Tough Love: How my stepfather, ex-Mississippi State coach Jackie Sherrill, prepared me for life as a touring musician
I was 13 when I took my first hit. I was not prepared for the shock, the way it knocked the breath out of me. I felt like I'd been hit by a truck. At 6' 6", 420 pounds, Jason Weisner was the biggest player on Mississippi State's offensive line in 1992. I saw him coming right at me, but by the time I realized I needed to get out of the way it was too late. BAM! Flattened at the 50-yard line. My body slammed to the ground at an awkward angle and I lay there paralyzed beneath the weight of Weisner.
When I came to, someone was blowing a whistle. The refs had stopped the game and I looked up to see my stepfather, Jackie Sherrill, standing over me. The look on his face was one that I can still see to this day: the big bulging eyeballs, the hard line of his mouth. I didn't know whether he was going to scream at me or pick me up. He did neither.
"You're alright," he said. It was a statement, not a question. I could feel the side of my face pulsing as I pushed myself up to a seated position. My whole body hurt, but my pride hurt worse than anything. There were holes in the knees of my jeans and a chunk of turf was hanging from my ponytail. One of the trainers came running over and reached out to give me a hand, but Jackie pulled him back.
"She's alright." Jackie repeated. I shot him an angry look, feeling betrayed and humiliated, but his gaze was unwavering.
He was letting me know what was expected of me. You're alright. Get back up. The game must go on.
Any warm feelings I had started to feel for my stepfather disappeared in that moment as I struggled to pull myself to my feet, trying not to cry in front of the players. I hobbled over to pick up the tangled headset cord that was still at the 50-yard line. Someone handed me a cup of water, but I refused to take a sip. I would show them all how tough I was.
If I had known all along that it was Jackie's intention to toughen me up, I might have thanked him. Instead, I spent the rest of the game skulking along the sidelines behind him like a teenage girl. I didn't understand my stepfather; then again, there were a lot of things I didn't understand in those days. Jackie and my mother had just gotten married earlier that summer and moved our family—my mom, my sister and me—from Houston to Starkville, Miss., where he had just taken over as the coach at Mississippi State. When Jackie asked me to be his "cord carrier" that season, it was his way of trying to bond with me. But I had no idea what the job entailed. I had never been to a football game, much less stood on the sidelines.
I never could have foreseen how getting pummeled that day was actually preparing me for what would one day become my profession as a full-time touring musician. One may not think of football as preparation for a career in music, but getting your ass kicked and knowing how to get back up is actually a prerequisite for being an artist. If there's anything I have learned after spending 14 years hustling across the country in a van and trailer, sharing rooms with stinky bandmates and playing every kind of venue from pig races to sports bars, it's that you have to have tough skin.
Even more importantly, all those years of standing on the sidelines with Jackie taught me what really goes into winning. It takes blood sweat, tears and the will to persevere in the face of overwhelming adversity. It takes the hard-headed and sometimes illogical belief you have to have that you can win, even when it looks like all hope is lost.
I learned what it means to be an underdog the year we beat third-ranked Florida in 1992. I came to believe in fourth quarter miracles the night we scored 18 unanswered points against Auburn in the last three minutes to win the game. The memories of how Jackie handled both his wins and his losses became a road map for me during my decade-and-a-half-long journey as an indie artist. I was 36 before I signed my first record deal. Anybody in their right mind would have given up by then, and had I not learned from one of college football's greatest motivators, I might not have had the determination to keep going.
But at 13, I was too young to appreciate the education I was getting. On the way home from the game I was flattened, I pouted in the front seat as Jackie listened to the postgame commentary. Thankfully, we won that night, but my feelings were still hurt that he hadn't helped me up. After the show was over, he turned off the radio and an awkward silence followed. I knew what was coming.
"Bonnie, now I have told you before," he said. "You've got to pay attention to what's happening on the field. Now if you can't handle that, then you don't need to be on the sidelines."
I couldn't hold back the tears any longer. They spilled over and soaked the collar of my maroon-and-white T-shirt. When Jackie looked over and saw that my head was hung in shame, he did something that surprised me. He reached over and patted me on the knee. "You got your ass kicked today, didn't ya?"
I looked up and saw that he was smiling. Jackie started laughing and much to my surprise, so did I. I felt something shift between us in the car that night. It was our first father-daughter bonding moment. I wiped the snot from my nose and cleared my throat.
"Yes sir," I said affirmatively, "I sure did."