'We're all Bengals fans this Sunday,' say the citizens of Fort Payne, Alabama

Staff Photo by Stephen Hargis / The storefront at Patterson's Music & Jewelry on Gault Avenue North celebrates the Super Bowl and Evan "Money Mac" McPherson on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2022.

FORT PAYNE, Ala. - It doesn't take long to figure out which team the residents of this 133-year-old town in Northeast Alabama will be rooting for during Super Bowl LVI on Sunday evening. Just check out the orange and black banners hanging from the 52 light poles that guard the downtown business district along Gault Avenue North.

On each of those banners is the Cincinnati Bengals logo with a picture of their rookie kicker, Evan McPherson, who once starred at Fort Payne High School before playing collegiately at Florida. The banners all bear the words: "Proud Hometown of Evan McPherson."

The Fort Payne Footworks Shop even displays a giant "Money Mack" poster in its storefront window - a nod to the rookie-record 12 straight field goals McPherson has made in the postseason, including game-winners against the Tennessee Titans in the AFC divisional round and in overtime of the AFC title game at Kansas City.

"We're in the South, and we usually don't care about the NFL," said Jack Davidson, who owns Footworks. "We're mostly college football fans. But we'll all be rooting for the Bengals on Sunday."

Indeed, you'd have a hard time finding a single Los Angeles Rams fan among Fort Payne's 14,877 citizens when the game kicks off at 6:30 p.m. on NBC at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles. McPherson's become the biggest thing in Fort Payne since native son Randy Owen was leading the band Alabama to the top of the music charts 40 years ago.

"The whole family's just so nice, such great folks," said Dan Patterson of Patterson's Music. "I'm not a pro football fan. I'm a [University of Tennessee at Chattanooga] fan. Season tickets, parking, all of it. But I'm going to watch the Super Bowl for the first time ever because of Evan."

They all have their McPherson stories, and they're all as sweet as the banana pudding his mom, Amber, buys in bulk at Sally's Smokin' Butt BBQ to take to the tailgates at Bengals home games.

"I'm a distant cousin," said Angie Dean, whose husband owns Sally's. "The banana pudding is Evan's favorite. He gets it every time he's in here."

Patterson's daughter, Jennifer Ledford, has sat for years in front of Evan's parents, LaDon and Amber, at Fort Payne Wildcats games, cheering first for oldest brother Logan, then Evan, then Alex, who'll graduate from FPHS this spring before heading off to kick for Auburn.

"I'm the screamer, the yeller in the crowd," Ledford said. "I've cheered for all those boys. We all can't wait until Sunday. We'll be wearing pins, buttons, Bengals T-shirts, all kinds of stuff."

Asked her favorite story about McPherson, she replied, "He's engaged to his middle school sweetheart, Gracie Groat."

Davidson's sister, Jill Caneer, also works at Fort Payne Footworks. She recalled a day last summer when someone walked in the store bragging about how he'd once played in the NFL.

"Evan was in the store and never said a word," she said. "When he left, I asked the man if he knew who Evan was. He said no. I said, 'Well, he was the only kicker picked in this year's NFL draft.' But that's Evan. He never brags on himself."

That humbleness may be one reason why the store printed 300 black and orange T-shirts for the Super Bowl, selling them out in a matter of a few days to raise money for the local Children's Advocacy Center, where Amber McPherson works.

"I don't know the exact total," Davidson said, "but between the advocacy center and our store we've probably raised $3,000 or more so far. And a lot of that shows just how much everybody loves the McPhersons."

That love has not been lost on the parents.

"It's a little overwhelming," said LaDon McPherson as he and Amber and Alex drove to Cincinnati on Wednesday afternoon to catch a charter flight for L.A. "But in an emotionally good way. Driving through town and seeing [Evan's] picture on the banners hanging on every light pole, that's just a reminder of small-town living at its best. It lets you know that the town has Evan's back."

Added Amber McPherson: "It's been 40 years since someone from our county played in the NFL. We've never had anyone from our town make it. It's just so special to get to be a part of this, and having all the support at home is just incredible for our whole family."

This journey began with oldest brother Logan McPherson, who was addicted to soccer until his friends urged him to go out for football in the eighth grade.

Soon adding PVC pipes to the top of his backyard soccer goal to simulate a football goalpost, he would eventually boot a 57-yard field goal for the Wildcats before going off to kick for Louisiana Tech. Evan McPherson erased that mark by booting both a 60-yard field goal and 84-yard punt, each kick 1 yard shy of the Alabama state record.

This past fall, Alex bested Evan's mark with a 61-yarder that became the state record for a field goal that included a snap, hold and kick against pressure, since the previous 61-yarder had come on what was deemed a free-kick.

One story to explain how the McPherson brothers became the First Family of Placekicking: For years and years, Amber and LaDon spent hours and hours shagging their sons' practice kicks. One afternoon Evan asked Amber to take him to work out, and she declined.

"I was tired," she told Sports Illustrated last week. "I said, 'Do we have to go today, Evan?' And he said, ''Well, somebody is going to go today, and they're going to be a day ahead of me.' And I was like, 'Well, you can't argue with that. Let me get my keys.'"

Lest one think Evan is merely on a hot streak with his playoff effort, or the 28-of-33 (85%) rate he hit during the regular season, he also hit 85% of his field goals (51-of-60) during his three seasons at Florida.

No wonder he has now trademarked "Money Mac."

Nor is Money Mac mania confined to Fort Payne. A billboard from a Cincinnati television station appeared a couple of weeks ago on Interstate 71 proclaiming its weather forecasts to be "as accurate as Evan McPherson."

Or maybe Evan trademarked his nickname to keep Alex from using it, since little brother hit not one but two 61-yarders in the game where he set the state record (the first one was called back on a penalty) as well as hitting two 50-plus yarders in the same game.

Said Ledford with a smile, "Alex is always telling Evan to set all the records he can because one day he's going to break them all."

Maybe one day he will. But Sunday in Fort Payne will be all about Evan and the Bengals and whether Money Mac can deliver his employer the biggest victory in franchise history in the team's third-ever Super Bowl appearance.

It will be about rewarding all those Fort Payne schoolchildren grades K-12 who wore orange and black to school Friday and joined a Zoom call with Evan in order to suggest what food he should eat prior to the game.

(READ MORE: Walker County, Georgia, schools were also having an Orange-and-Black Day on Friday, as well as a Zoom call with former Ridgeland High School great Vonn Bell, the Bengals safety.)

In the eyes of current Fort Payne football coach Chris Elmore, who never coached Evan but coached Alex for four years, this is all about the American Dream.

"It's proof that if you work hard enough, long enough, you can be a success in anything, not just sports. Evan's story has motivated a lot of kids in our community," Elmore said.

And should it end the way everyone in Fort Payne hopes, the Bengals on top, Mayor Brian Baine would like to have a parade for Evan down Gault Avenue North. Only trouble is, the mayor says, "His mom said he'd die. A parade's the last thing he'd want. Evan doesn't like to be in the limelight."

Then again, perhaps that's why Money Mac has become Fort Payne's ultimate hometown hero.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6390. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.