PASCAGOULA — Faith. Family. Football.
It’s an often repeated and at times cliche mantra in the world of sports at all levels, including the prep ranks, but few actually go on to embody the phrase and actually live it both on and off the field of play. But that’s exactly what one Jackson County man is doing.
Resurrection head football coach Eric Denmark is in his second year at the helm of the Eagles, but he is also in his third year of a diaconate program to become a Catholic Deacon.
Denmark’s participation in the Transformation to become a Deacon has caused him to miss two RCS games this season as he works to complete the four-year program.
“I converted to Catholicism when I was a teenager, but like many people, I had strayed away some from the church over the years,” Denmark said, in an exclusive interview with 228Sports this week. “But when I came to Resurrection 11 years ago, all that changed for me. This is a special place with special kids and staff, and the students are very spiritual and very devoted and they helped bring me back to Christ and my faith was renewed.” Denmark was an assistant football coach for nine seasons under two different RCS head coaches, and after much thought and consideration, he decided after the 2020 season to enter the diaconate program.
“At first I denied it and I kept fighting it and I asked the Holy Spirit to guide me,” Denmark said. “Once I felt like God had led me to my decision, I knew I had made the right choice. I felt a peace and it was like a balloon popped and there was no pressure inside me anymore just peace.”
Then, before the 2022 season and after Lavon Capers left his post as RCS head coach, the school administration approached Denmark about taking over and leading the program he had become so accustomed to.
“I did a lot of praying about it and talked to some folks that I trusted and I had to give it a lot of consideration because diaconate school was going to come first no matter what else was going on in my life,” Denmark added. “I absolutely do not believe this would work at a larger public school, so it had to be just the right situation for me to take the job. And it was.”
Denmark missed both a 23-0 win over Mount Olive in mid-September as well as last week’s 34-24 victory over Sacred Heart in Hattiesburg. His participation in the program requires him to drive to Bay St. Louis once a month where he spends 48 hours, from Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon, in class. He also credits his wife of 38 years, Phyllis, with being a big part of the process. “She’s been with me every step of the way and she comes with me to Bay St. Louis and spends the weekend there,” Denmark added. “I couldn’t do it without her,”
In his absence, assistant head coach and offensive coordinator Scott Sisson guides the RCS program. Sisson was the Eagle’s head coach from 2013-2018, a span which saw RCS play for the Class 1A state championship in 2015. Denmark served as the offensive line coach under Sisson in all six of those seasons.
“Scott’s a big reason why I’m able to do this also, I mean who better to turn the program over to when I’m not there?” Denmark said. “He and his wife Kristal (RSC principal) have been so supportive throughout all of this that I wouldn’t even have considered doing it without them. Scott is really like my mentor, he’s been there and he’s done it all before so again it’s just another part of that perfect situation in place to be able to do something unusual like this.”
Unusual indeed. Longtime sports writer and Jackson County native Creg Stephenson agreed with that assessment.
“It’s rare. I can’t think of a similar instance outside of an illness or a military obligation.” Stephenson said. “It’s strange that there’s not a workaround, but it also shows his commitment to his faith that he’s willing to do it in the middle of the season.”
Through it all, the Eagles sit atop the Region 8-1A standings with an impressive 8-1 overall mark and are unbeaten at 4-0 in league play with Lumberton coming to town Thursday to complete regular season play. It’s the best mark RCS has registered this late in the season since 2016, and a win this week will give the Eagles their first region title in eight years since that 2015 march to the state championship.
The phrase faith, family and football has resonated with Denmark since his younger days, when he was an all-state lineman at Pascagoula High before going on to start for several years on the offensive line at Ole Miss.
“It’s been tough at times on me not being there for sure. A lot of people talk about faith, family, and football but it’s hard to actually live up to that and I really didn’t want to bring any attention to myself because it’s what I chose to do and I knew it wouldn’t always be easy.” Denmark concluded. “Those kids on that team and those coaches mean the world to me, and they also understand why I’m going through this and have been so supportive throughout the whole thing. They were texting me after the win last week and I was in tears, it meant so much to me. It also reaffirmed to me that I know I’m doing what God called me to do.”