The sports-banquet season is just ended, and on the Southern circuit many a tepid slab of roast beef was followed by a striking apparition: a 270-pound, 46-year-old, anti-likker, anti-bigotry, deepwater Baptist Mississippi fertilizer salesman named Jerry Clower, whose face looks like John Wayne's from the eyes up and Buddy Hackett's from the cheekbones down. Clower is a born speaker. He pooches his lips out, waves his arms, imitates a chain saw cutting through a screen door, goes "ba-oooo" deep down in his throat like a coon dog named Brumby and finds occasion, somewhere along the line, to reproach his audience: "People, I'm a little disappointed in you. None of y'all have rushed up to me and said, 'Jerry, I remember when you played football at Miss'ippi State.' "
He frowns. He looks like he might cry. "There ain't none of y'all done that and it has disturbed me a little bit. I'll just have to tell you who I am. I am the man, in 19 hundred and 49, at the Auburn Stadium—they had an All-America name of Travis Tidwell, who was a fine back—I am the man, the defensive tackle, in 19 hundred and 49, before standing room only, that Tidwell made 27 yards running backwards over."
Clower goes on to tell, and in salient detail to act out, the story of that memorable play, and the banqueters laugh so hard they get just about as much exercise as they would out of playing the game themselves. Once at a big affair in Nashville, Bear Bryant started trying to make a few notes during Clower's remarks but got so tickled he had to quit. LSU arranged its banquet this winter around Clower's schedule, and he had the people there laughing from deep down. He told about the time he played against Baylor: "I called my mama long distance at the country store, and had 'em to go over there home and get her and bring her to the telephone, and I said to her, 'Mama, just think of this. Yo' pore little old country boy is goin' to play football against the largest Baptist university in the whole world.'
"And then, when I got down to playing 'em, trying to rush in there and keep old Adrian Burk from passing to old J.D. Ison, I run into a guard named May-field—who was bad. He was so mean that when he was ordained a Baptist preacher he had two black eyes.
"This Preacher Mayfield forearmed me back of my head. He shoved my face down in that dirt and that grass, and my bottom lip and bottom teeth just scooped up a big mouthful of that dirt like a dragline."
Clower sticks out his bottom lip and teeth and assumes such a graphic dirt-biting expression that his rapt audience can taste turf through the three-color ice cream. He shudders and makes a series of massive, agonized mouth-pawing motions. "I jumped up spittin' and knockin' the grass and the dirt out of my mouth, and I said, 'Fella, you the dirtiest thing I ever played against in all my life. And you supposed to be a Baptist preacher!'
"And he stood up erect—they had done throwed the ball for a touchdown—he stood up erect and popped his hand over his heart and he pointed his long finger right in my face and he said, 'The Bible says, the meek shall inherit the earth.'
"And I had just inherited a mouthful of it."
The stories Clower tells are more or less true (Travis Tidwell, by his own recollection, ran over him backward for only seven yards). Clower compares himself favorably, and aptly, with such country-humorist predecessors as Andy Griffith and Brother Dave Gardner when he says, "I don't tell funny stories. I just tell stories funny."
He tells them all over, not just at sports banquets. In his time he has enlivened many a broiler festival and county fair, at least one tobacco-spitting contest and an armadillo festival. He has appeared at the Grand Ole Opry several times, on the David Frost and Mike Douglas television shows and on stage with country-music stars as far north as Boston. His two record albums have together sold 650,000 copies and he says with a characteristic lack of false or even true modesty that he has never had an audience that did not warm up to him eventually.