Ron Higgins SEC Traditions column on Chucky Mullins
OXFORD, Miss. – On a day exactly like this, brilliant blue skies and the sun beaming on a glorious Mississippi afternoon, it happened right here.
And I mean right here.
I’m on the 2-yard line, standing a couple of steps from the goal line of the north end zone in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. I face south looking back up field before closing my eyes to imagine what happened here that day, October 28, 1989, the Homecoming game between Ole Miss and Vanderbilt.
Few folks remember the score. Yep, Ole Miss won, 24-16.
What everybody recalls is what happened on the spot where I’m planted. I’m imagining I’m Vanderbilt running back Brad Gaines stretching for a high pass, thinking I’m about to score when an Ole Miss defender named Chucky Mullins absolutely levels me from behind.
I begin to walk off the field thinking what a great hit that guy Chucky made. Then, I see him motionless on the ground. Five minutes pass. Ten minutes pass. I ask a referee what’s happening and he says the kid is not moving.
I move from the field to the Ole Miss sideline and imagine I’m Ole Miss Coach Billy Brewer. I see my trainer Leroy Mullins cut off the facemask of the kid who talked me into giving him a scholarship and I know this injury might be the worst I’ve ever seen.
I walk out to see the kid and he never even cries or whimpers. Later, Leroy tells me Chucky has four neck vertebrae broken and he’s paralyzed.
At this point, I open my eyes. I am no longer Brad Gaines or Billy Brewer or Carver Phillips, Chucky’s guardian rushing down from the stands.
I’m lucky. I can escape the haunting memory from 22 years ago by simply walking off the field.
But they can’t. They live with it every day, and it’s particularly tough every year when Vanderbilt plays Ole Miss, especially in Oxford, which will happen Saturday.
How do they handle it? By choosing to remember the remarkable story of an orphan who talked his way into a football scholarship to Ole Miss, who was paralyzed that day against Vanderbilt and who battled for 19 months to enroll in class again before dying at age 21 from a blood clot on May 6, 1991.
They all fondly recall the always-smiling black Alabama country boy who became a racially galvanizing symbol for a state and a university that had been scarred by racial strife in the 1960s. They remember more than $800,000 was raised throughout the nation as a trust fund to pay for his health care. They'll never forget how ultimately Chucky taught them more than they taught him, from the first hours after his injury until his death.
"It never really seems that long ago, does it?" says Carver, 54. "Every season, I think of Chucky more and more, the way he would lead, the way he would fire guys up.
“That’s the way he played, like every game was his last. This (Vanderbilt) game always brings everything back.”
The old coach still lives five minutes or so from the stadium where he first made a name for himself as a starter on Ole Miss’ greatest teams in history in the 1950s, then later as a coach for 11 years.
Several times a week, 71-year-old Billy Brewer walks the Vaught-Hemingway Stadium steps for exercise, pausing only when he finally acknowledges fatigue. He’ll wipe his brow, glance at the field, reflect on the sweet victories, the bitter losses, of the teammates he shared battle with and the young eager faces he coached.
And then there’s Chucky, who touched Brewer from the moment he came to Ole Miss in 1988 for a recruiting visit as an invited walk-on.
Despite Chucky being a two-time all-state player and team captain as a senior on a 14-1 Russellville (Ala.) High team that lost in the state finals, Brewer wasn’t going to sign him. Chucky, just 6-feet and 170 pounds, wasn’t big or fast enough to attract scholarship offers from any FBS (Division 1-A) school.
Ole Miss coaches had seen Chucky play, and they thought at the very least he was worth taking a chance as a walk-on. Chucky, though, had other ideas, which he emphasized immediately in his first meeting with Brewer that lasted all of five minutes.
"Chucky sat down, and he was a nice-looking guy," says Billy, who coached Ole Miss from 1983-1993, the longest tenure of any Rebels’ coach except for Johnny Vaught, Billy’s old coach. "What he had on was what he owned. He had a great smile, and he was steadily selling himself."
One of the things Billy’s players always liked about him was his honesty with them, and he got to the point with Chucky. What he didn’t expect was a kid who went for broke in an interesting give-and-take:
Billy: “I’m not going to offer you a scholarship. You've got to be fast, and if you're not fast, you've got to be physical."
Chucky: "You can take me because I'm one of those type of players."
Billy: "You're a glue player, a guy who has stickability that is the heart of the team. He gives leadership, companionship, attitude, work habits and fun to a football team. That's what you are."
Chucky: "So can I have it?"
Billy: "Have what?"
Chucky: "Can I have the scholarship?"
Billy: "I'm trying to sell you on a walk-on deal."
Chucky: "No sir, I need that scholarship. I don't have the money to walk on. I need to play in the SEC with a scholarship."
Billy: "I'll think about it again and talk to you in the morning. Have a good time tonight and you come back tomorrow."
That night, Billy couldn't shake Chucky from his thoughts. When the Ole Miss coaches and recruits held a dinner, it seemed like every time Billy turned around, there was Chucky nearby smiling and waving.
"Chucky was working on me, and it was smart on his part," Billy says. "Because when I met with my coaches later, I told them I was going to take a chance on him and sign him. At the very least, he would be a good special teams player, he'd be a good student and an asset to the team.
"So when I offered him a scholarship, he was as happy as a kid at Christmas."
Chucky was naturally redshirted as a true freshman. The coaches hoped he would get bigger and stronger. But when the '89 season rolled around, he hadn't grown and hadn't gained much weight.
That year, Billy hired Chuck Driesbach, a young running backs coach from East Carolina, to serve as the Ole Miss secondary coach. The first time Driesbach saw Chucky, he thought that. ...
"Perhaps Ole Miss didn't have a weight program," Driesbach says. "Chucky was sleek with no fat to him. Physically, there was no way he was going to be a full-time safety.
"But I quickly learned he was an unbelievable competitor. He'd say to me, 'You can't keep me off that field. I'm going to get on that field some place.' And he did. He became our nickel back, a fifth defensive back in passing situations."
Chucky was such a fierce hitter, even in practice, that Driesbach treasures some of Ole Miss practice tapes he had of Chucky.
"When I left (Ole Miss) after that (one) season, for the next 10 or so years, I showed that tape to my defensive backs wherever I coached," Driesbach says. "Chucky played with passion."
Wearing jersey No. 38, he played every game like he had to prove something. In the sixth game of his college career, his leaping pass breakup forced Georgia to kick a field goal instead of scoring a touchdown, an absolutely key play in a 17-13 win that was sorely needed after getting beat by 35 points by Alabama the previous week.
Two weeks later on Oct. 28, on a perfect college football Saturday in Oxford, the Rebels stood under their goalposts prepared to take the field against Vanderbilt.
There was Billy. Next to him at his right elbow was Chucky. And a photographer shot a picture of them, a photo, to this day, that Billy can’t explain.
“I’d never seen any photographer ever snapping a picture of me coming on to the field before a game,” Billy said. “But that day, there’s that picture. And I didn’t know Chucky was beside me. He’s right there. And he’d never been right there next to me before a game.”
Maybe 10 or 15 minutes later, Vanderbilt, with quarterback John Gromos, deftly moved his offense downfield to the Ole Miss 12 where the Commodores had a third-and-goal situation, which is where we’ll let Ole Miss radio play-by-play announcer David Kellum give the call:
"Back to throw in the pocket, plenty of time. Wide open is Gaines! HE'S HIT, FUMBLES! Gaines is going to recover. NO! They say incomplete. Oh, I don't know about that one! Brad Gaines caught it at the 2, and he was plastered in the back. In fact, there's a Rebel down that hit him and shook him up. The ball popped loose. I think it was Chucky Mullins that made the hit."
For the last 20 years, three times a year on May 6 and Oct. 28 (the anniversary of Chucky’s death and that fateful Ole Miss-Vandy game) and on Christmas Day, Brad Gaines rises at 3 a.m. in his Nashville area residence, and gathers rags, brushes, cleaning solvent and flowers.
He hops in his car, leaves his wife and now four children behind sleeping peacefully, and drives four hours, winding his way south into the north Alabama countryside. He is alone in the darkness with his thoughts.
He is going to see his friend Chucky.
As the sun rises, he wheels in Russellville, gliding over the blacktop path that snakes its way through the gently rolling hills of Luke Town Cemetery. There, at the back bordered by towering trees, is the grave with the headstone that reads "CHUCKY."
In the silence of another day about to start, with the dew on the grass, Brad gently and carefully wipes any dirt from the headstone that features Chucky’s Russellville High senior picture imbedded in it. He also cleans the headstone of Chucky’s mother, who’s buried next to Chucky, and places fresh flowers on both their graves.
And he talks to Chucky.
"I spend a couple of hours talking to him like we're on the front porch dippin' snuff, and I know he hears me,” says Brad, who still carries a picture of Chucky in his wallet and who always has Mullins’ jersey number as part of his cell phone number. “Lately, I’ve been telling him about all my kids. And I always tell him, `Hey, one day we’re going to see each other.’ ”
Brad always makes sure he drives to the community center named after Chucky and also by Chucky’s old high school. He said the visits to Russellville are therapeutic, admitting being too stubborn to seek professional help to handle his anguish of that October afternoon in Oxford that changed his life forever.
He was a solidly built 6-foot, 225-pound running back, the youngest of four football-playing brothers, two of which played in the NFL including one (Greg) that played seven seasons with the Seahawks.
Anybody who played any sport against one of the Gaines boys would tell you they were all tough son-of-a-guns who played far beyond their athletic abilities. They were physical and mental rawhide, and could handle just about anything.
Except the unthinkable.
Brad remembers everything about that October day. The perfect weather. A full stadium. That an Ole Miss fan dumped a soft drink on him from the stands as he headed down the tunnel to the dressing room after the pregame warmups. The opening drive that took Vanderbilt one snap away from the end zone and a touchdown that would give the visiting Commodores an early lead.
Brad’s assignment on the third-down play was to sprint from the backfield and run a vertical route up the seam of the defense. At the 5-yard line, Brad turned and looked for Gromos’ pass which was sailing high. He jumped backwards and had a hand on the ball in the shadow of the goal line.
"I was just going to catch the ball and back in for the touchdown," Brad recalls. "But right when I catch the ball, BAM! My head snaps back, the ball pops out and I'm thinking it's a fumble. Chucky made a fabulous play. I'm thinking as I'm running off the field, 'Man, that was a great hit.'
"Five minutes pass, Chucky's still down, and I'm thinking he got his bell rung. Ten minutes pass, and I ask a ref what's going on and he tells me they don't think Chucky can move. After the game I asked some reporters about it, and they said Chucky broke his neck.
"And at that point, my mind went blank."
On the advice of Chucky’s doctors, it was more than two months before Brad visited Chucky at Baptist Hospital in Memphis. He visited him the day after Ole Miss beat Air Force in the Liberty Bowl, and Brad was overwhelmed by the sight of Chucky attached to various machines and tubes.
"I guess he'd read some things how I'd been struggling with the whole situation," Brad says. "The first thing he said to me was, 'Hey, it wasn't your fault.' You can't imagine how he made me feel when he said that."
Still, football didn't matter to Brad after the accident. At the end of the '89 season, he turned pro as a junior. In his mind, he knew he wouldn't get drafted. He wanted an excuse to quit football.
It took five years for him just to consider playing again. He played for Shreveport of the Canadian Football League, and, ironically, was issued No. 38. But his passion for the game never really burned as bright as before.
Brad is now 42 years old. Life has been good, with good income as a partner in a dialysis clinic, as well as several investments, He’s blessed with an incredibly understanding wife Telisha, three daughters and a son who Brad says he prefers not to play football because “I don’t want him to have to go through some of the things that I went through or my brothers have gone through.”
Few people, though, have endured Brad’s lifetime of guilt.
"I've had a gazillion people tell me it wasn't my fault, and I understand what happened is part of the game,” he says. “But what if I would have been one step faster? Or an inch to the left or an inch to the right? The outcome might not be this way. I might be playing in the NFL, and he might still be playing.
“You never get over it. I think about it several times every day, about everything. About Chucky. The accident. The whole experience. It was a freaky thing that happened, but that doesn't mean I can't be compassionate and that what happened on that play didn't change my life.
“What happened with Chucky put my life in perspective. I'd never had any problems in my life. When that happened, you learn what's important.
"I know this and believe this with all my heart - the Lord picked me for all of this. And I'm glad I'm the one."
It is football season, and this is the time of year that Carver Phillips thinks of Chucky the most.
“You know, it’s funny that I never cared about football until we got Chucky when he was 12,” Carver says. “I mean, I went to games, but I didn’t really care about them.
“But when we took Chucky in, he was playing in junior high. He lived and breathed football. He brought so much excitement to the game.”
Carver and Karen Phillips, were just 22 and 18 years old, respectively, when the young married couple took in Chucky and his older brother Horace after the boys' mother died of pneumonia.
Carver was suffering breathing problems from working at a fiberglass plant, and Karen was still a teenager when Chucky asked them if he and his brother could live with them.
"We already had two young kids of our own," Karen says. "People thought we were crazy taking in two boys (who were basically teenagers). Even the social worker tried to talk us out of it. Me and Carver said we'd keep them until we found them a better home."
But that never happened. The boys grew on the couple. Horace eventually got in trouble and served time in prison on drug-related charges.
Yet Chucky, with his captivating smile, toed the line and found a safe haven in sports. By the time, he got to Russellville High, he was a favorite of his teammates and coaches.
"I'd never seen a kid who loved football that much," said Ted Ikerd, who's been on the Russellville coaching staff for more than 25 years. "Chucky made practice fun everyday. If we were in shorts, he'd sneak up on you and pull your britches down."
They’ve never forgotten Chucky in Russellville. His jersey is retired and there's a street near the football stadium and that community center named for him that Brad never fails to visit.
Both Ikerd, Carver and Brad believe that if Chucky were still alive, he'd be coaching football.
"Chucky told me that sitting in his wheelchair," Ikerd said. "He would have been a great coach. Kids would have loved to have played for him because he would have made it fun."
But, as Carver says, he believes Chucky would have his players playing Chucky-ball, with pride, passion and the determination to knock the stuffing out of somebody.
“Chucky would be on his players,” Carver says. “He’d want them to hit and hit hard.”
Carver and Karen were so crushed by Chucky’s death that they were reluctant take in another child again.
“We just couldn't go through that pain again," Carver says. “But I learned so much from Chucky. He never lost his beautiful smile, even after the accident. He never showed me a down moment.
“When I got to the hospital in Memphis right after he got hurt and walked in his room, I asked him how he was doing. He said, 'Did we win? How are the guys doing?' That just blew me away."
The Phillips drew on such memories a couple of years after Chucky’s death when an acquaintance dropped off a 2-month-old needing some parents. Carver and Karen couldn't resist. Even though the Phillips had added another daughter of their own, they opened their home and hearts to a needy boy named Ramono Craig.
Today, Ramono is 17, a senior at Russellville High, where he plays defensive back, running back and returns kicks. In his locker, he has a picture of himself, Chucky and recent Ole Miss star Dexter McCluster.
“Just last Friday night,” Carver says proudly, “Ramono ran back a 98-yard kick for a touchdown, but he got called back, because a guy clipped.”
Carver doesn’t know if Ramono will play in college, because he’s a bit undersized. But then again, so was Chucky.
"I guess that if you show a kid you love and care about them, they can do the impossible,” Carver says. “Chucky taught me that."
Carver said he and Karen will be at the Vandy game on Saturday. Billy probably will be, too, but Brad hasn’t decided to make the trip from Nashville.
They do all gather every spring in Oxford for the Chucky Mullins Courage Award banquet where an Ole Miss defensive player with the best combination of skill, leadership and work ethic is presented a No. 38 patch to wear on his jersey. Prior to Chucky’s jersey retirement in 2006, the winner of the Chucky award wore jersey No. 38. Four of the 21 Chucky winners through the years have been drafted by NFL teams, including 2006 honoree Patrick Willis who is currently regarded as the best inside linebacker in the pros.
It was Billy who pushed for the courage award and it was Billy who got the university to commission a bronze bust of Chucky that the Ole Miss players touch before they enter the field for a home game.
And it was Billy, back when he visited Chucky in his Birmingham rehabilitation center as he worked to regain some mobility, that had him moved from a barebones hospital room with no windows.
“I found the guy in charge,” Billy says with his voice crackling with emotion,” and said, `Let me tell you something. Get this kid to a room where he can look out the window, where he can see the sunshine, where he can see the rain, see birds. He’s got enough problems as it is. Try to help him mentally.’ Chucky didn’t complain. He said, `I don’t have a problem with it, Coach.’ I said, Hey, I do.’ ”
Even though most of the Ole Miss athletic administration has changed since Chucky played, there are still a few folks left, like Langston Rogers, who make sure Chucky’s legacy burns bright.
Just this week, Rogers, who recently retired as the school’s sports information director but now serves as a historian in his role as senior athletic director emeritus, made a discovery.
When he pulled out the official hard copy play-by-play of the ’89 Ole Miss-Vanderbilt game, he discovered that the official statistics didn’t give Chucky a pass breakup for the play that ended his career and ultimately his life.
“I guess the stats crew was so stunned at what happened they forgot to write it down,” Rogers said. “I’ll take care of that.”
And with that, Rogers took out his pen and drew a `1’ in the PBU column next to Chucky’s name.
Suddenly outside, the sky got brighter. Chucky had to be smiling that smile.