Phidarian Mathis wears No. 48 for Alabama football to keep memory of fallen friend alive
Barely showered and changed from a high school football game, Phidarian Mathis grabbed his cousin and got in the car.
They were on the road until nearly midnight, hurtling past the small communities of northeast Louisiana westbound on Interstate 20, peeling off the highway about 50 miles shy of the border with Mississippi. They made it to Winnsboro, about 15 miles north of Mathis’ native Wisner, and pulled up to the hospital, where they saw hundreds congregated in the parking lot.
At the sight of the crowd, Mathis started to confront what he already knew. Tyrell Cameron was dead.
Cameron was a freshman linebacker at Franklin Parish High School — where Mathis had played just two years prior — when he died from a broken neck suffered during his first high school football game on Sept. 4, 2015. Mathis, now a defensive lineman for Alabama, wears Cameron’s No. 48 in his honor, determined to, “keep his name alive,” through his jersey number and Mathis’ continuing football career.
“It was beyond football. We grew up together, we’re more like family,” Mathis said.
Football was a common thread for Mathis and Cameron. They played Pop Warner football together and even a little bit of junior high. Mathis only played one season at Franklin Parish before transferring to Neville in Monroe. But Barry Sebren, then Franklin Parish’s coach, recognized the talent they had in Cameron, who would often stick around to watch varsity practice, plus watch all of the JV and varsity games on the sidelines.
That potential in Cameron showed up immediately, earning a start as a freshman. Sebren remembers Cameron playing well on that night, getting involved on a few tackles.
“We were just excited; we knew he was going to be good,” Sebren said. “A quality person, even as young as he was. There was something special about him.”
It was near the end of the first half when Cameron suffered the injury on the punt team. Mathis and the Neville Tigers were playing local rival Ruston, but it wasn’t enough to keep him out of the loop on Cameron’s status.
“We knew before I left the field. My family was telling me about it,” Mathis said.
At the time, they knew Cameron's injury was serious. They didn’t know the extent until after Mathis left the locker room, when they got word that Cameron had died. Mathis’ disbelief is what compelled him to drive through the night to the hospital.
“I just went and hugged all the people,” Mathis said. “We all cried.”
Mathis admitted it was difficult to turn his focus to Neville’s next game, especially with his mother experiencing heightened fear for her son on the football field. He found it “a challenge to get back to myself” until he reached his conclusion.
“I had to take it as a motivation, to do it for him,” Mathis said.
The newfound resolve is the only thing his Neville coaches noticed in the week following Cameron’s death.
“I could tell it certainly hit him hard and it would be an impactful event in his life,” said Mickey McCarty, Mathis’ high school coach and now Neville’s principal. “It’s certainly given him some drive, and it happened pretty quickly. He found a drive to play for his friend, and I see that’s continued through his time at Alabama.”
What few knew at the time was Mathis was hoping to lift the entire community mourning Cameron’s death.
In Franklin Parish, 27.3% of its residents live in poverty, according to the United States Census Bureau. It’s a rural pocket of northeast Louisiana, where roughly 20,000 people live and only 46.4% have access to high-speed internet in their homes. Fewer than 12% hold bachelor’s degrees.
Mathis was a four-star prospect in the Class of 2017, a top five prospect in the state and a top 10 defensive tackle in the nation. When he committed to Alabama over LSU and TCU on Jan. 31, 2017, he did so at Cameron’s grave.
“A lot of people in my community were uplifting me. I got a lot of offers and stuff like that. I have to lead the way and show them that this game is not that bad, but it can be dangerous at the same time,” Mathis said. “I have to lead the way for those guys.”
Others have honored Cameron’s memory. Franklin Parish hasn’t given the jersey number to a player since Cameron’s death. Sebren, no longer the school’s football coach, now its athletic director and dean of students, has not officially retired the number, leaving that decision to future coaches who may want to honor Cameron in a different way. Sterlington — Franklin Parish’s opponent the night Cameron died — awards the jersey number to a worthy player voted on by the team.
In the same vein, Mathis wears the number to honor Cameron.
“I take it as motivation. I want to keep his name alive.”
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson