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He was 30 seconds from home. That was the damnable thing. Thirty seconds down Prairie Point Road and Casey Conner would have been back at Howard Hill. Charles Ford and Michael Kimble would have been with him, and everything would have been fine. Just fine.
There were no crazy bends in the road. There was no other traffic. There was no rain. The dark Mississippi night should have been a friend. Hadn't Casey driven this road forever? His father's land was on one side, planted with soybeans, as usual. He was that close.
What happened? The three of them were coming back from spending much of the night around Noxubee County. Easter Sunday. They had arrived that afternoon from Memphis, where Casey had spent the two previous days at the homes of the other two kids. Baby Casey—that was what his mother called him, even though he was only eighth in her line of 11 children. Baby Casey. He had worked a little while, spelling his father, in the small store at Howard Hill, about 100 miles from Jackson. He had borrowed money from his mother. What was it she said? She suddenly had been startled by his size. Hugged him. Just before he left. Baby Casey, you've gotten so big.
His cousin Sharon Johnson found the car, which wasn't so surprising. Everyone in the area was family. Howard Hill is simply a cluster of nine houses and trailers, not an official town, a family place, everybody a Conner in one way or another. Sharon recognized the white 1983 Ford Mustang that had crashed against the tree. She stopped and looked inside and went screaming to Howard Hill, ran straight into Casey's parents' bedroom at 2:30 in the morning.
The news reports put the events into a convenient package. They said three young men were dead, and that there was a curse on the Jackson State football team. The curse, alas, was youth.
"You say something like that—'a curse against the Jackson State football team'—and it's almost like documentation to your deepest thoughts," says Dr. Mildred Allen, a campus counselor. "Especially if you're young. The young too often take media thoughts as truth. 'Wasn't that what I was thinking? Here it is. Someone else has said it. It must be true.' "
Word of the crash was a somber greeting as students returned from their four-day weekend last Monday night. Who didn't know Casey and Charles and Michael? Casey, 19, was a linebacker. His older brother, Darion, was last season's star, drafted on Sunday by the Atlanta Falcons as the second pick in the second round. Another linebacker. Casey, a red shirt freshman last season, had grown so large he was expected to take Darion's job next fall, creating a family succession at the position. Charles, 20, also coming off a red shirt freshman year, was a free-talking cornerback, expected to start. Michael, 18, his friend from Whitehaven High in Memphis, was red shirted last year. He was a 250-pound linebacker.
Football is a large part of the soul of this predominantly black state school. Walter Payton ran here before he was a Chicago Bear. Robert Brazile was a linebacker here. Harold Jackson caught passes; Lem Barney defended against them. Verlon Biggs. Richard Caster. Coy Bacon. Willie and Gloster and Thomas Richardson. Tradition is deep at Jackson State, the pro scouts arriving every year to weigh and measure and take two and three and four players to the big cities and the big noise. Football is important.
Any fatal crash involving any number of kids is a shock to any undergraduate environment. Pictures of the victims are spread across the morning newspaper, and all of the bulletproof feelings of adolescence are challenged. Who is invincible? Nobody. What can be taken for granted? Not even tomorrow. Here, the shock was magnified. Football players. Again.
"I got the call at 3:35 on Monday morning," said Jackson State's football coach, W.C. Gorden. "Casey's sister was on the phone. I hate a phone call after 12 o'clock. It never is good. I have two grown children of my own, and I'm responsible for 95 football players. You think to yourself, well, they're on vacation...but, jeez, this is when the stuff happens."