Coaches like Rankin can have a positive, far-reaching impact on the players under their charge. Football ends for many players after high school. The game still teaches teamwork and life skills, so she gets behind the team.
Bud Cooper, an Alcoa police officer, gets a kick out of his wife’s annual lapses into Tornado-mania. A member of Alcoa’s first state championship team 32 years ago, he’s all for it.
“It shows our school pride and the pride we have in the program and the kids we have,” he said.
Weekly maintenance of her own, personal “Tornado Alley” took on greater importance this season as Toney began to close on the state record. When the senior running back hit 30 touchdowns in the eighth game, Cooper added a countdown in big, bold numbers to each week’s board. When Toney hit 35 by the end of the regular season, Cooper knew the record was a sitting duck.
By last week’s championship game, Toney had climbed well above former Riverdale standout Ralph King’s previous mark of 43 rushing touchdowns in a season. The Gatorade state player of the year and Mr. Football finalist had eclipsed the previous state marks for rushing/receiving touchdowns and points scored as well.
Scoring each of Alcoa’s three touchdowns in the championship game, Alcoa’s “Touchdown Toney” left behind sizeable state records for rushing scores (50), rushing/receiving scores (52) and points (318) for his successors to chase. He gashed opposing defenses for 2,346 yards rushing in the process.
Bud Cooper, Toney’s youth coach when the future Tornado star was only 7, couldn’t have been more proud.
“I knew he was going to be special,” he said. “I knew it. In Grasshoppers, he scored every one of our touchdowns but one.”
Following the championship game, Toney was named its offensive most valuable player for the second consecutive year.
Couldn’t happen to a nicer kid, Tracey Cooper said.
“You don’t understand how amazing a young man he is,” she said. “He’s so stern, and he’s so quiet. I tell his mom this all the time, and she laughs at me; he’s so beautiful a person that he can walk into a room, and you know he’s there.”
One of her favorite moments this season came during a fund-raiser for the booster club, Cooper said, involving one of her favorite Tornadoes, linebacker Dee Herbert. Several Tornadoes had agreed to don prom dresses in a spoof fashion show. Her daughter Victoria’s former gown fit Herbert best.
“We had them trying on their dresses and everything,” Cooper said, “and he (Herbert) said, ‘Mrs. Tracey, I make this dress look good!’”
Few Tornadoes looked better than Herbert last weekend. Battling a lower-leg injury throughout the playoffs, Alcoa’s happy warrior collected a game-high 13 tackles in being named BlueCross Bowl Defensive Most Valuable Player.
“He has the biggest heart on the entire field,” Cooper said. “He will hit you with everything he’s got in his body.”
There’s a lot to look back on this season, she said, but if there’s one game that tops them all it’s the night Toney broke King’s record in a 34-7 semifinal win at Elizabethton.
Toney entered the game needing one more score to break it. He had three by halftime, prompting a nearby Cyclone fan to turn and inform her Toney was one of the best backs he’d seen all season, Cooper said.
“I said, ‘Just watch,’” she said. “‘He’s not finished yet.’”
Early in the second half, Toney got loose for No. 4, and the rest is history.