Mississippi football family carries on after coronavirus claims beloved coach

Laticia and Nacoma James were married for five years. They loved being a football family. Courtesy Laticia James

It's been nearly two months, and Laticia James still can't sleep in her own home. She's stayed in a hotel and at her aunt's house, but she cannot bring herself to sleep in her own bedroom. It's where her husband died.

Nacoma James was a tough Mississippi high school football coach who always said he was fine, right up until he collapsed in his wife's arms on Aug. 6. He was pronounced dead about an hour later. Laticia learned from the coroner that James' COVID-19 results had just come back. He had tested positive.

A gregarious man built like an offensive tackle, the 42-year-old longtime assistant football coach at Lafayette High in Oxford was a people person. When the players and staff at Lafayette couldn't go to his funeral, they lined up along the school sidewalks as Laticia drove by. She was handed keepsakes -- a drawing of James and the floppy old camouflage sun hat he always wore to practice.

The season has gone on in Oxford, and everyone who knew James figured that's the way he would have wanted it. Being a football coach was not just what he did, it's who he was. Even Laticia's daughters called him Coach James. Before she met him, Laticia had the distinction of being one of the few Mississippians who didn't care much about football.

She learned fast by watching film with him and eventually morphed into a football wife, with crossed-out autumn calendars and carefully packed Friday night survival kits of sodas, Gatorade and rain gear.

But now she can't escape football. This past Friday night, as Lafayette was throttling Mooreville 42-7, Laticia drove around town, alone, eventually grief-shopping for clearance shoes she didn't even like. She's not sure who she is anymore if she's not a football wife, or Nacoma's wife.

"I have great friends and great family," she says. "But Nacoma was... It was my girls and Nacoma. That was my world. I don't know what to do with myself.

"At first I was mad. I'm still very mad. Why him? But then I thought about it. Why not him? All the kids respected him; the people in the community respected him. A lot of these people are not taking COVID seriously. But Coach James caught the COVID. And Coach James died from it. So it put a personalization, a realness on this pandemic. If it happened to him, it could happen to me."

JULY AND AUGUST were brutal months in Mississippi, accounting for about half of the state's 2,846 COVID-19 deaths. Twelve days after James died, the virus claimed the life of another coach, Rob Barnes, an assistant at Tupelo Christian Preparatory School. Barnes was a trainer who also coached track and looked much younger than his 65 years. His obituary said that Barnes trained hundreds of people, co-founded an a cappella quartet and "had a benevolent heart, especially for special needs kids."

Losing a beloved coach is hard, and in Oxford, Nacoma James' death shook the Lafayette school district. He had been coaching there since some of his current players were in diapers. James was with the team for much of the summer during offseason conditioning. He'd spray down the equipment with a bleach cleaner he called "the corona killer" and was one of the coaches trying to enforce physical distancing. Three weeks before he died, he attended an overnight coaches retreat in a cabin just outside of town. He got up and told the group, "I want everybody to know that what we have is really special. We need to take care of each other."

About two weeks after that retreat, James told coaches he was self-quarantining because what he initially thought was a sinus infection had turned into a fever. Lafayette superintendent Adam Pugh called James' death "a true punch in the gut to us as a district," and it was even more personal to him because Pugh coached and taught James decades ago in Eupora, Mississippi, and still considered him one of his "kids." Laticia works at Lafayette too, as an administrative assistant in the upper elementary school.

Pugh said the past six months have been the most stressful time in his 30 years as an educator. He said his No. 1 job is to keep students safe, and it's a constant challenge trying to enforce mask wearing and hand sanitizing, protocols that are difficult even for adults to follow.

But he believes that the Commodores should be playing football and that they can do it safely. His middle son, Andrew, is a senior kicker on the team.

"We never once talked about him not playing," Pugh says. "If we had a season, he was going to play. He enjoys playing, and to him, it's worth the risk.

"We gave the kids the option: You can play if you want. Look, these kids love football, and they wanted to play. In Mississippi, we don't have a pro team, so it's Friday night football and Saturday football. That's just the way it is."

In mid-July, the Mississippi High School Activities Association pushed back the start of the high school football season to Sept. 4, erasing two weeks of games. But football never really stops in the South. While the Big Ten and Pac-12 canceled their fall seasons in August -- the Big Ten reversing course a month later -- the SEC never blinked, delaying the season a few weeks but committing to play.

Football is as much of a way of life in Mississippi as the dewy humidity and the gas station hamburger-steak-and-green-bean lunches. Mississippians brag about having one of the highest per capita rates of football players who go on to the NFL. Football is pervasive in Oxford, home of the University of Mississippi, and it's not just Saturdays. When Mississippi's COVID-19 protocols limited stadium attendance to 25% capacity, Lafayette's season opener was shown on pay-per-view for $10.

The city of Oxford has two public high schools -- Oxford and Lafayette -- and both are very good at football. Oxford is the city school with the bigger tax base, and, subsequently, more money; Lafayette covers the rural and incorporated areas, some of which are so tiny they come with directions to take the gravel road to the oak tree. When the governor shut down schools in March and switched to virtual learning, it was a challenge for Lafayette's rural students. Pugh estimated that 40% of his student body doesn't have reliable internet.

But football knows no boundaries. In Oxford, the Crosstown Classic is one of the most anticipated events of the year. During spirit week leading up to the game, Oxford students dress in country camo gear and Lafayette goes preppie.

It's mostly good-natured and full of respect, Lafayette coach Michael Fair said. Oxford is a town of 28,000, and many of the players go to church together and shop at the same stores. The Lafayette-Oxford game is so important the results are painted on a column in front of the downtown University Sporting Goods on the Square.

Football goes on, but there are fears. Over Labor Day weekend, Lafayette star defensive back Brendan Toles, who recently committed to Mississippi State, worried about going back to school that Tuesday. That's when the school district went from a blend of virtual and in-person learning to full-time in-person school. Everyone would be together for the first time since March.

Toles wondered whether it would prompt an outbreak, and whether that would force football to shut down.

"I know a lot of these kids in my class have the talent to play at the next level," Toles says, "and if we don't have a season this year, they won't get the opportunity to play. Some of them, without football, they wouldn't even be coming to school. And I need them to come to school because I care about them. I need them to go to the next level, play college football and be able to provide for their families."

THEY MET IN a parking lot. Laticia isn't sure of the exact date when she first noticed Nacoma, but it was close to 10 years ago. She'd park and see this big man walking into the school with a red lunchbox. They became friends, and Laticia eventually wanted more. But men, oftentimes, are clueless when it comes to these things.

One Halloween, her classroom was having a party, and she offered James some sweets. He was in a rush to get to football practice and said, "No, I'm good," not realizing she was flirting with him. But they would soon date, and James teasingly called her "Sweets." The nickname stuck. In 2015, he took her to dinner at a creole restaurant for her birthday, invited a bunch of her friends and stared into her eyes as the cake came. She didn't know why James was sweating and nervous, nor did she initially look down at the cake, which had "Will you marry me?" written in icing.

But she did say yes, and they were married a year later. She loved how he was always thoughtful, no matter how busy or obsessed he was with football. She loved how he could motivate anyone. He taught math at the middle school and wore bow ties on Wednesdays to teach young men the importance of making a good impression.

He paid extra attention to the behind-the-scenes people who aren't usually noticed. James put himself in charge of the student managers/water boys and gave each year's group nicknames to make them feel comfortable. "He called us the 'Turd Herd,'" says Andrew Pugh, a former student manager who is now a kicker. "When I got to high school, he still messed with us. We could mess with each other. That was his personality. During the game he was serious. After it he'd always be there to encourage you if you did something wrong and help you."

In recent years, James helped coach powerlifting, a sport that girls are often hesitant to join. This past summer, a group of younger girls came into the weight room to observe a workout, and they couldn't help but notice James. He was animated, loud and encouraging. "I think we're going to have some new girls on our team because of him," says Jennifer Sharp, an assistant powerlifting coach.

Sharp said that when a local family was hit with COVID-19 earlier this year, James went to their house and dropped off groceries.

He could motivate anyone, children or adults. He wound up talking Laticia into going back to school and getting her bachelor's degree.

She might not have loved football for most of her life, but eventually she loved being a coach's wife. She'd sit in the stands near the press box, an area reserved for the coaches' wives, and feel as if she was part of something.

When the Commodores won the state championship in 2016, they went back to Lafayette's field and celebrated. James held the trophy and posed for pictures. Laticia and her daughters, Gracie and Miyah, stood beside them, a converted football family.

SUMMER WORKOUTS ARE always grueling in the Mississippi heat, but 2020 was harder. James would tell his wife that the coaching staff spent nearly half of each session going through COVID-19 protocols. They'd do temperature checks and hound the players about sanitizing and distancing. But at home, Laticia said, James didn't always take the virus seriously. A social person by nature, he struggled mightily in the initial stages of lockdown back in March and was ready to venture out again.

As stores and restaurants started opening up in the South in late May, James started resuming old routines. He'd visit his friends around town. Laticia would tell him to stay home, but he wouldn't. Frustrated over what to do, she'd spray him with Lysol when he returned home.

James was rarely sick, so he didn't worry much about coming down with the coronavirus.

"He said, 'I'm not going to get the COVID. I'm good,'" Laticia says. "Nacoma ... I keep describing him like he was a superhero. In his mind, I think he felt invincible. He was one of the ones who didn't take it seriously because he had to get out. He had to have a social life."

All that ended when James got sick. On Aug. 3, a Monday, Laticia knew it was bad when James told her, "I need you to take me to the doctor." He rarely went to the doctor. He wasn't one to complain much and, according to Laticia, kept insisting that he really didn't feel that bad.

He was tested for COVID-19 and pneumonia, and his pneumonia test came back positive a few days later. They figured (hoped) that was probably all he had.

Every day when Coach Fair texted him, James typed that he was fine. Their last text was Aug. 5, a Wednesday -- the day before James died. He told the coach that he was doing better and couldn't wait to get back onto the field.

James slept in their room during his quarantine, and Laticia stayed on the couch. (She says neither she nor her daughters ever contracted the virus.) Just after midnight, at 12:18 a.m. Thursday, James texted his wife. He wanted her to come into the room and sit with him.

He was seemingly doing better; his fever had broken, and Laticia was tired and just wanted to get some sleep that night. "What do you need?" she asked.

James wanted to talk.

She went in and sat down. It seemed as if he didn't want to be alone. They talked about going on a trip and getting a new house. They'd been saving a long time for a new house, and James said now was the time to do it. The internet TV service was out that week, so they talked more than they had in a while.

Thursday morning, James felt so much better that he was standing up. He said he wanted to go outside for a walk. He told Laticia he loved and appreciated her, and she casually said that was sweet.

"No, look at me," he told her. "I want you to know how much I love and appreciate you."

He typed a happy birthday wish to a young student on Facebook around 11:30 a.m. Sometime around then, he started to pray. Then he drank two cups of orange juice, spilled the third and collapsed into Laticia's arms.

She told her daughter Gracie to call 911, and when the paramedics arrived, Laticia left the room and gave them space to work. She did not think he was gravely ill. She called Coach Fair and told him they were headed to the hospital. Fair got into his truck, drove to the hospital and waited in the parking lot near the emergency room.

James never made it to the hospital. After working on him for about 45 minutes, a paramedic emerged from the bedroom. He said that they'd done all they could do and that he was gone.

"And I'm looking at him like he's speaking a foreign language," Laticia says.

"I figured they'd get him stable. When I walked out of that room ... I didn't see death as the ending. Because I would've stayed or I would've told him bye or I would've done something differently than just walking out of the room. He was Nacoma all the way up to the end, until his head went to the left and I caught him in my arms."

LAFAYETTE PLAYERS WORE bow-tie stickers on their helmets for the season opener on Sept. 4 at Horn Lake, a 21-6 victory. Life and football went on. Don Hinton, executive director of the MHSAA, said that through the first three weeks of the season, things have been "going extremely well" considering the circumstances. He said that less than 10% of the state's football games have had to be called off because of an outbreak or exposure.

The Crosstown Classic was played on Sept. 11 in Oxford. Lafayette's in-city rivals took a knee on the opening kickoff in honor of James, and the Commodores declined the penalty.

Oxford won 33-22, securing another year of bragging rights on the Square. Laticia wasn't there. That night, she drove to James' hometown of Eupora, a dot on the map 65 miles away. His alma mater was retiring his jersey at its football game, and she had to be there.

She watched the coaches run up and down the sideline, calling plays. She thought about how much she loved watching James on Friday nights. By halftime, she was bawling. Her chest was tight, and she felt as if she couldn't breathe. She had to get out.

A week later, Laticia was texting photos. One was of James slyly grinning in his high school uniform. Another was a picture of a bow-tie decal a co-worker made to help raise money for the James family. She said she was grateful for all the things the school district has done to help her family and all the overtures her friends have made in attempt to help her feel better.

But she is grieving in the middle of a pandemic, which means she can't do much of anything. She can't even hug her mom.

In this Mississippi autumn in which football represents one of the few things normal, she can't even watch.

"I tell you, I'm in survival mode," she says. "I'm putting on a smile and I am functioning to do my job. I have to just keep talking to myself to keep from crying at my desk.

"I'm just moving in this world, trying to find myself."