Mr. Rebel returns home: Generations of Riverside fans share exclusive title

Published 2:48 pm Tuesday, October 11, 2022

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RESERVE — Just beyond the Mickey Roussel Football Stadium at Riverside Academy, there is a special patch of ground known as the Twelfth Man Club. On Friday nights during home football games, it’s where generations of fans, families and former players gather over food and a shared love of the Rebels.

But on Friday, Oct. 7, a little patch of the Twelfth Man Club was turned into the 52 Man Club, one even more exclusive and difficult to get in.

Since the first year of Riverside football in 1970, whatever coaching staff was in place at the time has selected one player above all the rest to receive the Mr. Rebel Award. He is more than just the best football player of the season; he also is a leader, a role model, a representative of Riverside Academy.

A few years later, the award was christened the Henry Donaldson Memorial Mr. Rebel Award, in honor of the Rebel football player who tragically collapsed and died of heat stroke during a spring football practice in 1973.

Since 1970 there have been 52 winners of the Mr. Rebel title, and on Oct. 7 Riverside called them all home. Former coach Mickey Roussel and current coach Lee Roussel (no relation, believe it or not) came up with the idea a few weeks ago and put out a call.

“We just thought it was a good idea, a way to put some people in the stands,” said Mickey Roussel, who is now the Facilities Manager and golf coach and who spent weeks contacting the 52 men. “Then, there’s never been a reunion before.”

Under the ancient oak trees, about 30 of them gathered, trying to recognize familiar faces, sharing jambalaya and stories, introducing wives, children and grandchildren.

Then, before the kickoff of the game against St. Martin’s (which the Rebels would win 35-7), they were brought onto the field, under the lights, to be reintroduced to the fans.

Pete Terrio was one of Riverside’s first students, a member of the inaugural football team and the first winner of the Mr. Rebel Award in 1970. Now retired and living a stone’s throw from the field, he was full of emotion as he looked at all the faces surrounding him who shared the same title.

“When you’re young, you don’t realize what it means,” Terrio said. “It means more to me now. I was lucky to be with a bunch of good fellows. It was just good times.”

It was so good, in fact, that Terrio asked if there was any way he could come back for another year.

“They said, ‘No. You’ve got to move on,’” he said.

Haeden Wahden is the most recent winner of the award in 2021.

“I feel like I had a good concept of what it was all about,” said Wahden. “It’s a special thing to be a part of.”

Over the years there have been winners who were brothers and others who were fathers and sons.

Rene Loving won the award in 1986; his son Jordan won it in 2009 and is now a member of the Riverside coaching staff.

“It was more exciting to see him get it,” Rene Loving said. “I was a K-though-12 guy and I set a goal that I wanted to be that guy. He wanted to grow up to be a Riverside coach. How ‘bout that?”

Wayne Hymel Sr., Mr. Rebel in 1988, was the only winner with a son on the current roster. Wayne Jr. is a junior linebacker for the Rebels.

“It’s a special thing to be here and to watch your kid,” Wayne Sr. said.

While not all of the former Mr. Rebels could make Friday’s event, there was one truly missing. Terry Vitrano, Mr. Rebel 1973, who went on to a brilliant career at Mississippi State University and was the MVP of the 1974 Sun Bowl as a freshman, passed away on Sept. 29. He was laid to rest that morning.

Mickey Roussel said he was thrilled with the turnout and that so many former players were able to return. There are plans to bring back former state championship teams next year to be recognized.

“It’s a good thing,” he said. “It’s good to get these guys together.”