By Madoline Markham
Photos by Keith McCoy & Contributed

It’s a Tuesday afternoon in the cheerleading gym at Thompson High School. JV cheerleaders are rushing off to a game in their red, black and white THS uniforms. But today the varsity cheerleaders are in shorts and T-shirts, and there’s no room to tumble and lift in the space. Instead the floor is lined with layers of green butcher paper, and the girls are scattered on top of it with paint brushes in hand.

This week’s sign the football players will run through at the start of Friday night’s football game has a safari theme. “Let’s Get Wild” it will read, with animal print designs inside dark letters.

Behind it a few girls are painting white letters instead of black with a different message through. “He will crown you and your efforts with success,” the tall, thin all-caps letters read, quoting Proverbs 3:6.

As Alabama’s current state championship team hovers behind a giant paper sign nearly four times their height each Friday evening in the moments before their game, fans see a catchy slogan about defeating their opponent that night, often tied to the school’s dress-up theme for the week. But the players themselves see the back side of the sign instead, and on it is written a different Bible verse each week that the cheerleaders have selected.

Ashley Van Zandt’s husband first noticed the verse on the back of the sign three years ago when their son Jax, now a senior, was a freshman. Her husband snapped a picture and sent it to Ashley, and they both thought it was a one-time thing. Before long, though, it had become tradition for the team—and for the community. “That’s the last thing the football players see is that encouraging verse,” Ashley notes.

As for Jax, a linebacker committed to play at the University of North Texas next year, he reads the verse behind the sign each week after Coach Mark Freeman prays with the team and before he starts pacing, and he goes on to read it a couple of additional times in those pregame moments. “Before we run out there it’s important to be covered in scripture,“ he says.

A few years ago Ashley started taking a picture of the verse each week and posting it on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram with her other game day photos. But soon people both locally and in other areas who follow her came to expect her Bible verse sign photo each week and share it.

Coach Mark Freeman has also posted photos of the back side of the signs on Twitter each week this season and last. “Humbled with the peace of knowing the last thing our guys see prior to kickoff is the power and promise in scripture! Blessed and thankful!” he tweeted after the Aug. 21 game with a photo of the sign that bore the words of Luke 1:37: “For nothing is impossible with God.”

On Oct. 24, 2020, the night Thompson won its second region championship last season, Ashley’s photo of that week’s sign shows Psalm 62:6 in the foreground. “Truly he is my rock and my salvation. He is my fortress, I will not be shaken.” Behind it you can read Hoover’s sign on the opposing side. “Overall we have more state championships,” it reads. But not the 2019 or 2020 title.

The Bible verse signs took on extra significance early in the 2020 season as well. With COVID-19 protocols, many of the football team’s traditions couldn’t go on as usual. Their weekly prayer breakfast was held indoors, and cheerleaders and trainers couldn’t come. The team couldn’t wear their jerseys to school. And there were no run-through signs.

Instead, the cheerleaders made a smaller sign for each game to hold up on the sidelines with a piece of scripture, on the front side. “I will walk by faith even when I cannot see,” a black sign with red and white letters that stood about a cheerleader and a half tall read on Aug. 29, 2020, quoting 2 Corinthians 5:7 as the cheerleaders held it up with their black face masks on.

“During that time, our boys definitely needed their encouragement and to know that even though things weren’t normal they still wanted to support them,” Ashley recalls.

“It’s been an inspiration especially last year during COID when they were struggling in the field house and didn’t have interaction with anyone,” Thompson cheerleading coach Niva Roberson adds.

After the tradition first started, the cheerleaders didn’t have a good sense of if the football players liked it, but then one week they ran out of time and had no verse on the back of the sign. And that’s when they got the feedback on how meaningful it is to them.

“The players will have a fit if it’s not on there,” Varsity Cheerleading Co-captain Maddie Estes says.