A journal of this day last year, traveling across the country, beyond the reach of the game.
This day — more than any other any other day of the year except for Christmas Day, as I recently learned again — may be the best day of the year to drive; to get away. For some reason, the roads seem to be nearly empty on this day each year. Maybe people are afraid they’re going to miss something. All of which makes it a very good day to take to the road.
Last year on this day, I drove 700 miles. My father had passed away two days before. I was in Arkansas, and I had to be at military training at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida on Tuesday. So in order to reach my destination by late Monday evening, I had to leave first thing Sunday morning. As it played out, that Sunday was Super Bowl Sunday.
I’ve always thought there was meaning in the fact that these two events — the Super Bowl and my father’s passing — nearly coincided; one unreservedly trivial and one that I knew would permanently change my life, as if I was being reminded by a higher power how utterly inconsequential football is when placed in stark repose against real life. It’s a truth that is lost on the vast majority of people who only live football from September through January every year.
In many ways, my family has lived football twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three-hundred, sixty-five days a year from back before my parents got married in 1965 to February 1, 2019. And for many reasons, we are still living it today, one year later.
Some of us in our family lived it more intimately and acutely than the others. I followed in my father’s footsteps and played through college for four years at two universities in the old Southwest Conference. Football consumed the vast majority of my waking hours during that time. If I was not in class, I was in meetings or at practice.
Football on the college level is a job, pure and simple; a non-paying job outside of which you are not allowed to have any other (the NCAA forbids any scholarship athlete from working a compensated job during a semester in which he or she is receiving financial aid) that you do in order to get your school paid for. Like the main character in School Ties stoically observes at the end of the movie, the school used my right leg to force our opponents to start most of their offensive drives on or inside their own 20, or to punt them as deep into their own territory as possible. And I used the school to get my undergraduate degree. I make no complaints; it was an arrangement we both agreed to going into it, we both adhered to, and we both got what we bargained for. The school won its last ever conference championship and I got my Bachelor of Arts degree, which I then used to gain entry into law school. I know that sounds perhaps too cold and businesslike, but in a way, it’s absolutely accurate.
I finished my playing career in December, 1990, when I was twenty-three. But despite my efforts to leave it behind, I continued to live football for many years thereafter, in different ways. I’ve written about this subject and the various ways football can follow you throughout the rest of your life, even when you try to move beyond it.
My brother and sister were the smart ones. They were never that involved. My brother didn’t play more than a couple years of little league football. He played baseball and got into music. And although they both followed my mother into teaching, my brother has had to coach football as an assistant on the junior high level. He lives in Texas after all; find a male teacher on the faculty who isn’t pressed into some type of role in the football program — be it coaching or driving the team bus — and I will show you a man who is viewed with suspicion. But my brother has always viewed it as a job, a necessary evil that is part of his duties and something he continues to try and hand over to a younger person.
But the gravamen and impact of living football in our family fell primarily over the years on my mother, who knew my father since they were high school sweethearts and was married to him for 53 years. She was with him nearly every day of those 53 years, and she was the main witness to this impact — hour by hour, day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year, and so on. And because of the long-term impact it had on his life, my father lived it every hour of that period of time too.
We kids grew up, went to college and graduate school, got married, and started families of our own. We were not with our father every day. And after I started my military career, I saw my father even more sporadically. But since I wasn’t so close to him every day, the changes in him over the years appeared more abrupt and obvious to me when I did see him in the summer or over the holidays. But even still, my mother was the prime witness. And unlike everyone else — our friends, the fans, the sports media, and so on — we didn’t have the luxury to just put it down or turn it off from February to September, it was an everyday part of our lives around the clock, in ways that are difficult for me to put into words.
Football and its aftermath is— and ever will be — with us. If your life is not like this, then you should count yourself fortunate.
It’s very difficult to escape football from September to February. Everywhere you look, every place you go, it seems to be in your face. And the most difficult day of all to escape it is on Super Bowl Sunday. But long ago I had learned how to escape it, if only for a short period. I promised myself when I woke up on February 3, 2019, that I would avoid it at all costs. It was the reason I decided to drive to Florida from Arkansas in the first place instead of flying.
Driving involves time, distance, and separation; reflection. There is no chance of these things in an airport. Airports are some of the worst places on earth. But nothing can reach you when you’re driving across the country. And for about fourteen hours, nothing of the game reached me on February 3, 2019.
I set off down I-49, a road so familiar to me I’ve almost come to take its vistas through the Boston Mountains for granted. In an hour or so, I took up I-40 east and set my mind and the speedometer on cruise control. I may have driven this stretch of road more than any other, if not by choice, by obligation. I passed by Ozark, Clarksville, Lake Dardanelle and the cooling towers of Arkansas Nuclear One — to the unfamiliar, an odd and seemingly misplaced concrete formation set into the surrounding landscape, billowing white vapors of steam into the air near Russellville, and then on to Conway, the interstate now roughly aligned with the Arkansas River.
Through Little Rock, I continued southeast on I-530, moving around Pine Bluff and connecting to U.S. Highway 65, then through Dumas and McGhee, and after an hour or so, into the delta. Hilly pine thickets slowly gave way to flatter farmland, soybean fields aligning both sides of the road, as grain silos began to appear in the distance toward the horizon.
Approaching the mighty river, I reached the outskirts of Lake Village and slowly followed the highway south as it meandered along the western edge of the “C”-shaped Lake Chicot, the largest oxbow lake in North America, purportedly formed 600 years ago and what was once the main channel of the Mississippi, until some unknown cataclysm cut this 22-mile long section of the river off and rerouted the river some seven miles to the east. Legend has it that Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto is buried in this lake. DeSoto died in 1542 during his expedition through the southeast part of what would become the United States.
Crossing over the river on the massive, new Greenville Bridge — which stands out against the backdrop of the surrounding geography like some futuristic apparition, a modern technological marvel amidst an ancient, agrarian landscape — I was deposited on the Mississippi side of the delta and funneled into a myriad network of state highways and back roads.
This was not the “beaten path,” and my route had been intentionally chosen. The back roads permit you to see the land, the people, and the towns up close, so close you can reach out and touch them. Roads with call signs like U.S. highway 278, state roads 454, 1, 438, U.S. route 61, and state road 12 zigged and zagged through rice and soybean fields before leading me onto U.S. Highway 49 south and into Yazoo City, home of the late author Willie Morris, who immortalized his Mississippi hometown in works like North Toward Home and My Dog Skip, which was made into a family favorite movie. Indeed, the literary tradition of Mississippi is as rich and fertile as the delta soil, calling William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Richard Wright, Shelby Foote, and John Grisham as native-born writers.
I pondered this rich tradition and the deep history Mississippi has played as I approached and passed around Jackson. In the fall of 1962, college football was but a backdrop for one of the more notorious episodes of the civil rights era, as Mississippi governor Ross Barnett delivered his infamous “I Love Mississippi” speech during halftime of the Ole Miss-Kentucky game, played in Jackson’s Veteran’s Memorial Stadium on the night of September 29, 1962. Barnett, who was then doing everything he could to prevent James Meredith’s registration as the first black student at the University of Mississippi, and who had on television the week before promised, “No school will be integrated in Mississippi while I am your Governor,” took to the public address system in a packed stadium filled with fans waving confederate flags, and enthusiastically proclaimed, “ I love Mississippi! I love her people! Our customs. I love and respect our heritage!”
The next night, Sunday, September 30th, riots broke out on campus in Oxford, as students and citizens battled federal marshals. The campus burned. When it was over, two people were dead, and more than 300 were injured, including one-third of the marshals. The federal government met force with force, and Meredith was finally admitted on October 1, 1962.
Through Jackson, I headed on down 49 to Hattiesburg, and continued all the way south to the road’s terminus with I-10. It was getting late in the afternoon and wanted to see the sun dip low over Biloxi, a town I’d never been to and a scene I had never witnessed before, an image that was painted in my mind by Jimmy Buffet:
Down around Biloxi
Pretty girls are dancin’ in the sea
They all look like sisters in the ocean
The boy will fill his pail with salty water
And the sun will set from off towards New Orleans.
Past Biloxi, I continued east on U.S. Highway 90. I had one last landmark I wanted to visit on this day. After all, I’m an attorney by training and profession, and the site of one of the biggest legal victories in modern American history — or at least the place where it began — was just up the road: Pascagoula, Mississippi.
In the legal world, depositions are not very glamorous. Nobody makes movies with deposition scenes in them. But in November, 1995, in a small, makeshift courtroom in Pascagoula, Big Tobacco insider Dr. Jeffery Wigand brought Big Tobacco to its knees. To that point, no big tobacco insider had ever broken silence about the secrets the industry knew — but covered up and withheld from the public — about the lethal consequences of smoking. Indeed, the previous year, the leaders of the industry, to a man, told Congress — under oath — that nicotine is not addictive.
Former Mississippi Attorney General Michael Moore got to Big Tobacco by framing the issue as a cost of medical treatment concern. In 1994, he filed the first lawsuit against thirteen tobacco companies, claiming that they should reimburse the State of Mississippi for costs incurred by treating those with smoking-related illnesses. Attorneys General from several other states joined the suit, with Moore as the lead negotiator. But Moore was shrewd enough to hire a team of big-time, private, career plaintiff’s lawyers and deputize them as assistants, including the legendary Ron Motley of South Carolina.
The famous “Pascagoula deposition” was immortalized in the Academy Award-nominated movie The Insider. The scene recreating the deposition, in which Russell Crowe plays Wigand and Bruce McGill plays Motley, was one of the most dramatic scenes in the movie.
After Wigand outed Big Tobacco in his Pascagoula deposition, the settlement was worth $246 billion to the states, including $4.1 billion for Mississippi.
I left Pascagoula wondering if someday in the future, there might be another famous deposition in a town like Pascagoula, but this time, with the National Football League as the defendant. As the sun continued to descend, I thought to myself, “It’s only a matter of time.”
Back on I-10 now, I finally crossed into Alabama and headed quickly toward Mobile. The sun was now descending seemingly into the water as I approached interstate 10 and the bridge and tunnel system across Mobile Bay. I could see vessels of various sizes and types moving in and out of the bay toward the Gulf of Mexico off to my right.
Across the bay now and into the coastal lowlands of the Florida panhandle, I continued on to my final destination for that night, Pensacola Naval Air Station. When at last I reached the main gate, I showed the guard my credentials, told him good night, and drove onto the installation.
I made my way through the dark base to the lodge, lit up as it were within a forest of trees next to the beach, at this hour invisible in the zero-illumination of the night. But as I made my way to my room, I could hear the waves softly breaking against the shore. Once settled inside, I turned off the lights to adjust my night vision. I then walked out onto the small, covered balcony and peered through the black night. It was so dark all I could see were the lights of Gulf Breeze off to the east and an occasional Navy patrol boat speeding back and forth across Pensacola Bay.
It was time for rest. Fourteen hours was not a record, although it was close. With the soft cadence of the waves playing in my ears, I drifted off without too much effort into one of the deepest sleeps I’d had in weeks.
I got up before sunrise, and with what time I had before getting back on the road, I walked out behind the lodge on the path through the coastal cypress and live oaks, the Spanish moss hanging from their branches softly swaying in the pre-dawn breeze. It was the first week of February, but this was the Florida gulf coast now, warm and alive with possibility.
I walked out of the live oak forest and onto the white, pristine beach, looking for the sun to the east. It was still below the horizon, but the tapestry of light — orange, yellow and blue — announced its impending presence. I stood alone there, a silent watcher of the skies, reenergized, poised, and ready.
A new day was dawning, and it was time again to move forward, beyond the game.
Glen Hines is the author of the Anthology Trilogy of books — Document, Cloudbreak, and Crossroads — and Bring in the Gladiators, Observations From a Former College Football Player Who Was Never Able to Become a Fan, all available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. His writing has also been featured in Sports Illustrated, Task & Purpose, the Human Development Project, and elsewhere.