Outfitted in blue-and-gold helmets and their white away uniforms, the Mississippi College football team huddled after fighting to the 40-yard line inside the Tom Braly Stadium in their game against North Alabama University on Sept. 12, 2015. Head Coach John Bland called to No. 6, wide receiver Marcel Newson.
“Just run down there and catch it,” Bland instructed.
“He’s going to throw it?” Newson asked, verifying the battle plan.
“Yeah, just run down there and catch it,” the football coach confirmed.
The team lined up face-to-face with the Lions, adorned in purple-and-gold jerseys. Suddenly, the teams’ tension broke as players moved along the field for the play, fulfilling their assigned roles. Newson, former Northwest Community College defensive back, sprinted toward the endzone, a Lion on his tail.
Over his shoulder, Newson saw the ball sailing through the air. The Coldwater, Miss., native, barely into his first season with Mississippi College, initially thought the ball would fly outside his reach. He dove for it regardless, reeling it in and clutching it tightly as he landed chest-first onto the orange, rectangular pylon placed in the corner of the endzone.
“And the pass is caught, and it is a touchdown!” a sports commentator emphatically announced in film coverage of the play that gave the team its first score of the game.
“Wow, I actually caught that—and it was on TV,” Newson thought then.
From the Steelers to Neshoba County
Marcel Newson went on to have a stellar career as a wide receiver at Mississippi College. He was a nominee for the C Spire Conerly Trophy, honoring the top four-year college football players in Mississippi. He earned an All-NCCAA Second Team selection and his team’s offensive MVP honor.
His performance also earned him a mini-camp invitation from the Pittsburgh Steelers. He made the team in 2017.
“It was a great experience. I was just blessed to be in the locker room with those guys that you see on TV every Sunday,” Newson said. “As a kid, it’s what you dream about.”
After the Steelers let him go after his first season, Newson took some time off to decide whether he wanted to continue playing the sport before his mother convinced him to not give up. Now, with the newly organized Magnolia State Spartans based in Philadelphia, Miss., he has another chance to play professional football.
“I’ve always wanted to play for a professional team at home in Mississippi and bring a championship here,” the 27-year-old said. “I think this is a very exciting chance for the team and the whole organization. We don’t have major sports here. I just love to play here. I want to be at home.”
Mississippi: Underdog No Longer
Charles Roberts owns and manages the Spartans, an arena-football team. No stranger to professional sports, Roberts previously served as the general manager for the Elite Indoor Football League’s Mississippi Raiders and as assistant GM for the Mississippi Storm. He earned a bachelor’s degree in sports management from the University of Southern Mississippi and also holds a master’s in sports-administration leadership.
“I started this team because I feel Mississippi is lacking a true professional football identity, and I want to provide that,” he said. “I want (us) to be to Mississippi what the Saints are to New Orleans.”
Roberts began the process of bringing the professional arena team to the state in August 2021. Deciding on the team’s name and logo were the first acts for the new organization.
“A lot of people (use) ‘Mississippi,’ which is great, but with the changing of the flag I wanted to bring more emphasis on the new flag and the magnolia being represented,” Roberts said. “I wanted a name that was infamous with success. The movie ‘300’ actually sparked (the name ‘Spartans’). They were underdogs—like I feel Mississippi is—but after they proved themselves, they weren’t underdogs any longer.”
The Spartans will play their home schedule at the Neshoba County Coliseum in Roberts’ hometown of Philadelphia. Roberts specifically chose the city to bring a different type of entertainment and attention to the central region of the state.
“Jackson has a lot of activities,” he said. “The coast has a lot of things (to do). Even Hattiesburg has a lot of things (to do), but nothing that has been in (the Philadelphia) area.”
Next, the team then needed to find a league and secure sponsorships.
“We are very happy to be with the Arena Football Association,” Roberts said. “It is African American-based, (and) it’s a big opportunity to be awarded as an expansion team to the league. That’s very exciting for Mississippi to get that type of platform.”
Black entrepreneurs Douglas C. Freeman, Maximilian L. Hamilton and Fredrick Smith founded the Arena Football Association, or AFA, in 2021 with five teams. The league touts that it has “built upon the pillars of diversity, equity and inclusion,” with a focus on offering opportunities for women in minority groups to hold ownership and operator positions. The association also added the Wichita Force to the league this season. The expansion marks the first time that the league has included teams from outside Texas.
“The Arena Football Association is focused on placing its franchises in underserved markets, targeting cities whose populations range from 200,000 to 2 million,” a Spartans press release stated. “The league is built on a world-class business model designed to drive league growth. Every team must adhere to strict business operations principles that help to ensure economic stability.”
A Team with Experience
Dexter Allen, who has experience guiding teams from the sidelines at both Mississippi College and Provine High School, will take on the role of head coach for the Spartans. Familiar with arena football, which is played indoors, Allen has also served as the defensive coordinator for the Mississippi Raiders Arena Football team. Former Arizona Razorbacks linebacker CJ McLain will take the reins as head assistant and defensive coordinator.
“All our coaches are very experienced,” Roberts said. “They are going to put a product on the field that the state can be proud of.”
The organization began hosting its training camp on March 6. The final roster includes 25 active players and five practice-squad team members.
Roberts said that approximately half the players will be from the Magnolia State like Newson. Others, like New York native Michael DoCarmo, will join the team from other parts of the country. DoCarmo, a Marine Corps veteran, began playing semi-pro football with the New Jersey Bearcats in 2021.
“I’ve always wanted to move down south, and once I found what the team was all about, I was 100% ready to join the team,” DoCarmo said. “I think it is a great thing for the state of Mississippi.”
He will join the team as linebacker on defense and as fullback on offense.
“The positioning is different in arena football,” he said. “It’s played indoors with walls. It’s real fast-paced football. It’s completely different and a lot of fun to watch and play.”
Games are played on a 50-yard field with eight players per side and 15-minute quarters. Players play both offense and defense. Games are more fast-paced than the traditional professional football league, and games involve higher scoring. Seasons contain 10 regular games and a playoff and championship series. The Spartans will play their first home game on April 23.
“If you’ve never seen arena football, definitely take the step out of your comfort zone and go watch it,” DoCormo recommended. “It’s an exhilarating sport to watch. If you have the chance to go watch one of these games, go watch. You will have a good time.”
The Spartans’ first home game of the season will kick off at 7 p.m. on Saturday, April 23, at Neshoba County Coliseum (12000 Highway 15 N., Suite 2, Philadelphia). To learn more about the Magnolia State Spartans or to find the team’s completed schedule and ticket information, visit ms-spartans.com.footballshift.