Families Never Quit

Thirty-two years ago today, a redshirt freshman defensive back for Ole Miss broke up a Vanderbilt pass over the middle one morning and never walked again. I was at that game, sitting with my dad in almost the exact same seats that I sit with family today. I have never heard as loud a hit as Chucky’s hit on Brad Gaines, and likewise, I have never a stadium fall to an eerie hush like I did that October day. The silence was deafening. Chucky never walked again, but he came back to the team. He inspired everyone who encountered him, and his story has inspired thousands more.

Since that afternoon, I have seen the Rebels play God knows how many games, and they’ve probably disappointed me as much as they’ve thrilled me over the years. I’ve cheered for goal line stands and quarterback throwbacks. I saw the Deuce get loose and Eli tumble coming out from under center. When I was in law school, Tommy T left in the cover of darkness one night and it wasn’t in a pine box like he promised. I’ve seen a 7 overtime game and I’ve seen opposing teams kneel on the ball at midfield to show us an embarrassing brand of mercy. At some point, Coach O assured me that Brent Schaeffer was the answer and after a couple games, I couldn’t help but wonder what in the hell was the question? Reverend Hugh promised we would be relevant again and I’ll be damned if Katy Perry and I weren’t in the same stadium to witness Senquez intercept a pass and the goal posts come down in the pandemonium that followed. Many years, the lows of the meltdown reached nuclear levels and I walked out of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium wondering why I continue to put myself through this damn torture. But just like Mississippi itself, just when you think the Rebels have hit the bottom, we rally forward to exhilarating heights, flying playsheets and all. No matter what, I’m aboard the train, to use a popular metaphor around Oxford these days.

As I look back, my true lesson from Chucky Mullins is greater than any stupid football game. The real takeaway is that the greatest blessing we have in our lives is family. When times are tough, it’s the only thing that really matters. Chucky’s journey taught us that qualities like faith, love, resilience, and courage transcend the insignificant things like wins and losses. Life is about the look on a child’s face when it’s time for the opening kickoff and anything is possible. Life is about knowing that child’s father has the exact same look on his face at that exact time, no matter how old or jaded he pretends to be. It’s the marvel in a young boy’s eyes when he listens to another tired story about his granddad rooting for that same team through thick and thin. It’s a tie that binds. I would do anything to go to one more Ole Miss game with my Dad. I cherish those memories of just the two of us on a two-lane road after a game. Maybe one day my own boys will look back at our own late night trips and smile as much as I do when we make those trips together. Maybe one day they will have kids of their own and make their own memories at these games. Wouldn’t that be something?

Our team will not win every game. Hell, some years it seems like our team won’t win any games. But Chucky is right. Families never quit. Thanks, 38.

There’s Nothing Quite Like A Championship to Cure A Hangover

Delta State University- 2000 National Champions

One day and twenty years ago, Andy Mundy and I loaded up a car about 3 o’clock in the afternoon and headed towards Florence, Alabama. The Division 2 National Championship was the next day and our alma mater was, against all odds, playing for the big trophy against Bloomsburg University. Conventional wisdom tells you Florence is only about 4 hours east of Cleveland, Mississippi but Mundy and I have never been much on conventional wisdom. So, after somehow going through Jackson, we rode the Natchez Trace up to Florence and arrived at the hotel around 10 that night where we found a newly married George Bassi and his wife waiting in the lobby with a cold drink and the desire to go find something to do in the Shoals.

We discussed our entertainment options with the hotel concierge. (Ok, who am I kidding? We asked the woman at the front desk of our Holiday Inn where we should go for fun.)

“Well, do you want to go dancing?” the lady asked. She was on the telephone and talking to me in between smacks of gum and spitting quick words into a phone receiver. “I’m on hold,” she assured me.

Do Andy and I look like we want to go dancing, I thought.

“No ma’am. We want to go somewhere and have a few drinks before we go in,” I explained. “We have a late morning kickoff tomorrow.” I was kinda proud of my mature response. After all, I had been a lawyer for over a year.

She nodded at me, wrote the name of a place and an address on a sheet of paper and pushed the paper across to me.

“Just down the road.” The desk clerk/concierge motioned her hand towards the front door. “Perfect for y’all.” Considering she had never laid eyes on any of us before 30 minutes earlier, I had a little doubt she knew what would be “perfect” for us. As we walked to the car, I have never felt more like the dudes on Police Academy being sent to the Blue Oyster than I did at that very moment. But we were thirsty after a 4 hour car ride that took 7 hours, and we probably would have gone to Lucifer’s Lounge if it served cold beer.

Three blocks down from the hotel was a strip mall with a parking lot filled with cars. There, we saw a neon sign proclaiming the name of our chosen destination, or rather, the night’s destination chosen for us by the lady at the Holiday Inn. Like I said, there were lots of cars outside so we weren’t the only people with the urge to grab a beer or three on a Friday night in Florence.

Once inside, we found an old fashioned country and western honkytonk with Hank, Jr. and Merle providing the club soundtrack via a DJ booth. Through a smoky haze (yep, you could still smoke in public back then), we could barely make out a checkered dance floor filled with couples twirling their cares away. We moved to an empty booth in the corner of the place and immediately started drinking beer. Lots of it. We caught up on each other’s lives in the way old friends who haven’t seen each other lately do, and we reminisced about some of our favorite football stories— most illustrated how bad Delta State had always been at football. More than once that night, we expressed our disbelief that Delta State University, perennial doormat and the team no one cared about, was now one game away from a national championship. I would say the more we drank, the worse we became at football back in our day, but we were pretty damn bad without the help of alcohol as a memory aid and story embellisher. It was a great time toasting our football success and of course, George’s newlywed status.

About 45 minutes into our merriment, George got up and excused himself to go to the restroom. When he asked our waitress for the whereabouts of the bathroom, she pointed, “Go around the bar and through that closed door. Be careful.” Careful? Did she say careful?

George disappeared around the bar and then reappeared barely two minutes later wearing a broad grin like he had a secret.

“John, come with me.” George jerked his head towards the bar.

Don’t only women go to the bar in packs?

“You need me to come with you?” I asked. “Are you scared to go over there?”

“Oh no. But you have to see this to believe it,” George assured me. “Just come on.” He walked around the bar.

I guess I was curious so I followed George. I rounded the bar and shuffled toward the closed door.

George waited for me at the door and then opened it with a grand flourish. I walked past George into this other room only to be greeted by the sound of loud techno dance music. Loud. And techno. The room was lit with a black light, and sweaty people in leather were dancing, or actually grinding, with even more sweaty people in leather inside of large cages. The only comparison I can make is it reminded me of the old 616 club in Memphis in its vibe and urgency. Goth-looking people with chains and tattoos were standing around the bar, and in my blue Oxford button down shirt and pressed khakis, I have never looked more like a new lawyer in my life. I practically screamed, “I’m from the Grove! Have you seen Muffy and Alistair?” to every techno rave kid that passed me staring at me like I was the odd one.

George and I soaked in the techno a little bit longer before we decided to move back over to the other side. We were just sitting back down with Andy when we noticed our fellow DSU alum Ken Causey walking by our booth with an uncharacteristic spring in his step. Ken is one of the funniest men alive on a sober day, but add up our long car ride, the 4 beers we drank, and the fact there was a goth techno bar in a side room of a country and western bar in Florence, Alabama, and Ken is a fucking hilarious entertainment option. We yelled at Ken over the George Jones blasting through the soundsystem and waved him over to our booth.

Ken sat the end of the booth and eerily eyed us very similarly to the way Jack Nicholson leers at his family in The Shining. He stopped our waitress as she was walking by the booth.

“We need four shots of Jager. Now.” Ken demanded. No smile. All business. The night just turned weirder.

The shots arrived shortly and the smell of Jagermeister rose through my nostrils on a rapid elevator ride to my brain. Aren’t we too old for this? Can we just have a fruitier shot instead? Do people use this stuff for cough syrup?

“Drink,” Causey instructed. So we drank and I tried not to gag on that nasty shit. Ken finally broke the silence of three young men trying not to puke with a knuckle rap on the table. Ken looked at us as if he were about to unfurl the nuclear codes.

“The first time we score tomorrow, we are going to kick an onside kick,” Ken predicted. “We are going to get that kick. Then we are going to score again. At that point, those fuckers from Bloomsburg are playing catch-up the rest of the day.”

We all laughed at Ken’s prediction but he didn’t laugh. He just stared at each of us. So we quickly went back to telling old stories about football to change the subject. We drank until the bar closed and somehow found our way back to the hotel in the middle of the night.

Fast forward approximately 9 hours later to the championship game.

On a gorgeous day for football in Alabama, Bloomsburg scored first. We scored next. Then damned if we didn’t kick an onside kick and recover just like Causey said we would. We scored again just as Ken predicted. “Those fuckers from Bloomsburg played catch-up the rest of the day” until there was no time left to catch up. (We discovered later the truth that Ken had sat in a coaches’ meeting earlier that Friday evening and was tipped off to our strategy.) Josh Bright ran the midline option to perfection, and we shattered the championship game records for offense en route to our first football national title. Thanks to our Friday night, I had one helluva headache most of the day but the experience was worth the splitting pain I felt every time our band played the fight song (loudly) in the section beside me that afternoon.

We may never win another national championship in football but I will never remember that weekend, that drive, that bar, that prediction, that team, or that feeling when the clock struck zero.

We were champs. Forever and always. Those fuckers will play catch-up until the end of time.

My Favorite Match Ever

My new doubles partner and me. We like green.

It was the doubles match I had waited for my entire life even if I never knew it.

It wasn’t because of our opponents. I had played countless sets of doubles with and against each of them. They were regulars around the courts.

It wasn’t because of how well I played. I’ve played better tennis. Honestly, my bad knee was killing me most of the match and I felt like I heard the Sanford and Son theme song in my head every time I skipped toward the ball. The sharp pain in my right arm is constant with every serve. Old age is having its way with this 46 year old body.

This match was special to me because of my partner. He was not just any partner, not just some random dude in the ad court. Nope. Not at all. For the first time, my partner and I shared a name. Today, my partner was my 15 year old son, and it  was my favorite match ever. Continue reading “My Favorite Match Ever”

I Don’t Remember Much, But I remember Paul Zuvella

Memories are funny. There just doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the things lodged up in our heads. Today is Wednesday. I cannot remember what I wore to work on Monday. I have zero clue what I ate for dinner last Friday night. I can’t recall any real details about anything from a week ago.

But I can tell you my childhood friends’ phone numbers like I can tell you my own. I can recall intricate details of meaningless high school football games. Without blinking, I can recite the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals normal starting lineup— Coleman, McGee, Tommy Herr, Clark, Van Slyke/Landrum, Porter/Nieto, Pendleton, Ozzie, and Pitcher. The terrible Braves’ lineups of the late eighties are burned into my brain- Claudell Washington, Ramirez, Murphy, Bob Horner, Terry Harper, Ken Oberkfell, Ozzie Virgil or Benedict, Glenn Hubbard and Pitcher. Who can forget the backup shortstop Paul Zuvella?? Insanity.

It’s all just fascinating to me. One day, when I am hopefully much older, and I can barely remember my own name, I’m sure I will bore all of the folks at the old folks home with my memories of bad baseball and Mississippi academy football games. I apologize in advance.

Life on the Road Isn’t Always What It’s Supposed To Be

The summer after my first year of law school, our local radio station convinced me to go to Enterprise, Alabama to broadcast the 15 year old Dixie Majors World Series.  Ok, “convince” is probably a strong word.  Honestly, I didn’t have anything better to do with my life that week, and the Vice President of the station aka my older brother Kevin knew a)  I liked baseball and b) I liked hearing my own voice even more.  In my mind, if a 22 year old Joe Buck could call the St. Louis Cardinals thanks to his family connection, then a family connection could let a 22 year old John Cox call the Dixie Majors World Series. Continue reading “Life on the Road Isn’t Always What It’s Supposed To Be”

The Coach and the Kid

The Coach only knew one of the forty-eight kids in the park commission summer baseball draft. With his first pick, he drafted that one kid, and then started drafting by shirt size because that’s what he was told to do by another coach in the room. A couple rounds later, the Coach drafted a Kid (shirt size Large) when all of the other coaches in the room started hooting and hollering.

“That’s the best kid in the league,” they said. “He was absolutely dominant two years ago in Boo Boys,” they said. Great, the Coach thought. Why didn’t you draft him? How good was this Kid?

Two weeks later, every player had been to practice except for the Kid. Night after night, the Coach would call the Kid, and after a few minutes, the Kid would promise to be at practice the next day. But nothing ever changed. No Kid. The Coach asked the team about him every day, and they just shook their heads. Continue reading “The Coach and the Kid”

Just Look for The Lights

“Well, there’s a feeling in the air/Just like a Friday afternoon

You can go there if you want/though it fades too soon.”

— Better Than Ezra, “This Time of Year.”

In every community, there are The Lights. It is The Lights, quite literally, that rise above our flat land that symbolize Fridays in the fall. Buzz Bissinger may have been writing about Texas high school football when he coined the phrase “Friday Night Lights,” but he could have been talking about the Mississippi Delta. Drive into any Delta community on a Friday evening, and if you can find The Lights, then you will almost certainly find that week’s main event. Sure, I guess you could try to follow the cars but the real giveaway is to find that familiar hazy downward glow cutting through the humidity, insect spray, and of course, smoke from the concession stand revealing 100 yards of excitement.

In full disclosure, I must admit that sometimes the search for The Lights can go astray. In 1985, my parents and I drove to the annual Winona Shrine Bowl. Honestly, I did not know there was an annual Winona Shrine Bowl then, and I do not know whether this creature is still in existence. But on that brisk November evening, we set forth in my father’s small Cadillac toward Winona to watch the mighty Bayou Academy Colts. (It is important to note at this time that Winona is not technically in the Delta. It is actually at the foot of “the hills.”) As we drove into Montgomery County, I asked Dad if he knew where we were going. Dad looked back at me like I had asked him for ketchup for an expertly-cooked steak. Continue reading “Just Look for The Lights”