My Gridiron Daze
What I learned from football . . . the good, the bad, and the ugly
It was an overcast November day in 1947. My dad Mack Mulkey, a student on the G.I. Bill at Southern Methodist University, was bursting with pride as we made our way to our bleacher seats at SMU’s Ownby Stadium for the kickoff of the Texas A&M-SMU football game. Right after my birth in the midst of World War II, Dad had written a letter to my mom Sue revealing how delighted he was that his first-born was a boy and his dream that his son would grow up to be a football player. Our attendance this game was seemingly his initial attempt to make his vision a reality.
The good news: Dad had been able to procure tickets to the big game for both of us. The bad news: Our seats were right behind those of the A&M Corps of Cadets, whose tradition required them to stand for the entire game. Since I was four-years-old at the time, Dad put me on his shoulders so I could see the action. And while we were both thoroughly exhausted when the final whistle blew, we were also elated that SMU had eked out a victory—20-14.
While Dad never pressured me to play football, I was aware of how much he enjoyed the sport and later became mindful of his own unfulfilled gridiron aspirations. So it’s possible I may have unconsciously been eager to win his approval, to forge a common bond between the two of us. But more than that, I grew up in an era in which the dominant culture in the South highly valued the ability to play sports well and promulgated the belief that participating in the rough and tumble of football would help mold a youngster into a “real boy” (on the way to becoming a “real man”). Playing football seemed almost as normal a part of the cycle of life as eating and sleeping, and those that didn’t comply with the collective custom were regarded as sissies, weaklings, and momma’s boys.
So, despite being a shy, sensitive kid (better suited to be an artist or a writer, though probably not a musician since I’m essentially tone deaf), it seemed only natural that I’d begin playing sandlot football as a young boy and organized football in junior high. I played for the enjoyment of the game, of course, but also to prove that I was OK, that I was worthy of being a member of the in-crowd of athletes and mischief-makers. And when I was engaged in the sport, I did experience a greater sense of fitting in as well as a feeling of connection with my teammates. Plus being a football player got many of the girls’ attention too.
In addition, I appreciated the fact that, unlike life itself, football was governed by a set of rules and boundaries that were clear and unambiguous. What rose to my consciousness only decades afterwards was that the violence that’s an essential part of the game served as a socially sanctioned way for me to release my suppressed rage, a deep-seated resentment toward many adults—relatives, teachers, and others—stemming from their authoritarianism and disrespect toward young people, including emotional and physical abuse—shaming, blaming, patronizing, teasing, shouting, rough handling, slapping, and spanking.
You gotta be a football hero!
By the time I’d entered high school, of my own volition, I’d made the choice to lift weights year-round and to run in the off-season, activities that were highly unusual for young athletes in those days. To further enhance my physical fitness, I totally abstained from alcohol and tobacco, the two drugs readily available in the late Fifties. I motivated myself by visualizing intercepting a pass for my high school football team. And as I listened to University of Tennessee football games on my car radio, I envisioned myself as Cotton Letner, a receiver for the Volunteers football team. It wasn’t long before my intentionality, disciplined training, and ferocity paid off. My junior year, I was on the sidelines when our head coach, frustrated by the passes being completed by the opposing quarterback declared, “That guy is killing us! Somebody needs to get that son-of-a-bitch out of there!”
Thereupon coach put me in the game to run a linebacker blitz. I instinctively anticipated the precise moment the ball was snapped, burst through the line of scrimmage untouched, and exploded helmet-to-helmet into the startled opposing quarterback. The crowd of spectators cheered wildly as Number 12 crumpled to the ground, barely hanging onto to the football. I excitedly bounced to my feet as I watched my adversary being helped to the sidelines, ecstatic that I’d fulfilled my high school coach’s earlier decree. “Guess I should’ve put you in the game a lot earlier,” coach mused as he put his arm around my shoulders.
After that, at just over six-feet tall and one-hundred-seventy pounds, I became a starter on the 1959 high school team, comprised primarily of seniors, that was ranked number one in the state at mid-season (We lost two of our last three games, but that’s another story.). And toward the end of that season I intercepted a pass that sealed a win for us against Franklin County High School on their home field.
In early September 1960, my senior year in high school, the football season began without great expectations. Local sportswriter Stoney Jackson wrote in his sports column “Sportsworthy” in the September 7, 1960 edition of The Tullahoma News: “I think this may be one of those years we can charge off to ‘rebuilding’ or some other convenient phrase and not expect too many victories, though I could be pleasantly surprised as the season progresses.”
As he’d predicted, after five games our record stood at 2-2-1—two wins, two losses and a tie. But we were coalescing as a team and becoming more proficient offensively and defensively every game. I was elected team captain, leading by giving my all at practices and in games and by exhorting the younger players to play up to their potential. So despite our record, our team went into the last half of the season in high spirits. We lost two more close games to formidable teams, but we went out on a high note, winning our final three games by a combined score of 105-26, including a 40-0 win over cross-county rivals Manchester Central High. We’d wound up with a (barely) winning record—5-4-1!
At the conclusion of the season, out of 7,820 players nominated, I was among the forty-four named to play in a High School All-American game in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. University of Tennessee assistant football coach Skeeter Bailey drove into town, wined and dined me, then offered me a full football scholarship to play for the UT Volunteers. Well, actually he bought me a hamburger, fries, and a milk shake at the Dairy Bar. Nonetheless, I was elated and accepted his offer. There was no prouder man in Tullahoma than my Dad.
Life in the big league
The grueling twice-daily practices at UT began in early September of 1961, and in due course I was named a starter at receiver on the freshman team (Freshmen were ineligible for the varsity in those days and played their own shortened season.). That meant I was one of the top eleven players on the freshman team since we played both offense and defense due to the limited substitution rules of that era.
One day during morning practice the legendary athletic director General Robert Neyland came down to the freshman practice field and briefly spoke to our head freshman coach. Coach pulled me out of a drill and said, “The General wants to see you.” “See me?” I thought. “What the hell for?” As I loped toward him, Neyland looked me up and down, grunted, then turned, and without a word, ambled back up to the varsity practice field. To this day I can only guess what that little episode was all about.
Most of my freshman teammates were hellraisers first, football players second, and students third (or somewhere thereabouts). After their first term at UT, fifty percent of the freshmen on football scholarships (around thirty players) bombed in the classroom and flunked out. I myself made the Dean’s List with all A’s and B’s.
At the end of spring practice in 1962, as a rising sophomore, I was listed as the number three player at my position on the varsity squad, which meant I was one of the top thirty-three players on the varsity team. However, right before the 1962 fall practice began, due to a shortage of running backs, I was moved to fullback. The first game was upon us before it became clear that the switch had been unsuccessful. So I was red-shirted (held out a season) and watched other receivers move ahead of me on the depth chart.
Given the disappointment of being relegated to the practice squad, the fact that I didn’t have a great deal in common with my teammates, the reality that this era was one of the low points in UT football history (the 1962 season ended with four wins against weak teams and six losses), and that being a team member had become a monotonous daily slog, I began to gradually lose interest in UT football. I began hanging out with the iconoclastic Fisher boys—Bob and Bill—through whom I gained an interest in jazz and the blues, foreign films (Knife in the Water, 8½, Belle de Jour, among others), and books by Vonnegut, Brautigan, Wolfe, and Kesey. It was also during this time that I realized the soothing effects of Pabst Blue Ribbon and began imbibing excessively on a frequent basis.
Finally, due to my terrible grades in the spring of my sophomore year and my nonchalance about my team responsibilities, my scholarship was revoked. Coach Bailey told me that I could try out during fall practice to try to win it back, but I declined the opportunity. Dad didn’t let his disappointment show, but I’m guessing my departure from major college football was devastating for him.
Back on the gridiron again!
After a year as a regular student at UT, I became hungry for a return to football—for the joy of playing the game and the team comradeship, of course. But primarily, though I was oblivious of it at the time, because my ultra-masculine identity was inextricably linked with being a football player. So I decided to transfer to Sewanee: The University of the South for the fall 1964 semester to play for Coach Shirley Majors, patriarch of the legendary Majors football family.
When I arrived at Sewanee weighing 200 pounds, I was moved to tackle. I was delighted to find the team fellowship and cohesiveness that had been lacking at UT. During my time at Sewanee my teammates and I played football together, skipped required chapels together, drank together, and went on road trips together.
During my two years at the University of the South, a Division III school, we lost only two games. But the highlight of my tenure there was our final game of the season on November 6, 1965, when we played Washington University (of St. Louis) at home for the conference championship. A grueling defensive struggle, we were ahead 7-3 with a minute and twenty-five seconds remaining in the game with Washington on our four-yard line with a first down. A field goal would obviously not aid our opponents; they had to score a touchdown to win the game. But our defense mounted a spirited goal line stand and stopped Washington six inches from our goal as time ran out. We were conference champs!
Mulkey’s defense was one of the keys. He was a devastating tackler and one time made three straight stops which caused Washington 16 yards loss—their only losses for the entire afternoon. —Bob Teitlebaum, Chattanooga Times, November 7, 1965
I was awarded the game ball for my defensive effort, and on the way to the locker room, I met my joyful Dad and Mom. Dad ecstatically embraced me, sweaty uniform and all; his vision for his oldest son having come to fruition. I’m almost certain Dad would have loved to have taken me to dinner where we could rehash the game. But I chose instead to join the entire football team in the backroom of the Sewanee Inn, where, for several days and nights, we held court while numerous students, professors, and townspeople dropped by congratulate us and to buy us rounds of beer.
Now almost sixty years after my youthful dedication to football, I can more fully comprehend its full impact on my life:
- I learned personal discipline from my individual workouts and from our team practices—running, exercises, and weightlifting, keeping my body in excellent physical condition.
- I learned to be highly competitive and to do everything within the boundaries of the rules to win.
- I learned that holding a vision of what I wished to attain was an important step in creating the reality I desired.
- I learned to regard any man who was not a jock as someone who was not worthy of my acceptance or respect, and I learned to regard my football opponents similarly.
- I learned that I’m a natural leader with the ability to enroll team members in a common vision.
- I learned that violence and inflicting pain on one’s opponent were integral aspects of the game and that accolades would come my way if I hit an opposing player hard enough to knock him from the game.
- I learned the importance of teamwork and supporting one’s teammates.
- I learned to be tough, to “suck it up” when I was in pain and to continue to play even when injured.
- I learned that I strongly preferred winning but that losing was part of the game.
- I learned to be a real man I must be stoic, never show weakness, never admit pain, always go for the win, and stand by teammates no matter what.
In retrospect, it’s clear that I garnered benefits from my football experience, and it’s just as clear that there were costs. From midlife through the present I’ve expended a good deal of emotional energy to discard the patriarchal beliefs about manhood and male privilege that were part of my gridiron lessons (see numbers 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10 above). Nonetheless I am satisfied that the positive aspects (see numbers 1,3,5,7, and 9 above) have served me well, even though those positive aspects could have readily been gained through playing soccer, volleyball, or another team sport.
After my football career was over, I found myself missing it and the status it had afforded me, so I took up other sports to fill the void—handball, volleyball, running. I remained a fan of the game and avidly continued following both college and professional football, sometimes attending games in person but primarily spending hours in front of the TV on Saturdays and Sundays in the fall. At this point, however, football no longer is a part of my life. In fact, if I were king of the universe, I would ban the game entirely for the some of the reasons above, the absurdity of the overemphasis of the sport at the high school and college level, and the distinct possibility of brain damage that confronts football players of all ages.
So, anyone up for some handball? Or maybe a trail run?