Arkansas calls itself the Land of Opportunity, so maybe Arkansas State Tight End Jerry Mack should be playing elsewhere; opportunity, as it has come to be defined in the age of free rides and multimillion-dollar contracts, just does not seem to interest him. Seventy-nine of his 102 teammates are on scholarship, some occasional stumblers and fumblers among them, and kickers who play but briefly. But the 5'11", 205-pound Mack, who has started 27 straight games, doesn't have a scholarship, and won't accept one.
Apparently, knocking over 250-pounders is its own reward; that and scoring clumps of unexpected touchdowns. A-State Head Coach Larry Lacewell, mystified by Mack's seeming indifference to what could be his for the asking, summoned him to his office last January. "Jerry," he said, "you've played good ball for me, so let me ask you this: Would you like a scholarship?"
"No, sir," Mack replied.
Dumbfounded, the normally articulate Lacewell croaked, "Why?"
Mack said, "I figure if I take it I'll be cheating some other guy who needs it more than I do. Besides, I just enjoy playing the game."
"That's great, I understand," Lacewell said, though he couldn't begin to. Certainly Lacewell had little familiarity with such behavior, having been defensive coordinator at Oklahoma for eight years before arriving at A-State as an unpaid assistant in 1978. As Lacewell has told friends, "This is the most baffling experience of my 23-year career."
Mack has been asked about his real motivations virtually ever day since that meeting, and recently he has been saying, "If I can get through college playing football without a scholarship, it will help me all my life; when dark clouds arrive, I won't panic."
Mack's bulletin board is plastered with newspaper stories about him—the word "scholarship" prominent in all of them—some insinuating that he's executing a clever publicity ploy, others describing him as "humble" ad nauseam. And then there is the secret income theory, which doesn't hold up, first because family wealth rarely if ever stops college athletes from accepting scholarships; second because both of Mack's parents are dead, and were poor when alive. He worked every summer: on the assembly line of a shoe factory this past summer, washing linens at a hospital in 1980. After work he would rush back to the campus to lift weights with teammates, an off-season activity that is optional for non-scholarship players.
Mack does have a Basic Education Opportunity Grant (BEOG) from the Federal Government, worth $1,382 annually. But a scholarship would amount to $2,480. Besides, scholarships for most college athletes seem to be as important for reasons of status as they are for reasons of finance. Last week Lacewell shuffled through some questionnaires he had his players fill out. The last question was, "What is your greatest achievement thus far?" Most of the players wrote in, "Getting a scholarship," or words to that effect. Mack wrote, "Playing college football for two years."
Last month Mack was elected one of the Indians' four captains, an almost unheard-of honor for a walk-on. Offensive Tackle Paul Gilbow says, "It's hard to earn a starting position as a walk-on, and having to work as hard as Jerry does, not being on scholarship, has earned him a lot of respect."