He was 30 seconds from home. That was the damnable thing. Thirty seconds down Prairie Point Road and Casey Conner would have been back at Howard Hill. Charles Ford and Michael Kimble would have been with him, and everything would have been fine. Just fine.
There were no crazy bends in the road. There was no other traffic. There was no rain. The dark Mississippi night should have been a friend. Hadn't Casey driven this road forever? His father's land was on one side, planted with soybeans, as usual. He was that close.
What happened? The three of them were coming back from spending much of the night around Noxubee County. Easter Sunday. They had arrived that afternoon from Memphis, where Casey had spent the two previous days at the homes of the other two kids. Baby Casey—that was what his mother called him, even though he was only eighth in her line of 11 children. Baby Casey. He had worked a little while, spelling his father, in the small store at Howard Hill, about 100 miles from Jackson. He had borrowed money from his mother. What was it she said? She suddenly had been startled by his size. Hugged him. Just before he left. Baby Casey, you've gotten so big.
His cousin Sharon Johnson found the car, which wasn't so surprising. Everyone in the area was family. Howard Hill is simply a cluster of nine houses and trailers, not an official town, a family place, everybody a Conner in one way or another. Sharon recognized the white 1983 Ford Mustang that had crashed against the tree. She stopped and looked inside and went screaming to Howard Hill, ran straight into Casey's parents' bedroom at 2:30 in the morning.
The news reports put the events into a convenient package. They said three young men were dead, and that there was a curse on the Jackson State football team. The curse, alas, was youth.
"You say something like that—'a curse against the Jackson State football team'—and it's almost like documentation to your deepest thoughts," says Dr. Mildred Allen, a campus counselor. "Especially if you're young. The young too often take media thoughts as truth. 'Wasn't that what I was thinking? Here it is. Someone else has said it. It must be true.' "
Word of the crash was a somber greeting as students returned from their four-day weekend last Monday night. Who didn't know Casey and Charles and Michael? Casey, 19, was a linebacker. His older brother, Darion, was last season's star, drafted on Sunday by the Atlanta Falcons as the second pick in the second round. Another linebacker. Casey, a red shirt freshman last season, had grown so large he was expected to take Darion's job next fall, creating a family succession at the position. Charles, 20, also coming off a red shirt freshman year, was a free-talking cornerback, expected to start. Michael, 18, his friend from Whitehaven High in Memphis, was red shirted last year. He was a 250-pound linebacker.
Football is a large part of the soul of this predominantly black state school. Walter Payton ran here before he was a Chicago Bear. Robert Brazile was a linebacker here. Harold Jackson caught passes; Lem Barney defended against them. Verlon Biggs. Richard Caster. Coy Bacon. Willie and Gloster and Thomas Richardson. Tradition is deep at Jackson State, the pro scouts arriving every year to weigh and measure and take two and three and four players to the big cities and the big noise. Football is important.
Any fatal crash involving any number of kids is a shock to any undergraduate environment. Pictures of the victims are spread across the morning newspaper, and all of the bulletproof feelings of adolescence are challenged. Who is invincible? Nobody. What can be taken for granted? Not even tomorrow. Here, the shock was magnified. Football players. Again.
"I got the call at 3:35 on Monday morning," said Jackson State's football coach, W.C. Gorden. "Casey's sister was on the phone. I hate a phone call after 12 o'clock. It never is good. I have two grown children of my own, and I'm responsible for 95 football players. You think to yourself, well, they're on vacation...but, jeez, this is when the stuff happens."
In March 1988, the telephone call was about defensive back Antonio Rogers. Killed in a crash on his way home to Prichard, Ala. In July 1989, the call was about running back Earl Eatman. A crash in Hattiesburg. Now this. Third year in a row. A series of tragedies had not only continued, but multiplied. Three kids at once. Three kids.
The team was supposed to reassemble on Tuesday of last week for the final days of spring practice. The annual Blue and White game was scheduled for last Saturday night at Hughes Field. All of the preparations stopped. There would be no game. The large worries of one day were suddenly insignificant on the next. Life will overrule football every time.
"I hadn't said anything before this vacation, but I made it a point to talk to the team before spring break in March about being careful," Gorden said. "I talked about the things that had happened the past two years. I told a story about myself when I was in college. I was going to summer school. We had a break for the Fourth of July. I came back to class and the desk next to me was empty. I said, 'Hey, where's So-and-So?' I was told, 'Oh, he was in a crash. He died.' Just like that. I told the kids to watch themselves."
A team meeting was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon. Dr. Allen began working with players individually and in groups. She saw the trauma played across their faces. She heard their questions that were so hard to answer. Why didn't this happen to me? I could have been with Casey and Charles and Michael. Why did it happen to them? Why has it happened again at Jackson State? Sadness for the dead was merged with guilt for the living.
Dr. Timothy Summers, a local psychiatrist and a graduate of Jackson State, was asked to speak at the team meeting. So was the Reverend Jerry Young from the New Hope Baptist Church. It was best that everyone keep busy, especially during the late afternoon, when practice would have been held. A memorial service was scheduled for Thursday.
"You wanted to take an edge off the grief," Dr. Allen said. "You didn't want to remove grief, because it's a natural thing, but you also wanted to remember some of the good memories. There was too much trauma among too many people. Something had to be done to lake a load off somewhere."
The idea, simply, was to talk and talk. Arc football players allowed to cry? Yes. They cried so much that an assistant coach at the team meeting went to the restroom to bring back some toilet paper. All of the tissues had been used.
A field goal kicker questioned the simple fact of death. How can Casey be dead? He was a good person. I saw him just last week. Talked with him. Ate with him. How can he be dead? A lineman wondered if God were sending a message. Shouldn't we change our ways? A coach wondered about the future. Is it ethical to talk about these tragedies and use them as motivation in the coming season? Is that all right, to try to dedicate yourself to a memory? Or is it cheap?
"I had some questions myself that I couldn't answer," Gorden said. "Why would this happen three years in a row? I sometimes thought about the fact that I was losing two starters from our team. Should I feel guilty about thinking that?"
Casey was remembered as the most pleasant player on the team. He was the ambassador, the locker room peacemaker. His brother, slow to practice some days, had acquired the nickname Big Lazy, so Casey's immediate nickname had been Little Lazy. That didn't last long. Lazy? He told the coaches he was Dr. Jekyll off the field, but became a grim Mr. Hyde once he went to work. His nickname became Gator.
Charles had a different sort of personality. He was moody, aggressive. He wanted to be the best. When he signed his letter of intent, he told the coaches to "go out now and get some other good talent to play with me." His aggression was his strength—and weakness. He wanted to make all the tackles, everywhere. Sometimes he made the tackles. Sometimes a 50-yard bomb would sail over his head.
Michael was the kid. His father was a professional wrestler under the name of King Cobra. He was growing into his father's dimensions.
"You think about a kid, about what you remember," Gorden said. "I didn't have much to do with Michael because he had not been here too long. I just remember that he was wearing brown cowboy boots with white toes when he got here. I remember talking with him about those boots. That was his look."
The meetings and the conversations continued. Grief was a roll of black crepe paper strung from day to day to day. The memorial service in the student union was attended by more than 2,000 people. It was mentioned later that Darion had been involved in an accident only a couple of months ago. He had been driving a jeep, coming back to school from a concert at Alcorn State in Lorman, Miss., when the vehicle Hipped and was totaled. No one was hurt. Everyone was wearing a seat belt. Only a week earlier, another brother, Lloyd, coming to Jackson State next year, had also been in an accident. He was driving and ran into a bridge abutment after a deer ran out in front of him. He and his girlfiend were not hurt.
How many other kids at Jackson State—and everywhere—had been involved in situations of that kind? How many had escaped? The report was that Casey probably had fallen asleep. Had he been drinking? At this writing, tests were not back from the coroner's office, but no alcohol or drugs were found in the car. The toughest part of his night was behind him, and he was 30 seconds from home. Tracks indicated he had swerved left across the road, then had come back right and the car had flown across a culvert and hit the tree. Why? Why this kid? Why the three of them?
Three years in a row. A law of averages seemed to have gone askew. Why Jackson State? Why anywhere?
"You see young people in crashes again and again," Dr. Allen said. "You talk and talk about it. You caution kids. Do we try to live all of our lives in one weekend? It's just hard. You want to preach caution to them, but at the same time, you can't make them afraid of living."
One of her colleagues said he thought kids were too wild, too fast these days, a generation almost out of control. Dr. Allen disagreed. She said that older people probably were saying the same things about Socrates when he was 18.
"You can say what you want, but young folks are going to be young themselves," she said. "No one can do it for them."
The funeral for Casey Conner was held on Friday in the small farm town of Macon, Miss. Classes at Noxubee County High School were suspended at noon so the auditorium could be used. This was the school where Darion and Casey and Lloyd had played. A sign near the football field said this was the home of the Mighty Tigers. A crowd of maybe 1,500 people filled the room. Members and coaches of the Jackson State football team arrived in a large silver bus.
The day was gray and humid. Ceiling fans spun throughout the eulogies. Programs were waved in front of faces as hand fans. There would be two more funerals on Saturday, in Memphis. Charles Ford was going to be buried in his Jackson State jersey. Number 5.
"We were supposed to be going to California today," Annette Conner, Casey's mother, said softly after the service. "We were going there for the pro football draft. Darion's agent was having everyone out there. It was going to be a party on Sunday."
The line of cars behind the hearse seemed to stretch for miles. The route went down one street and then another, onto a highway and then onto Prairie Point Road. The cars passed the tree where the accident had occurred and then Howard Hill, where three little kids were playing basketball on the dirt court. The final stop was the Prairie Point Baptist Church. The silver bus was almost as large as the church. Casey was buried in a small cemetery beside the building.
"You know, it could have been me," a young guy named Amos Stiger told I.D. Conner, Casey's father, after everything was over. "I had an accident just like that. October 22 last year. I fell asleep. I totaled the car. Two guys from the Weyerhaeuser plant pulled me out of the wreck. The same thing could have happened."
"The Lord didn't want you," I.D. said.
The cars were leaving. There would be a reception at the house. Casey's father was wearing a suit, but he leaned on a shovel. He had brought it in case the gravediggers forgot. They did not forget. He was bringing the shovel home.
"I could have hit the cement culvert," Stiger continued. "If I had hit the culvert, I'd have been gone."
"The Lord didn't want you to hit the culvert," the father said. "If the Lord wanted you to hit it, you'd have hit it. He didn't want you. He didn't want Darion. He didn't want Lloyd. He didn't want me.
"The Lord just wanted Casey."