MY RIGHT knee still hurts, my right shoulder, too. My ankles sound like crickets when I walk down the hall. On certain days the numbness at the back of my skull reminds me of who I once was, that fearless boy who enjoyed nothing more than to run headfirst into people. I was a center at LSU from 1976 to 1979. It was the most incredible experience of my life. I'm paying for it now.
This happened last week. I went out for the mail and suddenly decided to see if I could still run. So I jogged the length of the lawn as my neighbor across the street watched from the shade of his carport. He snuffed out his cigarette and came up out of his plastic lawn chair, a look of terror on his face. I might've explained had I been able to breathe. It was summer, and the smell of the grass had me feeling 19 again.
The impulse is to blame the SEC, but most days I understand that my aches and pains are all I have left, and so I am oddly grateful for them. Back then the first conference game on our schedule was always Florida. We cleared our throats against nonconference teams like Rice, Wake Forest and Colorado, and then came the Gators in the early days of October, and finally it was time to sing. The league then was as rich in talent as it is today, and the question among Southern football fans wasn't if the conference was the strongest in college football. That was a given. The question was how the league's best team, Bear Bryant's Alabama, would fare against NFL clubs.
I've forgotten the scores of most of our games. I don't remember how we ended up each year in the conference standings. Instead memory serves up disembodied images that barely make sense. I flash to the colors of sweat-soaked game jerseys and the wild, bloodshot eyes of an opponent behind his face mask. I can be on the couch having a nap, and suddenly I hear the crowd and our coaches screaming: McCarty asking if I'm man enough to handle Brantley or Jaffe or some other once-famous name, McClendon yelling for me to run harder on punt coverage. Memory has deleted most of the game tape, but it lets me visit the towns and cities where we played our games. It gives me pictures of the inexpensive family hotels we stayed at, the meals we ate. I can hear the pep talks that ran on too long, some of them my own. I can recall the smell of cologne and chewing gum in the team bus as we rode to the stadium before the game.
Somewhere near Gainesville my freshman year we toured a swamp in a glass-bottomed boat. This would've been on the Friday before the game, and we went there as a team, everybody wearing white polo shirts with embroidered Tigers emblems. I think the point of the tour was to get us to relax, but no one could stop thinking about what awaited us the next day. The guide told us to look down between our feet at a turtle swimming past, but when I looked, I didn't see the turtle. Instead I saw more of the game film we'd been studying in meetings all week. I suppose I was hallucinating. The film played out against the water like a movie. The Florida defense ran to the ball so hard, you wondered if there was something wrong with the projector. Where did they find these people? Still in all, we never doubted we would beat them.
The Gators cheerleaders, the next day, stood on a short concrete wall behind our bench. They wore orange garter belts and skirts so short you could see their blue panties. Just past them sat scores of radiant blonde coeds in bikini tops and denim cutoffs, their legs glistening with cocoa butter. We wondered out loud if the Florida football program had put the girls there to distract us from the task at hand. This was low and underhanded. It was cheating. "Eyes on the field," our coaches shouted as they stalked the sideline. Then they turned and enjoyed long looks of their own.
We flew to Lexington, Ky., in a DC-9 charter and toured the blue countryside in a pair of Continental Trailways buses—the lead one for the offense, the one in the rear for the defense. We visited a horse farm and a breeding stable, and everybody had something clever to say about how lucky the studs were. The next night I got hit so hard on a kickoff that I was blown off my feet and landed on the back of my head, my helmet leaving a dent in the sod. I can still see his number—74—and the smug, self-congratulatory smile on his face in the moment before he delivered the lick.
Georgia's fans gave my parents hell when we traveled to Athens. I told Daddy he should've left the purple-and-gold rugby shirt at home. My parents didn't complain about Vanderbilt's fans, drummed to an apathetic state after years of losing. Nor did they grouse about Alabama's, who won so often it was easy for them to be gracious. Against Ole Miss the trick to getting the home fans to lower their rebel flags was to point at the scoreboard each time we punched it in.
I remember a noseguard for Mississippi State named Lonnie Green. He'd grown up in a small town in northern Louisiana, and we'd played together in the 1976 Louisiana high school all-star game. As schoolboys transitioning to college that summer, we'd all been eager to prove our toughness. Lonnie had proved his by accepting a dare to eat a live cockroach. We screamed as the insect's legs scrambled for purchase against Lonnie's lower lip, then we screamed again at the sound of the first crunch. And now, four years later, Lonnie was one of the top defensive linemen in the SEC, and he and I were squaring off in Baton Rouge before almost 70,000 people. I broke the huddle and ran up to the line.
"Lonnie Green, you no-good roach-eater," I said. "I hope you're ready, my friend. We're going to get you back for what you did to that bug."