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Heisman winner DeVonta Smith puts tiny town of Amite City in the spotlight

Alabama’s DeVonta Smith became the first wide receiver to win the Heisman Trophy since 1991. (Kent Gidley/Heisman Trophy Trust/Getty Images) (Handout/Getty Images)

AMITE CITY, La. — Enter from the east at 35 mph along Louisiana Highway 16, and here’s the classic little green sign heralding “AMITE” in front of two American flags, a sign mentioning the arts, a sign about not littering, a sign about “Jesus Is Lord Over Amite.” There’s the Mulberry Street Cemetery on the right, a pet-grooming place, taxidermy, marble and granite, a parish office, a church.

It’s Louisiana, so there’s some moss and the occasional palm tree. And it still retains some authenticity, so there’s the glory of one-off stores (or close to it) from Isabel’s Fashions to Murphy’s Family Restaurant to Cooper’s Bakery to Town Donuts and Breakfast. Green holiday garland wraps around City Hall’s columns, and an electronic congratulations to a hometown football star rolls with messages such as “Water Bills Due on 15th” and “Be Safe Mask Up.”

A log truck rolls through.

A train rolls through.

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To that small list of the rare cities and towns that wind up sending sons to the lectern at the Heisman Trophy presentation, do add Amite, which carries a distinction. With a population of around 4,547, it outwrestles Tuttle, Okla., for the charm of the smallest such town this century. It fit snugly that when Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith, a favorite of his teachers back at Amite High, won the hallowed trophy Tuesday night, 100 or so people gathered in the community center, his parents right up front.

“Some of those people have seen me since I was a little kid, playing youth football and youth basketball,” Smith said.

So much has to break so intricately for a city or town to boast a Heisman winner, it’s almost too much to ask. It began this century with sons of Saint Paul, Minn.; then Omaha; then Rancho Santa Margarita in the Orange County hubbub of California (a strong Heisman source among counties); then Tuttle, the southwest edge of the Oklahoma City sprawl. After Tuttle made one of the utmost Heisman acknowledgments by painting its water tower to honor Jason White, the Oklahoma quarterback who won in 2003, the trophy moved along to hit bigger spots.

It went to Santa Ana (Calif.), Cleveland, Jacksonville (Fla.), Oklahoma City again. As the years went along it would hit the suburbs of Atlanta, the suburbs of Birmingham (Ala.), the suburbs of Dallas, the great Austin and with even the eternally welcome Honolulu. It would get to Copperas Cove, Tex. (pop. 32,000, home of Robert Griffin III); to Kerrville in the Texas Hill Country west of Austin (pop. 24,000, home of Johnny Manziel); and to Yulee, Fla. (pop. 12,000, home of Derrick Henry in the northern Jacksonville suburbs). It would go last year to Joe Burrow from Athens, Ohio (pop. 25,000).

It just hadn’t gone for a while to anywhere technically smaller than Tuttle (pop. 7,000-plus), even as sprawl keeps making such things harder to measure and quantify. Then on a Tuesday amid a pandemic it went to the home of John Bel Edwards, the current governor of Louisiana, to a town in southeastern Louisiana, about 25 miles south of the Mississippi line along Interstate 55, to a son of a place where Amite High sits smack amid town on a street framed and hugged by trees, two shouts from City Hall. It went to where the Amite Warriors — five-time state champions, five-time runners-up — play Friday nights on the field tucked amid trees and buildings behind the school, the goal posts bearing the cool double stanchions. A quick drive away, Miss Ann’s Fast Food arranged its marquee to campaign: “Smith For Heisman.”

Everybody talked about it.

“It just brings a lot of hype to the town as far as it’s good to have someone from your town win the award, especially coming from a small town like Amite,” said Scott Gay, a chairman of the local Oyster Festival that happens each March in non-pandemic times. “It’s kind of a ‘wow’ moment. Who would think someone from Amite would win such a prestigious award?” He characterized Amite as “just your small, typical, I would say not-as-country as it used to be, but just your small, typical town, not a lot of excitement.”

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If the United States and its chain stores seem to be running out of the trappings that used to mark towns, here’s something for the Heisman heritage: Smith served as a grand marshal for the Oyster Festival a few years back, right alongside the fried oysters, charbroiled oysters, boiled crawfish, carnival rides and the chili cook-off overseen by, yes, the chief of the fire department.

And if Louisiana always lives life with vivid drama in all directions, here’s something: Amite this week had both a Heisman Trophy winner and a city councilman arrested for some creativity with voter registration, accused of tying some registrations to vacant lots.

Now it will need new signs for sure — the entry on the other side of town near I-55 — and maybe even something to do with a water tower.

How long does a Heisman last? It sort of lasts forever, and it sort of fades away. On the website for Tuttle, Okla., beyond the front page about tree limb disposal for the October ice storm or sign-ups to become a volunteer firefighter, Tuttle describes itself in three ways: that it “actively supports its ‘Tuttle Tigers’ in and out of the classroom,” that it has a “high standard of living” and that it “is home to Jason White, the 2003 Heisman Trophy winner.”

White’s name still adorns the water tower, and news stories in 2018 told of the “Jason White Water Tower” suffering a leak.

“He’s still very well known and very well respected,” Chamber of Commerce President Lindsay Johnson said, “but I wouldn’t say we are well known for that anymore. At the time we were not as big as we are now.” Humanity has multiplied as elsewhere. The Tuttle Tigers have gone from 3A to 4A. “In town, Tuttle has not changed a whole, whole lot,” Johnson said, “but the outskirts of Tuttle are definitely expanding.” As with so much of everywhere, there’s less open space than there used to be between the town and the center of Oklahoma City, about half an hour away.

Seventeen years down the way, along came Amite City, joining the list of rarities. It birthed itself around 1855 on the banks of the Tangipahoa River. It’s named either for the Choctaw word for “red ant” or a French word for “thrift” or “friendship,” according to the city. It has had some players reach the NFL through the years — Karl Wilson, Lester Ricard, Reggie Porter. It was the birthplace of Rusty Chambers, the Miami Dolphins linebacker who died at 27 in a car accident near Hammond, La. It reached the state final in 2016, losing a 40-36 heartbreaker to Lutcher before its slender senior receiver, Smith, headed off to Nick Saban’s kingdom at Alabama.

Smith ranked sixth among wide receivers according to Rivals, with Donovan Peoples-Jones first (and to Michigan), Tee Higgins second (to Clemson) and Jerry Jeudy third (to Alabama). All of those excelled, but then Smith soared and starred with eye-catching quality, and his numbers broke the right way (a whopping 105 catches, 1,641 yards, 20 touchdowns), and the vote broke the right way (ahead of Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and his two games missed), and little Amite City got to join all the bigger Heisman towns in buzz and surely some fresh signage.

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