The CAT’s BIG DAY: a tale of friendship, JUCO football and reckless abandon

When I joined the football team at Northeast Mississippi Junior College in 1984, I was reunited with a great high school friend and teammate who had already played a season in Booneville for the Tigers. He shall remain nameless. The reason for this non-disclosure will become evident shortly.  My friend, who I will hereafter refer to as “the Cat,” was not a starter, but he did participate as a backup and on special teams. And he had the well-justified reputation of being a hard worker and a good teammate. But as is the case with many a college sophomore – or freshman, or junior, or senior – the Cat had, in his months of separation from his parents’ watchful care, shall we say, broadened his horizons. The Cat no longer saw sleep or sobriety as essential to the college experience.

Now I was married by this time, and, looking back, that was likely the only factor that kept me from joining the Cat’s nightly prowls. I may have made a block or two with the big feline and his cronies upon our return from some distant road game on occasion, when my lovely bride would have stayed home with her folks, but those memories are somewhat … murky.  I must admit that I may have subconsciously  blocked past events of that nature from my mind, at this point in life, to achieve plausible deniability.  Nonetheless, I do remember enjoying the Cat’s daily regaling of his exploits.  He purred tales of debauchery that warmed the hearts of those of us who were less bold, or constrained, or just bystanders, waiting to see when his inevitable train wreck would occur.  It did occur, of course, and that’s the tale of interest.

We were to visit Northwest Mississippi Junior College in Senatobia for an early afternoon game one October Saturday. Our coaches had scheduled our departure at 7:30 A.M. from the athletic dormitory. From there, we would launch our 2-hour journey by bus to the fringe of the Mississippi Delta for what was certain to be a memorable pre-game meal in the Northwest cafeteria followed by a titanic gridiron contest, matching the nationally-ranked Rangers with our winless Tiger team. The excitement was palpable. As I mentioned, I was married, and my wife Rothann and I lived in an off-campus apartment so I had to drive over to the dorm to catch the bus. I was surprised, when I took a left into the dorm parking lot at about 7:10, to find the Cat’s small white Chevy pickup wheeling into the lot just behind me.

The Cat was a 6’-1, 240 pound offensive lineman with thick glasses, a thick middle, and, we later mutually agreed, a thick head. Remember, the Cat was not just my friend from college. He was also my long-time high school running buddy. The encounter that was set to unfold was not our first rodeo together. I owed him. He owed me. More than that, we just liked each other. So when he poured out of the driver side of his still idling pickup bright and early that fateful Saturday morning with “Let’s go kick some Ranger tail!” (Of course, he did not say “tail.”) I felt an obligation to protect him from the wrath that would, rightly, fall on any college athlete in his apparent condition.

“Where have you been?”

“I was at Lake Mohawk for a while and then me and [a boy whose name has been omitted on the grounds that it would most certainly incriminate him] went to [a known bootlegger]’s. After that, I was just riding around, enjoying life, but the last couple hours, I been at [a girl who would most certainly send an assassin after me should her name appear in this story]’s apartment.”

“You ain’t been in all night?”

“Heck, no!” (The Cat did not say “Heck.”)

“Get your butt to your room and get cleaned up. We’re leaving in 10 minutes.” (Oh, I didn’t say “butt” either.)

“You’re a good friend. You know that?”

“Yeah, you are too. Now go get your stuff. Hurry! And brush your teeth!”

Eight minutes passed. Players had begun to fill the bus. A few of those in the know regarding the Cat’s condition eyed me as they boarded. I saw a touch of panic in the wide eyes of the Cat’s other friends, at least concern, but they boarded the bus Cat-less anyway. And, I saw a blazing, disturbing gleam in the eyes of those special few you find on any sports team, the ones who just like to see things blow up. You know the ones, the ones who intentionally throw hair spray cans into a bonfire, the ones who pay five bucks to beat on an old car with a sledge hammer at the carnival, those guys. They could already see the Cat’s fur afire; their only question was would it be ignited here, in route, or there. They were almost giddy.

For those who might not understand the dynamic at play here, let me explain. A missed workout by an athlete in collegiate athletics results in an excessive quantity of physical pain and punishment. College coaches are not bound by “the punishment must fit the crime” rule. They operate under a modified version, which is “the punishment must be so severe that the athlete nor his children or his grandchildren would ever consider committing the infraction in question, or any infraction, ever again.” And that’s for missing a workout. Should a college athlete fail to make the bus for a game … a mushroom cloud is all that comes to mind to describe the consequences.

I raced up the dormitory hallway to the Cat’s room. Thank goodness he was on the ground floor. I threw open his door to find him asleep on his bunk, still fully clothed just as he had stepped from his truck eight minutes earlier. I doubt he had brushed his teeth either, but now there was no time. I jerked him up and slapped some water in his face.

“We are going to the bus now. You will sit by me on the window side. You will not make eye contact with any coach. You will not speak. Do you understand?”

I could see that the situation we found ourselves in had begun to register, dimly, with the Cat. He mumbled agreement, and I put a cap on his head. We walked on the bus like a bride and her father, and, yeah, that wasn’t suspicious at all. We plopped into a seat on the right-hand side about two-thirds of the way back. The firebugs and future felons were already upset that the Cat had avoided detection this long. Thankfully, he slept all the way to Senatobia.

The Cat would have to negotiate three critical events upon arrival at Northwest to skirt justice, as I had it figured. He would have to get off the bus, find his equipment and get it into the locker room. That was one. He would then have to go through the cafeteria line and eat his pre-game meal. That was two. And finally he would have to go through pre-game warm-ups, and this would have to be done, unavoidably, in close proximity to the coaching staff. Of course, we were now hours removed from the cause of the difficulty, and the Cat’s condition, with my assistance, had avoided detection until now. So far, so good.

The first step was not so bad. The general turmoil and noise of a team full of JUCO football players exiting a bus and rambling through equipment bags provided sufficient cover for the Cat and me to locate our gear and make haste to the locker room. And he was better now that he had had a couple hours sleep. He didn’t seem likely to stumble. When I looked in his face, he seemed to be there, sort of.

Step two, however, chinked the armor. I heard the call to the cafeteria, and after the Cat and I had unpacked our equipment into a couple of lockers on the far end of the visitors’ dressing room, we joined the line to go eat.  I guided us into formation, not at the front (that would draw too much attention), and not at the back (equally conspicuous), but in the middle of the pack (invisible).  The line to get our meal of fried chicken, green beans and mashed potatoes snaked its way along a handrail that separated the serving counters from the dining tables.  About halfway up the handrail on the table side stood defensive coordinator James Williams, arms crossed, eyeing each Tiger as they took their trays.  I’m sure he was there to keep the noise level down, to keep a bunch of 19 year-olds from getting rowdy and stupid in someone else’s dining hall, but his presence presented the first real danger to the Cat, who would have to pass within three feet of the shadow of death.

For the first time, my mind calculated my own exit strategy.  Sure, the Cat was my friend, my best friend, and I would take a bullet for him.  A .22 caliber, OK … but not a mortar shell.  I was an aid-er and an abet-er, but I was not involved in the crime.  What I would do was make small talk with Coach Williams while the Cat casually passed us by.

“How’s it going, Coach Williams?” I said.  “Good” was his response.

“We are going to get after it today,” I continued.

“Hope so.”

“Did you eat yet?”  I was running out of material.

“Not yet.”

James Williams had black hair and a mustache, a dark complexion, dark eyes.  He was quick and sarcastic, not the compassionate type.  My decision to engage in chit-chat was a bad move from the get-go.  I now saw interest rising in his widening eyes, eyes that peered deeper, pierced deeper, with each meaningless comment I offered.

“Bail! Bail!”  My inner fog horn blared.  I cut my losses and closed my mouth.  I glanced over my right shoulder at the Cat who, smiling oddly, had patiently waited for the close encounter I had hoped to prevent.

“Let’s kick some Ranger tail, Coach Williams!” (Again, the Cat did not say “tail.”)  There it was.  I faced front, the hair on the back of my neck perpendicular to my spine.

“Heh, heh. Yeah, that’s right,” Coach Williams responded with a laugh.  The Cat and I stepped forward and took our trays.  I could feel Coach Williams’ gaze trailing us to our seats.

“Don’t say anything else to the coaches, you idiot,” I whispered.

“It’s all right. I’m good. I got it together.  We gonna kick some Ranger tail today!” (You know.)

“Stop saying that.”

“We gonna kick –“

“Stop.”

I feared the Cat had initiated suspicion, but at least we finished our meal, perhaps the last supper for my likely-condemned, still moderately inebriated compatriot, and made our way to the dressing room with operation number two now complete.

The third step, pre-game warm-ups, did not arouse suspicion.  No, it went far, far beyond that.  I mentioned that the Cat was not a starter.  Furthermore, while he was a great teammate, he also was not what you would have considered the vocal team leader type.  Yet, this day, in Senatobia, Mississippi, beginning at about 12:45 in the afternoon, he reeled off scream after scream of inspiring commentary as we stretched and sweated in the still hot, autumn afternoon sun.  The Cat worked from his baseline imperative of “We gonna kick some Ranger tail!” to phrases that must have been floating around his subconscious since childhood.

“We chopping down the beanstalk today!  Giants going down!”

“Don’t want to be a lone Ranger today!”

“Another one bites the dust!”  I may have mentioned we were winless, and Northwest was ranked, I think, 6th in the country.

With that, I was out.  The Cat now walked the alley alone.  Clearly uninhibited, he was boldly stating facts to our team, our coaches, and the world of which we were previously unaware.  The Cat’s proclamations also implied that he was different on this Saturday.  He was not the back-up Cat, the bench Cat, the back-seat Cat.  He was Top Cat, a roaring lion, king of the beasts!  We won the toss, and he pounced onto the field for the opening kickoff, taking his kick-off return team position, the far right end of the front row, within a few yards of our sideline.  As the Ranger kicker approached the ball, the game-starting cheer began to rise, “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh …”  The Ranger players’ and fans’ voices joined in the swell.

Most of the Tiger players, and our coaches for that matter, knew we were doomed.  Northwest was 6-0, and we were 0-6.  What were our chances?  Slim to none.  But a voice cried in the wilderness this day in Senatobia, or roared.  As the Ranger kicker put cleat to leather and the pigskin began its end-over-end flight to our return man, a high-pitched yell, more terrifying than any that Nathan Forrest’s rebels ever cried, burst from the Cat, octaves above the Northwest din.

Our kick-off return scheme, common for the time, was to have the two outer lineman along the front line fall back with the kick, about ten yards or so, and then cross the field and kick out, or trap blind-side, a member of the opponents kick-off team, who would be racing straight-line down the field towards our ball carrier.  It rarely worked.  Most of the front line guys were lineman, not particularly agile in the open field, and when they reached the player they were supposed to block, the return team linemen typically were out-run or faked out in some other way by their more athletic kick-off team opponents.

All eyes were fixed on the Cat, who was emitting a noise much like a high speed fan with a bearing gone bad.  He retreated four or five steps, planted a drive foot and cut across the field, still screaming.  The stadium zeroed in on the Cat.  Twenty players completed the play in relative anonymity; only the Cat and his target were observed by the few thousand in attendance.  The Cat crossed about thirty yards and closed on the gazelle that would be his afternoon meal.  I don’t think the Ranger player ever even glanced at the Cat, who went airborne, horizontal, about five yards from his victim.  As far as I could see from the sideline, the Cat’s right shoulder pad collided with the Ranger’s left jaw.  The Cat’s torso slashed across the Northwest cover man, down his left side, and they slammed to the turf together, sliding together, Cat on top, to within a few feet of the Northwest sideline.  Our return man raced about thirty yard past guys from both teams, who stood in stunned silence, until finally he was pulled down at about the 45 yard line.  You could have heard a pin drop for about three seconds.  The Cat sprung to his feet, pushing the air out of his compressed prey, and pumped both fists in the air.  Crazed, out of body, wild-eyed, he sprinted home to our sideline, verbalizing his general frame of mind as he came.

“Let’s kick some Ranger tail!” (He said “ass.”)

The greatest single play of the Cat’s football career was followed by another, and another, and another, throughout the first half. His lunatic screams, and the disassociated content of what he was saying, seemed to unnerve the Northwest team.  And, well, we were college athletes; we began to smell blood in the water.  We began to believe we might, we just might, kick some Ranger tail today.

Before the first half was done, the Cat’s wild and aggressive play even got him inserted into several of our offensive series as a guard.  You may not remember, but Northwest was famous in those days for taking a defensive lineman/criminal who had been ousted from some SEC school for a minor lapse of judgment – beating up a dean, robbing a liquor store, something trivial – and “rehabilitating” said individual through participation in physical education with the Rangers.  On a play or two in the second quarter, the Cat actually lined up against just such a person.  Now, while uninhibited and, therefore, at least temporarily playing to the maximum of his abilities, the Cat was not Superman.  The laws of physics were not suspended simply because the Cat was on fire.  When Crusher Nagurski hit Cat in the face with a forearm shiver that carried the force of jackhammer, he went down.  But, and this was the difference in this day and all the others, he sprang right back up.  He came off the turf like a paddle ball and would, at the very least, entangle his body in Crusher’s legs thereby preventing the death and dismemberment of our ball carriers.

I want to say it was a thing of beauty, but that’s going too far.  There was, however, one offensive play that should be extracted from the Cat’s first half repertoire deserving further illumination.  We were playing the Rangers neck and neck.  They would score, and we would score.  And the more this occurred, the tighter the Rangers got, the more tentatively they played, trying not to make a mistake, all except a certain Inmate #65898324, who was lined up at inside linebacker across from the Cat on what would be our final series of the first half.  The Auburn transfer/parolee, perhaps a cousin of Nagurski, was playing like a tornado with arms and legs, and an angry one at that, leaving a path of destruction wherever he went. In fact, his obliteration of Tiger right guard number one played a role in the Cat’s lining up on offense in the first place.  With 44 seconds left to go in the first half and the game tied at 28-28, we were driving again and had made it into Ranger territory at the 38 yard line.  We lined up to run a reverse play that called for the right guard to step left in the direction of the dive back, who would be faked the football between left guard and left tackle. The right guard, the Cat, would then pivot and pull out to the right as the lead blocker for the left slot back who would take the football from the quarterback and carry it around right end.  It was a simple misdirection play, and looking back, one that did not seem likely to accomplish much with under a minute to play in the half.

At the snap, the Cat took a hard step with his left foot toward our center, me, who was engaged with the nose tackle.  Inmate #65898324 attempted a shot into the center-guard gap and viciously struck the Cat in the right ear hole, knocking him to his knees with the blow.  As I was engaged with the nose tackle and could not see what happened next as the rest of the play unfolded that day in Senatobia, I can only report it as it was captured on the game film that we watched the next afternoon.  The linebacker saw that the dive was a fake and opened up to his left, our right.  He skated around the offensive tackle/defensive tackle pile-up that clogged the line of scrimmage, attempting to prevent our true ball carrier, the left slot back, from getting to the outside and doing real damage.  And now, of course, our back would be without his lead blocker, the Cat, who had been knocked to his knees virtually at the snap the ball.

What I saw on film that Sunday afternoon should have had background music like the old Laurel & Hardy or Little Rascal shorts.  In black and white, the Cat, down on all fours with his head pointing in the wrong direction, executed a half turn, crawling on the ground.  He then, still on all fours, continued his crawl at high speed around our tackle, somehow staying ahead of an upright, full speed back, to emerge at the intersection point with the freight train that was Inmate #65898324.  Just prior to impact, the Cat sprang to his feet, actually off his feet.  From a crawl, he exploded from the turf, elevated for the face-to-face encounter with the Ranger linebacker, both arms pushing forward to stop the freight train, paws open, claws exposed.  I feel certain there was a loud hiss just before the collision.  The sound that followed was “thump-thump.”  The first “thump” was the crash itself, the second, the back of the Cat’s helmet exploding on the ground.  The laws of physics had not been suspended.  We said that.  A cat can’t stop a freight train.  But in the split second it took for Inmate #65898324 to separate the Cat from consciousness, our slot back was around end and gone for the go-head touchdown.  We led the nation’s #6 junior college football team 35-28 at the half.

The Cat did not repeat his first half performance in the third and fourth quarters.  In fact, like a match blazing hot and then slowly burning through the stick until it is finally extinguished, the Cat began to sit quietly as the game hurtled on.  Nevertheless, his momentum, his aggression, his defiance had been already transferred to the rest of us.  We carried the torch, and battled to the end.  We lost the game 56-49, still clawing at the horn, driving for the potential tying touchdown as time expired.  It was a moral victory, sure, the kind we unfortunately most often accomplished.

We left Senatobia that day knowing we almost had them, almost beat the Rangers, knowing we played better than we were capable.  Shortly after boarding the bus for home, the Cat’s head rocked back on his seat, eyes closed, mouth open, asleep.  Not only had he escaped justice, but this lunatic had thrown caution to the wind and pushed himself out as a leader and a target and a real, sure-enough football player.  He had caused the rest of us to play crazy-good, crazy-good for us, one time, one Saturday at Northwest Junior College in Senatobia.  Crazy-good.

The Cat had not escaped justice.  Apparently, going from a mild-mannered second-string lineman to an unleashed, screaming jungle predator does not go unnoticed by even the most unobservant coaching staff.  The Cat was placed on double secret probation immediately after our film session on Sunday afternoon, and his parents were informed of his extracurricular activities.  He straightened up, short- and long-term, and finished the season, his last in collegiate football.  He never returned to the level of notoriety he achieved on than Saturday at Northwest, but the Cat did turn out to be quite an upstanding citizen, a great father and husband.

Setting aside the inauspicious origins of the Cat’s day, which could never be recommended no matter what the result, the rest of us did use his example of casting off inhibition as, surprisingly, the proper and correct way to play the game, at least I did.  I carried that little tidbit, the rare glimpse of what true reckless abandon really looked like, with me for the three years I had left in college football, and when I occasionally found myself knocked to the turf, I sprang cat-like, Cat-like, back to my feet.

I still talk to the Cat now and then.  I don’t know how many lives he’s down to now, but clearly, he doesn’t have more than eight. Inmate #65898324 claimed one of his nine on a memorable sunny Saturday in Senatobia twenty-five years ago.  And, yeah, we lost, but we did kick some Ranger ass.

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