Category Archives: College Football

The SkiUtah Leaderboard: Mississippian Misadventure in the Wasatch Mountains

I was – at one time – an athlete. I played collegiate football at Ole Miss, Northeast Junior College and Tennessee Tech University from 1983 until 1987 where I held my own against future NFL players like long-time Bronco defensive tackle Andre Townsend and Cowboy Pro-Bowler Leon Lett. I was blessed with enough strength, tenacity and aggression to carry me through a rough-and-tumble, 5-season career and two knee surgeries before settling into normal family life and an engineering job with IFM Corporation in Saltillo, Mississippi, in 1989.

It was early March 1994, when our party of five arrived in Park City, Utah, and unloaded the rented SUV that had carried us into the Wasatch Mountains. I had never been snow skiing myself, but I was assured by our trip organizer, IFM purchasing manager Randy McFadden, that I could “pick it up in a day, a day and a half – tops.” Randy was a fast-talking, former high school quarterback who still liked to call the plays when there was opportunity to do so, and coordinating a ski trip for a bunch of work buddies was a great opportunity.

“Listen Randy, I’ve tried water skiing a couple of times. I never can even get up,” I offered up, as a reason not to go along, two months earlier.

Randy countered, “Man, that’s a totally different thing! This is snow skiing, man! You start up! It’ll be fine! It’ll be great!” Randy spoke primarily in exclamations.

In any case, his line of reasoning made enough sense that I bought a ticket on Southwest Airlines and flew with the gang from Little Rock, Arkansas, to Salt Lake City. I now stood with Randy, his brother Mack, Greg Miller, and Dan Schirmer, the oldest member of the group at 44, looking at the beautiful snow-capped slopes of Utah where the Winter Olympics would take place eight years later.

We (actually Randy) had rented a condo, complete with hot tub, in close proximity to the city center and a wide variety of local restaurants. Our (actually Randy’s) plan was to ski a different resort on each day of the 5-day trip. We would take in Wolf Mountain (now called The Canyons), Park City, Snowbird, Alta and the most elite resort in Utah at that time Deer Valley. President Clinton and Christie Brinkley had both been to Deer Valley the week before us, we were told.

Randy said we would start our snowy smorgasbord at Park City where they had a half-day ski school. Dan, only a second-time skier, wanted to take a little refresher course, and Randy suggested Dan and I use the morning getting our legs under us on the “bunny slopes” before joining Mack, Greg and him in the afternoon for “real” skiing.

The idea of three hours in ski school with a dozen 8 year-olds and a hodgepodge of non-athletes, mostly older women, was hard to swallow. Was it really necessary? I was a collegiate athlete. I had held my own against NFL players. And yet I slid onto the seat of an only slightly inclined two-man ski lift, Dan at my side, aimed towards a soft spot on the gradual hillside 200 yards ahead.

The first indication that the school was perhaps a good idea came as Dan and I reached the point where we were to slide forward on our seats and exit the lift. There was an operator booth on my right with a tattooed 15 year-old manning the lift controls, barking orders at the departing ski students.

“Keep moving! Move out of the exit path!”

I watched five or six seats empty in front of us, the passengers moving out onto a flat, snowy plateau just beyond the control booth. When our turn came, my feet and Dan’s hit the ground at about the same time. Right away, I realized there was a problem. I am from Mississippi. I did not know that ski boots straps had to be tightly buckled – and they hurt my shins – and so I had just let mine flop in the breeze on the ride up. However, when my skis contacted snow, I was surprised to discover I had zero control.

I still point to my exit from the ski lift that day as a testament to my superior athleticism. I did NOT go down. I somehow managed to detach both my loose fitting boots from their connections and essentially “ran” right out of my skis, which were left spinning in the drop zone. I did, however, wipe Dan out. I slammed into him and sent him hurtling past the safety barrier on our left and down a black triple-diamond slope. The tattooed 15 year-old dryly commented, “Now, that’s something I’ve never seen,” as he stopped the lift, and I helped Dan climb back to the exit area. He was on all fours as he peeked over the crest of the hill. Not only did I learn that your boots must be tightly fastened at all times, I also learned that to cause the continuous ski lift to stop was to bring down the verbal wrath of the hundreds already on the lift and of those in line waiting to get on. Clearly, I had committed a skiing faux pas – duly noted.

I did not go down during this event – I mentioned that – but I did go down 22 seconds after exiting the drop zone. I tried to “V-plow” as we were instructed (and that’s not real skiing, by the way) and so navigate down the 200 yards of slope to once again mount the lift and return for lesson number two. But I must have missed the part about how to steer left or right in what the instructor was saying. Perhaps I was still disoriented from the Schirmer wipeout, and I made a bee-line, as if drawn by a magnet, to the pole that supported the lift. It was so out of the realm of possibility the support could be hit by a skier that I didn’t see another set of tracks anywhere in the snow over the last 20 or 30 yards I travelled … just before I crashed face first into a 14″ diameter steel tube and suffered my first concussion of the day.

My next trip down the bunny slope I sailed left off the path into a grove of wonderfully scented evergreens. My left shoulder rammed into a mid-sized fir tree just as my right ski tip caught on a root separating my ski from my boot once again. This time, however, it was just the one. I saw it glide away into the distance as I lay curled around the base of the tree.

Within three hours, I was able to V-plow down the bunny slope, and Dan, who had fared only slightly better than me, suggested we break for lunch and wait on Randy and the others. I feigned a desire to make “just one more run” down the slope before giving in to his lunch offer. I doubt that I was believable.

We went to the top of the mountain after lunch and carefully mapped a pathway back to the base along only “green” slopes. The slopes progress in difficulty on a scale of green to blue to black to black with up to three diamonds. I would have been dead within seconds should I have mistakenly turned down a black triple-diamond slope, but it’s not the kind of mistake someone at my level of experience would have casually made. With a black triple-diamond, you just sort of walk up and look over the edge of a cliff, as tattooed 15 year-olds leap past you and disappear into the mists half a football field below. With my inability to yet steer myself with any confidence, I was in a pretty precarious situation standing there at the top of some unnamed Wasatch peak.

The natural beauty around me no longer registered as we selected a slope that, on our trail map, looked like a winding roadway. And that’s exactly what it was. But nothing was going to be easy on this day it seemed. The roadway most certainly had a modest angle of descent, but it was only about 10 feet wide total. On the mountain side of the trail was a snow-covered cliff wall, and on the non-mountain side was air and a straight drop to eternity. I hugged the cliff wall so tightly that occasionally I would have to stick my ski pole into it to dislodge myself. There was no way I was getting near the drop on my right, so with my steering problem I crashed into this wall maybe 20 times before we reached the bottom, often ending up on my back and skidding a few yards down slope before our trio of actual skiers would gather my loose skis and equipment and return me to a vertical position. They were all smiling. Dan was more sympathetic. I caught a few of his nastier spills in my peripheral vision. At least I think it was Dan. I couldn’t risk turning my head. We made several trips top to bottom, and when the day finally ended, it occurred to me that no Andre Townsend or Leon Lett had ever hurt me the way I was hurt at this moment.

The only thing I remember after that was sitting quietly in a hot tub listening to the laughter of my so-called friends who found humor in the fact that over the course of a couple of hours the only thing I said was “I think I have a concussion.”

It got better. There were times on our second day at Wolf Mountain that I was able to move my skis from the “V” to a correct parallel position and actually travel a few seconds before crashing. I felt a metaphorical kinship with the Wright Brothers. On Day 2, I spent only HALF the morning errantly careening through groves of trees, and by afternoon I kept my skis reasonably parallel all the time. I even began to jump-turn to change direction, and I was falling only every ten minutes or so – progress. I felt great satisfaction when our group came into one particular clearing, ready to proceed down a monstrously wide (but still “green”) slope that had developed a thin layer of surface ice. I was able to navigate down the mountain despite the increased difficulty the ice brought, and Dan – bless his heart – took his skis off and walked down.

That night I was able to converse with Randy and the others, though my head was still throbbing and my body ached like I had been in a car wreck. I took a bottle of Tylenol.

“You’ve got this now, man! I told you this was going to be great! Don’t you love it?! Snowbird resort tomorrow!” Randy exclaimed. I nodded and nodded off.

Day 3 was pretty doggone good. I fell rarely. I was feeling better from not falling so much, and I began to actually enjoy what we were doing. By the end of the day at Snowbird, I tackled one little section of a “blue” run. I am an athlete. I played college football and held my own against future NFL players.

Over my shoulder, I could see Dan at a crossroads, the fork of the intermediate run and the green. He paused, looking down at the four of us sailing off into the blue, and then chose discretion as the better part of valor. He pointed his ski tips to the gently declining bunny path, joining elderly women and a few of the 8 year-olds who hadn’t already advanced to leaping off black triple-diamonds. At that moment, I had a vision. I saw a SkiUtah leaderboard and a tattooed 15 year-old moving Schirmer’s name down a slot to #5 – and then inserting “Richey” in the #4 hole. And on cue, my pecking order possibilities took another sudden and unexpected uptick. Randy’s brother Mack blew his knee out trying to make a quick stop at the gateway to the next slope!

“Come on, man! You can make it to the bottom! I know you can!” Randy exclaimed. But Mack could NOT make it to the bottom. The ski patrol carried him down to the lodge, and two hours later when the slopes closed and Randy declared skiing done for the day, we helped Mack to the SUV.

“Just sleep on it! You’ll be all right tomorrow! We’re going to do Deer Valley tomorrow! You don’t want to miss Deer Valley!” Randy encouraged his brother.

We did not do Deer Valley the next day. We did Alta instead because it was on the western side of the Wasatch Mountains, and that was the same side Salt Lake City was on. Salt Lake City’s where we left Mack at the airport terminal – in a wheel chair – awaiting an expedited flight home for surgery.

“You’re going to be all right, Mack! I know you are! Have a safe trip! Let’s go, guys!”

The four men left standing made it to Alta only an hour later than Randy had planned. Gazing skyward occasionally over the next couple hours, the gang wondered which passing plane might be Mack’s as we immersed ourselves in an equal mix of “greens” and “blues.” Day 4 was the best yet, even though Dan had slowed considerably and spent much of his day drinking at Alta’s mid-mountain restaurant.

“Hey, Dan, let’s go up and do a mogul run!” Randy shouted at our elder one of the several times we passed him during the next four hours. Dan grunted and threw up a hand, waving us on. Or perhaps he was offering Randy a sign. I wasn’t quite sure from a distance and with Dan wearing ski gloves.

The condo was filled with chatter when we returned from dinner on the fourth day. We toasted Mack a time or two. Dan was up for that. I saw a change go up on my imagined SkiUtah leaderboard. Now hanging beside the name that had been at the front of the pack, since we rode the lifts up Park City’s peaks on Day 1, was a “DQ.” McFadden, M. – Disqualified.

Tenacity can carry a person a long way, I thought, looking back at the beating I had taken during those first 36 hours of hell in Utah. Now, only Deer Valley remained, where President Clinton had slalomed with Christie Brinkley the week before. Frankly, Randy, Greg and I had gotten into a pretty good rhythm on the slopes, and now even Dan seemed excited about the day we would spend at Deer Valley Resort, one of Utah’s finest.

Valet parking was available. That tipped us off that we had clearly taken a step forward. There was an air of elegance at Deer Valley, and lift ticket prices confirmed that this particular resort was not a stop on the Greyhound bus route. But we were each only footing the bill for a single skier, so we swallowed the check and had a blast.

The slopes weren’t as crowded, and snowboarders weren’t allowed, which decreased the number of tattooed 15 year-olds we had to contend with. One of the long runs from the top took you by several of the Olympic event sites, then under construction. And the best part, we skied without falling. I skied without falling – maybe a slight spill or two over the course of the full day, but that’s expected of anyone. And we skied fast, fast for us, and we skied through moguls, and we skied through tree runs. We knew this was the last day, and we, especially Randy, wanted to squeeze every ounce of fun there was to be had out of it. Dan dropped out first, and Randy, Greg and I headed back up to mid-mountain for “one last run” to the bottom.

There was a decision made, an audible by our signal-caller, that this run would be a “race.” I am a former college football player who has held his own against future NFL players. I am tenacious and aggressive. Five days did not make me a skilled skier, but I raced anyway. I did not win. But neither did Randy, and now with the sun about to set, he told Greg and I that he believed we yet had even “one MORE run” in us – all the way from the top to the bottom. Greg shook his head and walked away, his victory tucked in the belt of his ski pants. He joined Dan at a table near the lodge and waited.

“Come on, Clark! This is it, man! Don’t go back to Mississippi and leave a run on the table! One more run! When you watch the Olympics, you can say, ‘We did that!'”

Randy was quite persuasive. What the heck. We mounted the lift and went all the way up. It was glorious – sun hanging low, slopes nearly empty – the mountain was ours. We discounted entirely the fact that Miller had won that last race. There were now only two men left on this mountain. Greg had forfeited his title when he walked away and sat down with Dan.

Randy and I flew down the hill – he representing the brotherhood of high school quarterbacks and me carrying the pride, honor and weight of collegiate lineman throughout eternity. After two days of physical abuse and another three days of intense exercise, we were both exhausted. Two-thirds of the way down my arms and legs were trembling, but we raced on. Finally the terrain flattened, and we approached that last stretch, the home stretch that led to the lodge. We saw the huge Deer Valley crowd, their day complete – the skiing elite, drinking and laughing, the soft glow from the string lights shining on the snow with the sun sinking below the horizon.

Randy and I are furiously driving forward with our poles, Nordic-style. The crowd murmurs but parts as we sail towards the smiling faces of Dan and Greg who cheer us on. I edge ahead and refuse to slow up even though the crowd is thick and complaining as we bump past. I am almost at Greg and Dan and a hundred others – and a ski length ahead of Randy – when an elderly couple who have taken off their skis step from the lodge’s patio directly into my path. With Randy barreling in on my right, I have no choice but to jump-turn quickly left to avoid a repeat of the Day 1 Schirmer wipeout, this time involving people I don’t know … and old people. The problem with my left turn was that it was onto the lodge’s brick patio. And I learned a new lesson, even on Day 5, in front of five hundred to a thousand of Utah’s upper crust. Skis only slide on snow.

Immediately my skis came to an abrupt halt. Unfortunately, this time my boots were tightly fastened, so my knees hit first. The circle of on-lookers around me widened as my upper body folded forward, but I was able to get my hands down and thus prevent a full-on face plant. I was a collegiate athlete. I could still react – I had just saved those two old people’s lives, for crying out loud! I could still react, but after 5 days of physical exertion, my strength was no more. And my shaking arms began to spasm and buckle. I used every iota of energy left in my body to resist, but slowly my face descended and with a ‘thunk’ my forehead tapped – some later said “struck” – the brick patio. There was complete and deafening silence from the elite. Some looked on with pity and some with disdain. The silence mercifully was broken by a familiar sound.

“Man, you won’t ever forget this! Man, what a finish! Dan, Greg, did you see that?!”

OK, not so merciful, and yes, Dan and Greg saw it. So did five hundred to a thousand others at the close of day at Deer Valley. I got up as quickly as I could, and soon folks returned to milling and chatting. Occasionally, they would point my way and speak in hushed tones. At first, I was upset with Randy’s immediate promotion of the ignominious end to my Wasatch ski adventure, but after reflection, I think his assessment was right on. I won’t ever forget it.

I was – at one time – an athlete. I played collegiate football at Ole Miss, Northeast Junior College and Tennessee Tech University where I held my own against future NFL players Andre Townsend and Leon Lett. I am blessed with strength, aggression and tenacity. I returned to the Wasatch Mountains, and Deer Valley, the very next year, with a gang of friends led by a high school quarterback who spoke primarily in exclamations … for the rematch, of course.

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Filed under College Football, Goings On In Baldwyn, Mississippi, Just For Fun, Sports

Tommy Moffit Was a Great American

Tennessee Tech - Overall FieldOnce in a blue moon, I’m washed over by a flash flood of memories from the old days, my college football days.  I don’t know exactly what triggers these high tides of recollection.  Maybe it’s subliminal.  Maybe I’ve overheard some simple, almost-forgotten phrase, or caught the scent of fresh-cut Bermuda, or felt an all-too-familiar twinge of pain in my right knee, and the heavens just open up.  Today, my subconscious raised Tommy Moffit from the stream and paused.

I want to say:  “Tommy Moffit was a great American!”  But … while I suspect that may very well be a true statement, the fact is I really don’t know what Tommy was.  I knew Thomas Moffit only as an ‘acquaintance’ when he was a teammate of mine at Tennessee Tech University in the late 1980’s, and I haven’t heard from him, or of him, in the past 25 years .  In fact, even though I played football with him for two full seasons, for the life of me, I can’t tell you what position Tommy even played.  I remember him as being 6’-2 or 6’-3, maybe taller, and weighing about 230 pounds.  He was reasonably fit and muscular but not excessively fast or strong.  I recall that he had a head full of bushy, dark hair and that he spoke with an accent that was unmistakably eastern Tennessean.  So with that description, today here stands Tommy Ballard, as vividly in my mind as if he was physically beside me on the sideline at Murray State or Austin Peay, making ready for what we considered a winnable conference game.

Tommy’s forte, the quirky practice that accompanies this old teammate into my thoughts after three decades, was “Motivation Through HIGH VOLUME Screaming.”  Very simply, he was the BEST, better than anyone I’ve ever known.

On a football team, there are always a few guys who are compelled (by genetics, I believe) to yell out verbal adrenaline shots, the purpose of which is to stir their teammates into a frenzy of aggression.  THAT was Tommy.  Whether he was officially assigned this task by the coaching staff or not, I’ll never know, but Tommy reveled in “Pump Up the Crowd” duty at home games, and, of course, its flip side “Infuriate the Crowd” duty on the road.

In carrying out his mission for Golden Eagle Football, Tommy developed a catch phrase. “O-V-C, baby!”  Not very imaginative or unique, true, but it was all his.  And he wielded it early and often any time Tennessee Tech played an Ohio Valley Conference opponent.  When he said it, at the top of his lungs, sometimes preceded or followed by a “WHOOO,” he would typically be looking some teammate directly in the eye.  At that point, the teammate was bound, by the Official Teammate Code, to respond with a “YEAH!” and a nod, so that Tommy could proceed to the next linebacker or split end in need of his inspiration. To ignore the “O-V-C, baby!” was to incur hammered fists to your shoulder pads and a re-boot of the process, now nose-to-nose, and this time with a change of inflection. “O-V-C, baby?! O-V-C, baby?!”  Tommy demanded the appropriate response – PERIOD.

As we entered the field for warm-ups: “O-V-C, baby!”  Just after the national anthem: “O-V-C, baby!”  During the opening kickoff (I’m almost certain Tommy was on either the kick-off or the kick-off return team. If he wasn’t, he certainly was in spirit): “O-V-C, baby!”

As our games progressed, Tommy’s signature phrase usually took on a more plaintive, pleading tone, and the meaning of “O-V-C, baby!” became “This is the O-V-C, baby!  How can we have gotten behind by two touchdowns already?!”  But any positive turn of events would always rekindle the energy in Tommy’s battle cry, and if we were in the games at all, he was right there to the bitter end (most of our ends were bitter; we were 5-16 in my two seasons at Tennessee Tech).

“O-V-C, baby!”  I remember it like it was yesterday.  The ineloquence of the phrase always makes me smile.  “O-V-C, baby!”  The repetitive, random usage of that idiom, containing not a shred of originality, yet persistently echoing over the course of two college football seasons, has seared this unquestionably ridiculous, two-word call to arms, and its creator, into my psyche forever.

I remember Tommy Moffit as a slightly crazed, moderately athletic college football player, excessively enthusiastic, with no apparent awareness of the reality of our mediocrity.  My inner cynic tells me that Tommy’s efforts were absurd.  Was it reasonable to think that just because we were in a conference game we were somehow going to become a better team?  Was it reasonable to think that because he screamed in my face I had a better chance of blocking Eastern Kentucky’s defensive tackle than I did without the scream?  No, it wasn’t reasonable.  But youthful exuberance, and optimism, and enthusiasm aren’t based on reason.  They’re based on hope.

I remember Tommy Moffit as a slightly crazed, moderately athletic college football player who screamed youthful exuberance, optimism and enthusiasm.  I wonder if he remembers me at all.

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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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