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By MIKE FLYNT DON YAEGER
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2008 Mike Flynt
All right reserved.
Chapter OneONE THE GREATEST REGRET
Have you ever done something you would give anything to be able to change, or at least forget? Something you rewind and replay a thousand times in your memory, and the awful ending is always the same?
It had been thirty-six years since I left Sul Ross University and my football team in Alpine, Texas. Actually, I didn't leave voluntarily; I was kicked out of school and off the team. The circumstances surrounding that August 1971 event were so personally painful that I had barely kept in touch with many of the teammates who had, up until that moment, been as close as family.
Life, as they say, goes on.
For the almost four decades since I was escorted out of Alpine, my life had been good. I was blessed with a wonderful family and had a beautiful home in Tennessee. I had discovered a faith in God that had helped me to manage, but not forget, my past. The part of my past I just couldn't shake was the loss of my senior year of college football and what might have been.
Sometimes the most amazing things happen when you least expect them.
In April 2007, three of my former teammates-Stan Williamson, Randy Wilson, and Bill Roberts-called to tell me about a class reunion being organized by the Sul Ross Alumni Association. Bill said I really needed to come to San Antonio for the final weekend in June and see some of my old buds.
"I just don't have time," I said, using the familiar excuse of being swamped with growing my exercise equipment company.
The truth of the matter was, I did have time. But I had worked a lot of years shoveling excuses on the memory of what had happened in an attempt to bury it, and I wasn't eager to voluntarily allow those memories to resurface.
I'm not sure how most people deal with emotional pain, but I just didn't share mine. My reasoning was, if I talked about it, that would only make it worse. Besides, there were no "feel good" answers that would make it go away.
But Bill, Stan, and Randy continued to pressure me to show. Then my wife, Eileen, presented the final objection I couldn't overcome. She said, "You need to do this. I know you want to see those guys, and there is no reason for you not to go."
Maybe it was time to deal with the past.
I coordinated my flight with Randy's so we arrived in San Antonio around the same time. These guys had been some of my closest friends, and it had been a long time since I had seen them. I was excited about the reunion.
As I walked into the hotel, I was immediately thankful I had come. One by one, old friends and teammates refused to shake hands; they just grabbed me with a hug-and the fun started immediately. Bill Roberts walked in the hotel lobby, looked around the room at everyone, and asked, "Do I look bad too?" We all shared in a hearty laugh, and I was thinking how much I was going to enjoy this weekend, no matter what.
By Saturday afternoon my former teammates and I had gathered around the pool at the Holiday Inn on the famous River Walk. Cold beer was flowing in the hot Texas sun, and the old stories, like our memories, were larger than life.
Some of the stories were funny. Some-including those of rock climbing at Cathedral Mountain, chasing the Marfa ghost lights across the desert in Jeeps, ridiculous fourteen-hour road trips to Las Vegas, and great football moments-were hard for the wives and those near us to believe. But all of them ended in roars of laughter. Our bond was as strong as ever. I guess that is what makes reunions so special.
Then, it was bound to happen: the subject turned to my untimely exit. Everyone knew the president of Sul Ross had forced our head coach, Richard Harvey, to send me packing after getting in one too many fights. All my teammates knew that, back in the day, fighting was something I was good at and actually enjoyed. But they still wondered why that particular fight was the one that ended my college career.
Given my history and the couple of dozen other brawls I had been in, why was the fight with a teammate such a big deal?
I explained to them that the fight with the freshman player wasn't the problem. It was simply the straw that broke the camel's back. It had been the other altercations over the previous two years that had put me on the administration's radar. The fight with my freshman teammate was just one too many.
I took my turn and shared details of my life after Sul Ross. I had gone home to Odessa for a couple of weeks and then moved to Austin for a new start. I had gotten married, earned my degree, and had three wonderful children and one very special grandson. Most of my teammates were involved in coaching, and so they were aware I had been a strength and conditioning coach at Nebraska, Oregon, and Texas A&M.
Then, out of nowhere, it surfaced. I blurted out words I hadn't been prepared to say, but they were words that needed to be spoken.
"I've never told any of you guys how badly it hurt me to lose my senior year," I said as everyone turned quiet. "You have no idea how long I grieved and actually cried about the loss of that year. I have always felt as your captain and team leader that I let you guys down, and I'm sorry for that. And I wanted you to know it's been the greatest regret of my life."
There was a pause. It was as if everyone was caught off guard by my comments. I continued and shared more personal feelings.
"You know, what really gets me more than anything about all of it is that I still feel like I can play."
A lot of baby boomers might make a statement like that after a few beers and not really mean it. But I was dead serious. My comment was answered by laughter from everyone except Stan Williamson.
Stan stared at me and said, "Why don't you?"
I sat there and looked at Stan as that question buzzed in my head.
"Why don't you?"
It was like someone had told me I'd just won the lottery, but it really didn't register. After a few seconds I asked Stan, "Man, do you think I can do that?"
"Well, you didn't play anywhere else after you left, and I don't know, but I think you might have that senior year of eligibility remaining. You're in great shape. If you feel like you can run and take the hitting, and if that's your biggest regret, go back and do something about it."
My mind raced.
Could I be eligible? Could I go back to Sul Ross at fifty-nine years old and have another shot at my senior year?
Everyone around the pool talked, laughed, and enjoyed each other's company, but I was off in my own world.
Why don't you?
I couldn't get that question out of my head. Those words had challenged me. I had kept myself in good shape for years with my strength training and running. I knew I wasn't as fast as I used to be, but I wasn't slow either. I weighed two hundred pounds, about the same now as I did the last time I'd played thirty-six years ago, and I had never been hurt. I really believed I could play, and play well.
At dinner that night I grabbed one of my former teammates, Terry Stuebing, who had been an athletic director at several Texas high schools over the years. I couldn't quit thinking about going back to play, and I wanted to get as much information as possible before I called Eileen back at our home in Franklin, just outside of Nashville.
I leaned toward Terry and asked almost in a whisper, "Terry, is there any way I could still have eligibility left after all these years?"
Terry said he didn't know for sure, because when we played at Sul Ross, it was Division II, and now it was Division III. He told me he would do some checking when he got home, but what I really needed to do was contact the NCAA offices and have them give me that information.
I headed up to my room to call Eileen.
I thought about the timing of all of this. Our two oldest children were married and had started lives of their own. Our youngest daughter had just graduated from high school and was leaving in a few weeks for her freshman year in college. Since Eileen and I were "empty nesters," we had decided to downsize and put our house up for sale. Despite a slow market, we actually had already received a contract on it. I also had a young man, Jason Daniel, I could trust to run my business for me.
In my mind, I had all the answers-now if I could only convince my wife.
I telephoned Eileen. I told her I really didn't know anything for sure yet, but there was a chance I might still have some eligibility left at Sul Ross; if that was the case, I might be able to go back and play my senior year.
Silence ... then, "Really?"
"Yeah," I said.
"We can talk more about it when I get home," I added as I quickly changed the subject.
I knew Eileen thought it was just my ego talking. I wanted to wait until I got home and contacted the NCAA before I said anything else to her about it.
Randy and I talked more football the next day. Randy said he had discussed it with Stan, and they both agreed that if there was anyone who could play college football at age fifty-nine, it was me.
Randy, ever the realist, offered his encouragement. "Hey bud, what's the worst that could happen? If you go out there and get your butt kicked and go home, no one will know. If that's the worst-case scenario, why not try?"
It had been a wonderful two days.
As Randy and I said our good-byes to everyone and left the hotel for the airport, I thought about how most of my former teammates were headed back to their normal routines without a lot of surprises in store. I, however, had a dream and a plan.
I might fail. I might even be embarrassed. But nothing would be worse than the pain of regret that I had suffered for the past thirty-six years.
I had to try.
Chapter Two"MIKE, ARE YOU IN JAIL?"
It was settled, at least in my mind. It wasn't the beer or an exaggerated pride in masculinity. I wasn't off my fifty-nine-year-old rocker either.
I knew I wanted to return to Sul Ross to play football-if I was still eligible nearly forty years after the fact. When I arrived home in Franklin from my football reunion in San Antonio, I immediately telephoned Jerry Larned.
A lot of time had passed since I was escorted out of Alpine by the graduate assistant coaches. Over the years I had tried to keep tabs on Coach Larned. One of my high school coaches, Leldon Hensley, and I had spoken in recent years, and he had told me that Coach Larned was in Abilene, Texas. Coach was the athletic director at McMurry State University, a Division III school that was in the American Southwest Conference along with Sul Ross and seven other schools that had football programs.
I called directory assistance, got a home number for Coach Larned, and made the call. His wife answered.
I said, "Hello, Mrs. Larned, this is Mike Flynt. Is Coach there?"
"Yes, Mike, he's standing right here." I heard her say, "Jerry, Mike Flynt is on the phone."
Coach picked up the phone, and the first words out of his mouth were, "Mike, are you in jail?" I smiled and answered, "Yes, Coach, that's why I'm calling." He laughed, and I told him that wasn't the case this time. Coach Larned had been my go-to guy and one of the coaches I called when I'd been in a fight and was in a bind with the Alpine police when I first attended Sul Ross. The truth was, I again needed his help, but for an entirely different reason.
"Coach, I am dead serious about something, and I have to ask you about it." I took a quick breath and fired away. "I want to return to Sul Ross and play football."
There was a pause. I am sure Coach had to clear his head for a moment, because he asked, "How old are you, Mike?"
I said, "I am fifty-nine."
Coach answered, "Well, I think you're crazy, but if you tell me you can play, I believe you."
I said, "Coach, I can play."
We talked a few more minutes. Coach, of course, reminded me that I wasn't twenty years old and that my plan sounded, well, a tad idiotic. But Coach also knew from Coach Hensley that I kept myself in great physical shape and that I was serious when it came to football.
Coach added that he'd love to have me at McMurry State, but I told him it had to be Sul Ross. It was Sul Ross or nothing. Coach said, "All right, here's what you need to do." He gave me the name of the person who handled NCAA rules and conference eligibility requirements at the American Southwest Conference offices in Richardson, Texas. I thanked Coach Larned and told him I deeply appreciated his help, as always.
I hung up, and the next call I made was to Amy Carlton at the American Southwest Conference.
* * *
When I reached Ms. Carlton, I told her Coach Larned had referred me. At first I tried to third-party it as if I had called on behalf of another person who wanted to return to school and play football. But it became too confusing as we discussed rules and regulations for different NCAA classifications and different conferences. Sul Ross was in the Division II Lone Star Conference when I played for the Lobos, but it had since been changed to the Division III American Southwest Conference.
Finally I said, "Look, it's me I'm talking about. I played thirty-seven years ago in 1970, and I got kicked off the team during two-a-days thirty-six years ago in 1971 before classes started. I had one semester of eligibility left back then, and I am just trying to find out if I still have that senior year of eligibility left."
She asked, "Well, do you have your transcripts with you?"
"Yes, ma'am, I do."
"All right, let's go through it semester by semester." We stayed on the telephone for about thirty minutes doing exactly that.
We reviewed each class and each semester and reviewed the NCAA rules that would apply to my situation. Then she read me Bylaw 14.1.9, which stated I had ten semesters to play four semesters. There were no time requirements and no age limit. Even though I had already received my degree, I had done so in nine semesters. I would need to enroll for at least nine hours as a graduate student to be considered a full-time student.
We finished going over everything, and Ms. Carlton said, "Okay, Mr. Flynt. How many years did you say it has been since you last played?"
I told her thirty-seven.
She answered, "Not only are you eligible, but I will come watch you play!"
I could scarcely contain my excitement. So far, so good, I thought to myself.
* * *
My next step was to contact Steve Wright, the fifty-one-year-old head football coach at Sul Ross. I telephoned a few times and left messages, but the only person I talked to was Sherry Strickland, the secretary in the athletic department. Finally, it hit me. I thought, Man, there is no way I can break this news over the telephone. If I was the head football coach at Sul Ross and a fifty-nine-year-old guy called me and said he wanted to try out for my football team, hey, the answer would be easy. Click, I'd hang up the phone.
I stepped out in faith. I purchased a plane ticket and flew into the Midland-Odessa Airport on July 12, 2007, jumped into a rental car, and drove the 160 miles southwest to Alpine. It was a drive I had made many times during my youth, but it was the first time in thirty-six years I had found myself on I-20 West, Texas-18 South, and US-67 South. I was behind the wheel, and, in a way, headed back in time.
I counted the miles and recounted the memories.
I drove into Alpine and turned right off of East Holland Avenue into the parking lot next to the Sul Ross State Athletic Department. I found Coach Wright's office. He was behind his desk when I knocked on the door.
Coach Wright looked up and said, "Come in."
I was polite and straight to the point. I introduced myself and told him who I was and when I had been at Sul Ross before. I explained my conversations with Amy Carlton at the American Southwest Conference offices and that I had one semester of eligibility left. I told him that I had been a team captain and the leading tackler on the team. I explained I had been kicked off the team and out of school for fighting at the beginning of my senior year and I wanted a chance to try out for his football team.
Coach Wright just sat there and looked at me and finally said, "When did you play at Permian High School?" I said, "Well, it was forty-two years ago, 1965." And he said, "And how old are you?" I said, "I'm fifty-nine."
He said, "Gosh, man, I don't know."
Just about that time, assistant head coach Drew Bridges stepped inside Coach Wright's office and said, "Coach, we have a bunch of freshmen waiting on us down at the practice field."
Excerpted from THE SENIOR by MIKE FLYNT DON YAEGER Copyright © 2008 by Mike Flynt. Excerpted by permission.
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