Friday, January 31, 2014

A brutal day in Murfreesboro

       For the media, one of the luxuries of covering a football game in sub-freezing, snowy, ice weather is a heated press box. Or even a seat in the press box.
       I can vouch for it. I can tell you for sure that the coldest I've ever been at football games in which I was with the media happened in Tennessee -- twice. Once with a seat in a tiny press box without heat; once standing outside a press box that wasn't big enough for all the media.
       Probably no one else will remember the second time, in a remote outpost (Dunlap, Sequatchie County High School), 20-something miles northwest from Chattanooga. I was probably one of two media people at the game.
       How cold was it? I'll tell you more in a moment.
       The first time I was that cold? Many of my Louisiana Tech friends will remember, that is if their brains have unfrozen. All I have to do is say Murfreesboro. The Grantland Rice Bowl game -- Saturday, Dec. 14, 1968.
       "The most miserable day I have ever spent in my life," the Tech backfield coach that day, Mickey Slaughter, said last week when we talked about it.
Tommy Spinks: With Terry
Bradshaw, he burned it up
on a bitterly cold day.
        I'll give you the details soon, but one teaser: Terry Bradshaw and Tommy Spinks, the best of friends and a pass/catch combination that thrilled us all at Woodlawn High and then Tech, played a lot of great games together for five years. But considering the conditions, none was ever better than that day in Murfreesboro.
        First, Sequatchie County on a very cold Friday night in November, late 1990s. While I remember much of the Tech bowl game material (and looked up some), I cannot recall all that much about this Class AA playoff game I covered for the Knoxville News Sentinel.
        Tried to find my story from the game, and I don't have it. Called my buddy Phil Kaplan, the sports editor at the News Sentinel, and he tried to find it on their electronic library. He read me off three dozen story titles from my time there, but couldn't find this one.
        I know Dunlap was off into the southwest Tennessee woods, about two hours from Knoxville. Sequatchie County was a small school, with a tiny, antiquated stadium -- rickety bleachers -- and not much of a football tradition. And its team was not very competitive that night.
        I think -- but I'm not sure -- I was covering Alcoa High (Alcoa is located near the Knoville regional airport). Alcoa easily won the game, something like 42-6.
         I know it was a damn long game; it went on and on, and I wish they'd kept the clock running. Because I was freezing. It was about 20 degrees, it sleeted and snowed and the wind blew hard ... and the press box was one of those tiny ones, maybe four seats. No heat.
        At least I had a seat, and the wind wasn't quite as bad up there. But I've never been able to write well wearing a glove. So to take notes, keep a play-by-play, my left (writing) hand was bare a lot of the time.
        When the game mercifully ended, and I went to the field and then dressing rooms to get quotes, I couldn't help but think back to Murfreesboro 30 years earlier.
        Wound up in the Sequatchie County coaches' office to write my story and use the one phone at the premises (this was before cellphones were everywhere). But I was so cold that it was 15-20 minutes before I could even start typing.  
        The players and coaches, their season done, were soon gone. It was just me and a school janitor in the place. As I was writing my story, he said to me, "I'm leaving. When you're done, just flip off this light and lock the door."
        True story. I had the place to myself. I could have taken anything I wanted out of the Sequatchie County football facility (what there was of it).
        Story done, I sent it to the office and got the heck out of the cold town of Dunlap. Haven't been back.
        The 1968 Grantland Rice Bowl was a great reward for the Louisiana Tech football team -- and for me personally. By the time the regular season ended, we had an outstanding Division II team, which won its last six games and finished 8-2. There were no national playoffs in that division then, but the NCAA did have four regional bowl games for D-II. This was the Mideast regional.
        I think we had one of the nation's best teams at our level. We had the nation's best quarterback at that level; that I know.
        The second half of that season was when Bradshaw consistently showed more than just potential.
        So Tech was selected for a nationally televised (ABC) game against the University of Akron -- Bulldogs (8-2) vs. Zips (7-2-1), first bowl game in each school's history.
        Why Murfreesboro? Grantland Rice, the nation's best-known sportswriter for decades, was born in Murfreesboro and graduated from Vanderbilt University, 33 miles north, worked for the Nashville Tennessean before going to the big time. This bowl was a way to honor the great Mr. Rice.
        This was the fifth year in a row the game had been played at Middle Tennessee State University's stadium -- which reminded me a lot of Louisiana Tech's old stadium (we had moved into the new stadium that season).
        This was my last football game as Tech's statistician/student assistant in sports information. I didn't make all the road trips, but Paul Manasseh was the SID that year (he would move on to LSU in a few months) and got me a place on the traveling party and a seat on the plane.
        So I have the late Mr. Manasseh to thank for freezing my butt off. No, I really was grateful.
        On that Friday, we got off the plane in Nashville (took buses to Murfreesboro) and we knew it would be colder than Louisiana. But the  weather talk was ominous -- very cold and possible sleet/snow. Heck, we got it all the next day.
        Got to the stadium and it was about 20 degrees, with a strong wind -- so the wind-chill factor left it feeling like about 0 degrees. It was already sleeting, then we got snow flurries. For a bunch of Louisiana kids, this was awful.
        My job that day was to be a spotter for the ABC-TV crew. No room for them in the main press box (which seated about 10 people). So there we were outside to the left of the press box -- in the elements. I can't remember what I was wearing, but I know I wore a ski cap because they showed the TV crew a few times (we saw the TV broadcast at Tech several times the next few weeks). 
        I was cold when the game started. It didn't get any better.
        We weren't the only ones outside the press box; the Tech coaches working upstairs -- Slaughter calling plays, Pat Collins calling the defense -- sat in desk chairs. Slaughter remembered that not only was it cold, near the end of the game, a huge fight broke out among the (few) Akron fans there, right below where they were sitting.
        The game was one-sided -- for three quarters. By halftime, we (Tech) had a 21-0 lead. But Akron was there for a reason, and it showed in the third quarter, when it cut the lead to 21-13.
        Bradshaw had been really good in the first half. In the fourth quarter, he was great. The colder it got, the better he got. He finished off Akron, and we won 33-13.
        He wound up 19-of-33 for 261 yards and ran for two touchdowns (16 and 8 yards). People forget that as great a passer as he was, he also was a strong, fearless runner.
        But part of his success was because Spinks could not be covered. He caught 12 passes for 167 yards, with a 36-yarder a touchdown. Knowing Tommy, he probably could have described each of those catches years and years later.
        One Bradshaw play, early in the fourth quarter, was a play for the ages. Anyone who saw it can still revel in it. He rolled out to his left, got hit by at least six Akron players and with three of them literally hanging on him -- I'm not kidding -- somehow got off a pass to Larry Brewer, our tight end, for a 6-yard touchdown.
        "That play, that game is what sold NFL scouts on him," Slaughter said the other day.
        The game was, pardon the pun, a warmup for Terry's pro career in Pittsburgh, where he played cold-weather games for 12 years and won most of them. (But Pittsburgh was a resort compared to where our other Woodlawn/NFL QB hero, Joe Ferguson, played -- 12 seasons in Buffalo.)
        "How cold was it?" one of our offensive linemen, Jesse Carrigan wrote to me this week. "The band couldn't march at halftime because their wind instruments were frozen. And there must have been 50 people in the stadium watching the game."
        Jesse also wanted me to put in here how well the offensive line -- Butch Williams, Eric Moss, John Harper, Glenn Murphy and Carrigan -- played that day. It did.
        The attendance probably was around 3,000. That's a guess; there's no record of it that I could find. I can't imagine many people from the Murfreesboro attending. The NCAA noticed. The next few years, the Grantland Rice Bowl was played in Baton Rouge's Memorial Stadium.
        But a few of the people in the stands that day were special to me. The Tucker family took the 3 1/2-hour drive from their home in Atlanta to come to the game. They had lived in Sunset Acres, just around the corner from us, until the year before, and I spent a great deal of time at their house -- a lot of it playing wiffle ball in their backyard. Terry, the middle of three sons, had been a freshman at La. Tech the year before and worked in sports information.
        So I suggested that they come to Murfreesboro for the game and to see the half-dozen Woodlawn players that were familiar to them.
        When I visited with them before the game that Saturday morning, we laughed -- sort of -- at how the weather had turned out. I apologized for the suggestion.
        "Coldest I've ever been," Terry said this week. "I don't know how we made it home after that game that day."
        It was a tough day, but also a great day for Louisiana Tech and its fans. And, sure as heck, a memorable day. I hope I'm never that cold at a football game -- or anywhere -- again.


  1. From Maxie Hays: I remember that game well. On that same day Bob Grosclose was hosting an indoor track meet in Monroe. Coach (Jimmy) Mize and La. Tech's track team were there and Coach Mize had brought a TV to watch the football game. I was there as a fan and watched the game with Coach Mize. We were so glad that we were in a heated facility while watching Tech play in the snow. Awesome day for La. Poly for sure.

  2. From Sid Huff: This is a great piece, probably because you stirred up some old memories. I remember seeing "the play" with Akron players draped over TB and him getting that pass away. My late uncle Dr. Robert D. (Bob) Hightower, co-founder of the old Bone & Joint Clinic down the hill from Schumpert Hospital, was a good friend of Dr. Jay Taylor, president of Tech. I was set to go to Texas A&M when I met Dr. Taylor at my uncle/aunt's house on Spring Lake Drive near Pierremont Oaks Tennis Club. He impressed me so much I changed my mind and decided I'd attend Tech. Always glad I made that decision.

  3. From Mike Richey (covered the bowl game for the Monroe Morning World): Perfect timing for the Grantland Rice story ... partly because it has been down in the mid-20s about eight times here (Jacksonville, Fla., area) the past couple of weeks. Not good weather for covering a football game ...
    I don't know if you remember or not, but we were seatmates on the flight ... out of Shreveport, I think. It was my first flight ever and I marveled at your being so calm. The only thing I remember being eventful out of the flight was that I fell asleep and didn't wake up until the pilots reversed the jets and raised the flaps on landing. I woke up to what I thought was a plane about to explode. I recall your laughing at the look on my face.
    I was one of those lucky enough to get a seat in the press box, but I don't remember much in the way of heat. I do recall either there were no windows, or maybe they were open so the radio/TV booths could hear the crowd noise (3,000 people going brrrrrr!). I do remember snow piling up inside the window opening. I would write a couple of paragraphs and the paper would be so wet the type would smear. Crumple up a sheet and start over, and over, and over. The keys on the portable Smith-Corona had ice on them. We're talking pre-telecopier, pre-teleram, pre-TI 100s. It took what seemed forever to write the story. Not so much writer's block as brain freeze. I'm sure it's a story I wouldn't want to read again. If I hadn't been so young and new to the business I would have just dictated off the top of my head.
    And, just to verify your memory, my one recollection aside from the weather was Bradshaw's statue play. I say statue, because he looked like a big statue with Akron players hanging off his legs and shoulders when he threw the TD to Brewer.

  4. From Bob Tompkins (Alexandria Town Talk): Wasn’t always thus, but over last 15-20 years, my fingers go numb if I am at an event and it gets even in the 40s. It happens more at early season baseball than during football.
    (I remember an especially cold game in the late '70s at Northwestern against then-USL.)

  5. From Steve Oakey: I shivered reading your cold-weather football stories, especially your account of the Grantland Rice Bowl in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Reminded me of another cold night there. It was the last day of 1862, when Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans and
    his Union Army of the Cumberland clashed with Confederate Maj. Gen. Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee in the Battle of Stones River. The battle, fought in freezing temperatures and sleet and snow, went into the night, and after some rest and realignment on New Year's Day, the two sides went at it again on Jan. 2. Bragg's army finally had to withdraw, and hundreds of the estimated 24,000 casualties were left to fend for themselves in the cedar thickets and limestone outcroppings on that dismal field.
    I think I'd prefer sitting in an unheated press box to huddling in some bushes with a shattered arm or leg -- or, worse, a festering Minie ball wound to the gut. Too bad the Broncos and Seahawks will probably play in upper 30s temps Sunday. They won't have any stories to compare with the Cowboys and Packers who played in the Ice Bowl.

  6. From Bennie Thornell: I had to buy another coat and some gloves while in Murfreesboro that day. It took a while for my feet to thaw after the game.

  7. From Kimberly Spinks Burleson: I remember my dad saying they couldn't feel their fingers or toes but their adrenaline and excitement gave them the ability to play through it.

  8. From Barbara Lindsay Spinks: I was invited to go on a private plane with Mrs. Lambright to the game. Needless to say I was thrilled, but so nervous. To accompany the head coach's wife was pretty intimidating. I froze ... we had those thin silver blankets (called "space blankets"). I guess they worked. We stayed for the whole game. One of my best memories ... thank you for sharing.

  9. From Robyn Blaikie Collins: And we think we've been cold. Tommy Spinks. Terry Bradshaw. Crazy cold football story.

  10. Just for the record, both the Tech Band and the Akron Band did put on their halftime shows. Nico is correct about the instruments freezing up, but it was the woodwind instruments which had particularly bad problems. Some of them outright cracked. Probably totally ruined. How do I know this? Because I was there. I'm Bobby Gage, trombone player. Everybody had on every bit of clothes that we had, plus our band raincoats trying to serve as windbreakers. Brass players kept our mouthpieces in our pockets to keep them from being 20 degrees. (Some people lubricated their valves with liquid substances we weren't really supposed to have with us...stuff that would also warm the individual if consumed.) And we had to keep blowing air through our horns to keep the slides and valves from freezing solid. Majorettes had things particularly bad, as might be expected. As to the game, not only was it cold with sleet and snow, but there was that awful wind from the north as Nico mentioned. The play when Bradshaw had 3 Zips hanging off of him (with only his right arm free) is one I remember. And (as I recall) he threw it dead into the wind. Anybody still got a copy of the TV tape? I saw it once after we got home to Ruston but would love to see it again.

    Bob Gage - La. Tech - '70