• John Macon Gillespie

The Rise of #themblankets

**Article previously released in SES the Magazine.

With nearly any circumstance in life, timing is everything. Certainly situations develop differently, but in some way or another time plays a part in how it unfolds. That holds true with the rise of the #themblakets phenomenon.

What began as a simple punch line, based around an old Tupelo High sports-focused logo known as, “the Wave Man,” that looked more like a blanket bracing for a fistfight would transform in to a marketing campaign of sorts for Tupelo High School. It has spread to all corners of Mississippi and even beyond.

January of 2011 marked the real beginning of the hashtag. That is when it was first tweeted out for the Twitterverse to see. The following months would see it gain a lot of traction.

While the idea was fresh and creative, it’s cultivator, Braden Bishop, an educator and also the Sports Information Director at THS, would tell you that the timing of athletics success helped push the battle cry into the limelight in it’s early stages.

“Social media was becoming pretty vibrant at that time,” Bishop explained. “Because of the basketball team doing really well and because of baseball doing extremely well on the state level, it was kind of popular.”

After catching that early momentum within the school and with its rival fan-bases, it was full-steam ahead for Bishop and his idea. With that, there was clear focus for it’s future.

“I’ve tried to build a brand for Tupelo,” Bishop said.

Then in the Fall 2013, #themblankets took another giant leap in popularity when Trent Hammond and the Golden Wave football team made a run to the state championship game. Exposure reached a fever pitch with the story of #themblankets by the Clarion Ledger.

It garnered even more attention than it had previously and stepped to another level because of just how unique it was for the marketing of high school athletics.

“It was something that was very trendy for a secondary school that had never been done before, Bishop said. “This was something that you had really not seen in the high school setting.”

With the success in athletics that Tupelo, 18-time winner of the Clarion Ledger All-Sports award for 6A, had the hashtag developed into a symbol of pride with the students and fans alike.

“I think our school was a little bit ahead of the curve with social media interaction and it also helps that our sports are really, really good, too,” Bishop said. “A lot of the kids were tweeting the hashtag or waving a banner.”

Bishop feels that the growth of the hashtag and its popularity could begin to plateau now that is has “reached its peak.” However, now, he suggests the hashtag could be submitting its place in history.

“It’s kind of like the new generation of ‘Golden Wave’,” Bishop said.

Bishop feels that someone looking back 25 to 50 years from now can get historical context on our current generation by learning about #themblankets and that in the future, “It’s something that’s conversation.”

The hashtag not only grew within Tupelo and its own circles, but it permeated through the state. Some schools decided to try and use it as a joke toward the school and some schools even adopted the hashtag for themselves, by putting their own spin on it.

Madison Central, one of Tupelo’s bitter rivals, decided to use the idea. They called themselves #thembricks, playing on the reputation that Madison carries for its brick architecture.

Pontotoc High School, a school that resides just a short drive down Highway 6 from Tupelo, also morphed the hashtag to fit them. They called themselves #themgrapes. Pontotoc even mimicked Tupelo in creating a twitter account similar to the @themblankets handle, calling it @themgrapes.

“It’s just been something that, with the help of other schools, either using it or making fun of it, it’s just built to the whole idea of Tupelo,” Bishop explained.

The hashtag has taken on a life of it’s own and has become so much more than just a symbol on social media. Bishop credits this in large part to way that fans and students alike and the way they have embraced it’s meaning what it can do for them.

“A lot of this is based around Tupelo. And how Tupelo embraces so much. Anything that puts a positive spin on winning or state championships or camaraderie or kids being a team,” Bishop said. “I think it would be cool if something comes out of this or if it leads to the next big thing.”

So while #themblakets started as a hashtag created a major buzz, as the movement grew it became appropriate to create twitter handle/account to really help it grow legs. This also allowed the battle cry to take on a life of it’s own and really let people know what the spirit of Tupelo was like. It gave a voice and a personality to the hashtag which spoke volumes, but actually wasn’t able to speak for itself.

“It’s like a cheerleading, smack-talk type of thing. They converse with other schools. If the hashtag is used and someone else is using it, they’re kind of like ‘what’s up’,” Bishop said.

“This is not only a way for kids to compete and communicate, but it also teaches us the way to know the rights and wrongs. You can’t be negative to the point where you would put your entire team or yourself in jeopardy. Maybe this has shown somebody somewhere to have care and compassion for your school but to not go overboard.”

There have even been traces of #themblankets outside of the Mississippi borders. It is a unique way to mark the growth not only of the hashtag, but also how social media can carry communication so much further than we realize sometimes. Athletes are able to carry their pride of Tupelo wherever they go. So it also shows the imprint Tupelo and its students have made since the origin of #themblankets.

Chris Stratton, a former THS and Mississippi State pitcher, is a member of the San Francisco Giants has used it. Chad Bumphis, a former THS and Mississippi State receiver, was briefly with the Miami Dolphins and used it then. Last Winter, Bishop remembers an encounter with some fans of the University of Georgia who were curious about it after former Tupelo football player Jarvis Wilson signed with the Bulldogs and tweeting it out. Joel Baldwin, a long-snapper with Mississippi State football now, has also used it. Those are just a few of the former Tupelo athletes that have helped to spread the word.

Now, in January of 2016, #themblankets is celebrating it’s fifth year of existence. While the hashtag and the life of the concept have grown and evolved, so have the inter-webs that helped it grow. Protecting the idea and limiting it to helping Tupelo exclusively is now a potential concern.

“That’s something that we’re probably going to have to look at as a school district over the next few years,” Bishop said. “I think that it getting it’s own trademark through the school is something that may or may not happen, but it would keep it internal.”

For Bishop, he feels what goes into Tupelo High’s presence on Twitter, which ties into the way they have grown #themblankets, is the pride they have for their school and the kids that go there and the things they are accomplishing.

“We need to set the precedent for who we are,” Bishop said.

For other schools to recreate their own version of #themblankets and the exposure that Tupelo has received from it, Bishop says it mainly a matter of being timely and consistent.

“I think the model is, make it how you want to make it. If you want to publicize kids every day. If you don’t want to, you need to make sure (the updates) are timely.”

Thanks to Braden Bishop for all his contributions to helping us tell this story. Follow along with him on Twitter @tbradenbishop.

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