It ends for everybody. It ends for the pro who makes $5 million a
year and has his face on magazine covers and his name in the
record books. It ends for the kid on the high school team who
never comes off the bench except to congratulate his teammates as
they file past him on their way to the Gatorade bucket.
In my case it ended on Dec. 22, 1979, at the Tangerine Bowl in
Orlando. We beat Wake Forest that night 34-10, in a game I
barely remember but for the fact that it was my last one. When
it was over, a teammate and I grabbed our heroic old coach,
hoisted him on our shoulders and carried him out to the midfield
crest. It was ending that day for Charles McClendon, too, after
18 years as head coach at LSU and a superb 69% career winning
percentage. The next day newspapers would run photos of Coach
Mac's last victory ride, with Big Eddie Stanton and me, smeared
with mud, serving as his chariot. Coach had a hand raised above
his head as he waved goodbye, but it would strike me that his
expression showed little joy at all. He looked tired and sad.
More than anything, though, he looked like he didn't want it to
We were quiet on the flight back to Baton Rouge, and when the
plane touched down at Ryan Field, no cheers went up and nobody
said anything. A week or so later, done with the Christmas
holidays, I went to Tiger Stadium to clean out my locker. I
brought a big travel bag with me, and I stuffed it with pads,
shoes, gym trunks, jockstraps, T-shirts and practice jerseys. I
removed my nametag from the locker. Then I studied the purple
stenciling against the gold matte. In one corner someone had
scribbled the words TRAMPLE THE DEAD, HURDLE THE WEAK. The source
of the legend eludes me now, but it had been a rallying cry for
the team that year, especially for my mates on the offensive
The last thing I packed was my helmet. I'd been an offensive
center, and the helmet's back and sides were covered with the
little Tigers decals the coaches had given out as merit badges
for big plays. I ran my fingertips over the surface, feeling the
scars in the hard plastic crown. There were paint smudges and
streaks from helmets I'd butted over the years. Was the gold
Vanderbilt or Florida State? The red Alabama or Georgia, Indiana
August 11, 2002
When I finished packing, I walked down the chute that led to the
playing field, pushed open the big metal door and squinted
against the sudden blast of sunlight. I meant to have one last
look at the old stadium where I'd played the last four years.
Death Valley was quiet now under a blue winter sky. I could point
to virtually any spot on the field and tell you about some
incident that had happened there. I knew where teammates had
blown out knees, dropped passes, made key blocks and tackles,
thrown interceptions and recovered game-saving fumbles. I knew
where we'd vomited in spring scrimmages under a brutal Louisiana
sun and where we'd celebrated on autumn Saturday nights to the
roar of maniacal Tigers fans and the roar of a real tiger, Mike
IV, prowling in a cage on the sideline. We'd performed to a full
house at most every home game, the crowds routinely in excess of
75,000, but today there was no one in sight, the bleachers
running in silver ribbons around the gray cement bowl. It seemed
the loneliest place on earth.
I was only 21 years old, yet I believed that nothing I did for
the rest of my life would rise up to those days when I wore the
Purple and Gold. I might go on to a satisfying career and make a
lot of money, I might marry a beautiful woman and fill a house
with perfect kids, I might make a mark that would be of some
significance in other people's eyes. But I would never have it
better than when I was playing football for LSU.
Despite this belief, I was determined to walk away from that
place and that life and never look back. You wouldn't catch me 20
years later crowing about how it had been back in the day, when
as a college kid I'd heard the cheers. I knew the type who
couldn't give it up, and I didn't want to be him. He keeps going
to the games and reminding anyone who'll listen of how things
used to be. His wife and kids roll their eyes as he describes big
plays, quotes from halftime speeches and embellishes a "career"
that no one else seems to remember with any specificity. He
stalks the memory until the memory reduces him to pathetic
self-parody. To listen to him, he never screwed up a snap count
or busted an assignment or had a coach berate him for dogging it
or getting beat. In his mind he is forever young, forever strong,
Standing there in Tiger Stadium, I squeezed my eyes closed and
lowered my head. Then I wept.
Hell no, I said to myself. That wasn't going to be me.
I still remember their names and hometowns. And I can tell you,
almost to a man, the high schools they went to. I remember how
tall they were and how much they weighed. I remember their
strengths and weaknesses, both as men and as football players. I
remember the kinds of cars they drove, what religions they
practiced, the music they favored, the hair color of their
girlfriends, how many letters they earned, their injuries, their
dreams, their times in the 40-yard dash. In many instances I
remember their jersey numbers. On the day last August that I
turned 43, I wondered what had happened to Robert DeLee. DeLee, a
tight end from the small town of Clinton, La., wore number 43 on
his jersey when I was a senior. During my freshman year a running
back named Jack Clark had worn the number. Jack Clark, too, I
thought to myself--where on earth has he slipped off to? I had
seen neither of them in more than two decades.
That was the case with almost all of my teammates. Last summer I
attended a wedding reception for Barry Rubin, a former fullback
at LSU who is a strength coach with the Green Bay Packers. It had
been about eight years since I'd last had a face-to-face
conversation with a teammate, and even that meeting had come
purely by chance. One day I was waiting in the checkout line at a
store in suburban New Orleans when someone standing behind me
called out my name. I wheeled around, and there stood Charlie
McDuff, an ex-offensive tackle who'd arrived at LSU at the same
time I did, as a member of the celebrated 1976 freshman class. A
couple of shoppers separated Charlie and me, and I couldn't reach
past them to shake his hand. "How are things going?" he said.
"Things are good," I said. "How 'bout with you?"
I felt uncomfortable seeing him again, even though we'd always
gotten along well back in school. The media guide had listed him
at 6'6" and 263 pounds, but in actual fact he was a shade taller
and closer to 275. Even after all these years away from the game
he had a bull neck and arms thick with muscle. His hair was as
sun-bleached as ever, his skin as darkly tanned.
I paid what I owed and started to leave. Then I turned back
around and looked at him again. "You ever see anybody anymore,
Charlie?" I said.
"Yeah. Sure, I see them. Some of them. You?"
He nodded as if he understood, and we parted without saying
anything more, and two years later Charlie McDuff was dead. My
sister called, crying with the news. Charlie had suffered a
pulmonary embolism while vacationing with his family at a Gulf
Coast resort. He left behind a wife and three young sons. I
wanted to call someone and talk about him, and I knew it had to
be a player, one of our teammates, and preferably an offensive
lineman. But I couldn't do it, I couldn't make the call. Nobody
wanted to remember anymore, I tried to convince myself. It was
too long ago. So instead I pulled some cardboard boxes out of a
closet and went through them. There were trophies and plaques
wrapped in paper, letters tied with kite string, a short stack of
souvenir programs and a couple of plastic-bound photo albums
crowded with news clippings and yellowing images of boys who
actually were capable of dying. If Charlie McDuff could die, it
occurred to me, we all could.
At the bottom of the box I found a worn, gray T-shirt with purple
lettering that said NOBODY WORKS HARDER THAN THE OFFENSIVE LINE.
Charlie had had that shirt made, along with about a dozen others,
and handed them out to the linemen on the '79 squad. The year
before, we'd lost some outstanding players to graduation, and
Charlie had hoped the shirts would inspire us to pull together as
a unit. We wore the shirts at every opportunity, generally under
our shoulder pads at practice and games. It seems crazy now, but
there was a time when I considered stipulating in my will that I
be buried in that ratty thing. I was never more proud than when I
had it on.
I learned about Charlie's funeral arrangements, and I got dressed
intending to go. I started down the road for Baton Rouge,
rehearsing the lines I'd speak to his widow and children, and
those I'd tell my old teammates to explain why I didn't come
around anymore. I drove as far as the outskirts of Baton Rouge
before turning around and heading back home.
Are there others out there like me? I've often wondered. Does the
loss of a game they played in their youth haunt them as it's
haunted me? Do others wake up from afternoon naps and bolt for
the door, certain that they're late for practice even though
their last practice was half a lifetime ago? My nightmares don't
contain images of monsters or plane crashes or Boo Radley hiding
behind the bedroom door. Mine have me jumping offside or muffing
the center-quarterback exchange. They have me forgetting where I
placed my helmet when the defense is coming off the field and
it's time for me to go back in the game.
If it really ends, I wonder, then why doesn't it just end?
I suppose I was doomed from the start, having been sired by a
Louisiana high school football coach. The year of my birth, 1958,
was the same year LSU won its one and only national championship
in football, and the month of my birth, August, was when
two-a-day practices began for that season. Although my parents
couldn't afford to take their five kids to the LSU games, we
always listened to the radio broadcasts, usually while my father
was outside barbecuing on the patio. He'd sit there in a lawn
chair, lost in concentration, a purple-and-gold cap tipped back
on his head. Not far away on the lawn I acted out big plays with
friends from the neighborhood, some of us dressed in little
Tigers uniforms. We played in the dark until someone ran into a
tree or a clothesline and got hurt, then my dad would have me sit
next to him and listen to the rest of the game, the real one.
"Settle down now," I remember him saying. "LSU's on."
When I was a kid I always gave the same answer to adults who
asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. "I want to play
football for LSU," I answered. Beyond that I had no clear picture
Nor could I fathom a future without the game when it ended for me
23 years ago. One day I was on the team, the next I was a guy
with a pile of memories and a feeling in his gut that his best
days were behind him. I shuffled around in my purple letter
jacket wondering what to do with myself, and wondering who I was.
Suddenly there were no afternoon workouts or meetings to attend.
I didn't have to visit the training room for whirlpool or hot-wax
baths or ultrasound treatments or massages or complicated ankle
tapings or shots to kill the never-ending pain. If I wanted to, I
could sit in a Tigerland bar and get drunk without fear of being
booted from the team; I didn't have a team anymore. Every day for
four years I'd stepped on a scale and recorded my weight on a
chart for the coaches. But no one cared any longer how thin I
got, or how fat.
That last year I served as captain of the offense, and either by
some miracle or by a rigged ballot I was named to the second team
All-Southeastern Conference squad. The first-team player,
Alabama's Dwight Stephenson, went on to become a star with the
Miami Dolphins and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and
I'd seen enough film of the guy to know I was nowhere in his
league. At the end of April, in the hours after the 1980 NFL
draft, a scout for the Dallas Cowboys called and asked me to
consider signing with the club as a free agent, but by then I'd
already shed 30 pounds along with any notion of myself as an
athlete. I gave some excuse and hung up. "You don't even want to
try?" my father said.
I could've yelled at him for asking, but there was genuine
compassion in his eyes. He and my mother were losing something,
too. One of their sons had played football for LSU, and where I
come from nothing topped that. "It's over," I said.
My father nodded and walked away.
Number 50 was Jay Whitley, the pride of Baton Rouge's Lee High.
Fifty-one was Lou deLauney, then Albert Richardson; 52, Kevin
Lair, then Leigh Shepard; 53, Steve Estes and Jim Holsombake; 54,
Rocky Guillot. Fifty-five was linebacker S.J. Saia; then after my
freshman year the number went to Marty Dufrene, probably the
toughest offensive lineman ever to come out of Lafourche Parish.
My number was 56. When we left the stadium after games, fans were
waiting outside under the streetlamps, some of them with programs
and slips of paper to sign. Even a lowly offensive lineman was
asked for an autograph. "Number 56 in your program, Number 1 in
your heart," I'd write, disgracing myself for all eternity but
way too ignorant at the time to know it.
I don't recall how I first learned about what happened to Marty.
Maybe it was from a news story about efforts to raise money to
help pay his medical bills. Or maybe it was another tearful call
from a relative. But one day I found myself punching numbers on a
telephone keypad, desperate to talk to him again. Marty was
living in LaRose, his hometown in the heart of Cajun country, or
"down the bayou," as the natives like to say. His wife, Lynne,
answered. "Lynne, do you remember me?" I said, after introducing
"Yes, I remember you," she answered. "You want to talk to Marty?
Hold on, John Ed. It's going to take a few minutes, because I
have to put him on the speakerphone."
A speakerphone? When he finally came on he sounded as though he
was trapped at the bottom of a well.
"Marty, is it true you got hurt?" I said.
"Yeah," he said.
"You're paralyzed, man?"
"Yeah," he said, raising his voice to make sure I could hear. "I
broke my neck. Can you believe it?"
It had happened in July 1986, some five years before my call.
While in his second year of studies at a chiropractic college
then based in Irving, Texas, Marty was injured in a freak
accident at a pool party to welcome the incoming freshman class.
He and friends were horsing around when a pair of them decided to
bring big, strong Marty down. One held him in a headlock, the
other took a running start and plowed into him. Marty smashed
through the water's surface of a shallow children's pool and
struck his head on the bottom, shattering a vertebra. He floated
in the water, unable to move or feel anything from his neck down,
until his friends pulled him out.
As he told me about the accident I kept flashing back to the kid
I'd known in school. Marty had been a lean, powerfully built 6'2"
and 235 pounds, small by today's standards but about average for
a center in our era. On the field he'd played with a kind of
swagger, as if certain that he could dominate his opponent. The
swagger extended to his life off the field. Marty liked to have a
good time. He spoke with a heavy Cajun accent, the kind of accent
that made girls crazy and immediately identified him as a pure
Louisiana thoroughbred. Football schools from the Midwest
featured humongous linemen brought up on corn and prime beef. At
LSU we had guys like Marty, raised on crawfish from the mud flats
and seafood from the Gulf of Mexico.
The son of an offshore oil field worker, Marty was an all-state
high school center in 1976. He was a highly recruited
blue-chipper coming out of South Lafourche High, just as I had
been at Opelousas High the year before. Marty had vacillated
between committing to West Point and to LSU before he realized
there really was only one choice for him. Air Force was the
military academy that had tried to lure me before I snapped out
of it and understood what my destiny was.
The only problem I'd ever had with Marty Dufrene was that we
played the same position, and he wanted my job. Going into my
senior year I was listed on the first team, Marty on the second.
One day after practice he told me he was going to beat me out. I
couldn't believe his gall. "I want to play pro ball," he said.
I shook my head and walked off, thinking, Pro ball? To hell with
that, Dufrene. I'm going to see to it you don't even play in
Now, on the telephone, I was telling him, "I'd like to come see
"Yeah," he said. "It would be great to see you again."
"I'll do it. I promise. Just give me some time."
"Sure, whatever you need. I'd like to catch up."
But then 11 years passed, and I didn't visit Marty or follow up
with another call. Nor did I write to him to explain my silence.
How could I tell the man that I was afraid to see him again?
Afraid to see him as a quadriplegic, afraid to have to
acknowledge that, but for the grace of God, I could be the one
confined to a chair, afraid to face the reality that what we once
were was now ancient history.
I might've played football, in another life. But in my present
one I had no doubt as to the depths of my cowardice.
At some point I decided to turn my back on it all, rather than
endure the feeling of loss any longer. Marty Dufrene wasn't the
only one I avoided. There were years when I tried to stay clear
of the entire town of Baton Rouge. Travelers can see Tiger
Stadium as they cross the Mississippi River Bridge and enter the
city from the west, and whenever I journeyed across that elevated
span I made sure to look at the downtown office buildings and the
State Capitol to the north, rather than to the south where the
old bowl sits nestled in the trees. I struggled to watch LSU
games on TV and generally abandoned the set after less than a
quarter. Same for radio broadcasts: I tuned most of them out by
halftime. On two occasions the school's athletic department
invited me to attend home games as an honorary captain, and while
I showed both times, I was such a nervous wreck at being in the
stadium again that I could barely walk out on the field before
kickoff to receive my award and raise an arm in salute to the
Love ends, too, and when the girl invites you over to meet her
new beau, you don't have to like it, do you?
I received invitations to participate in charity golf tournaments
featuring former Tigers players; I never went to them. Teammates
invited me to tailgate parties, suppers and other events; I never
made it to them. The lettermen's club invited me to maintain a
membership; except for one year, I always failed to pay my dues.
Even Coach Mac tried to get in touch with me a few times. I was
somehow too busy to call him back.
It wasn't until December of last year that I finally saw him
again, and by then he was dying. In fact, in only three days he
would be dead. Cancer had left him bedridden at his home in Baton
Rouge, but even at the worst of it he was receiving guests, most
of them former players who came by to tell him goodbye. One day I
received a call from an old college friend, urging me to see
Coach Mac again. She said it didn't look good; if I wanted to
talk to him and make my peace, I'd better come right away.
So that was how I ended up at his doorstep one breezy weekday
morning last winter, my hand shaking as I lifted a finger to
punch the bell. I wondered if anyone in the house had seen me
park on the drive in front, and I seriously considered walking
back to my truck and leaving. But then the door swung open and
there standing a few feet away was Coach Mac's wife, Dorothy
Faye. I could feel my heart squeeze tight in my chest and my
breath go shallow. My friend had called ahead and told her I
might be coming; otherwise she surely would've been alarmed by
the sight of a weeping middle-aged man at her front door. "Why,
John Ed Bradley," she said. "Come in. Come in, John Ed."
She put her arms around me and kissed the side of my face.
Dorothy Faye was as beautiful as ever, and as kind and gracious,
not once asking why it had taken her husband's impending death to
get me to come see him again. She led me down a hall to a
bedroom, and I could see him before I walked in the door. He was
lying supine on a hospital bed. His head was bald, the hair lost
to past regimens of chemotherapy, and, at age 78, wrapped up in
bedsheets, he seemed so much smaller than I remembered him. His
eyes were large and haunted from the battle, but it was Coach
Mac, all right. I snapped to attention when he spoke my name.
"Come over here and talk to me, buddy," he said.
I sat next to the bed and we held hands and told stories, every
one about football. He was still the aw-shucks country boy who'd
played for Bear Bryant at Kentucky before going on to build his
own legend in Louisiana, and the sound of his rich drawl made the
past suddenly come alive for me. I named former teammates and
asked him what had become of them, and in every case he had an
answer. "Your old position coach was here yesterday," he said.
"He sat right there." And we both looked at the place, an empty
"And you're a writer now," he said.
"Yes sir, I'm a writer."
"I'm proud of you, John Ed."
I didn't stay long, maybe 20 minutes, and shortly before I got up
to leave he asked me if I ever remembered back to 1979 and the
night that the top-ranked USC Trojans came to Baton Rouge and the
fans stood on their feet for four quarters and watched one of the
most exciting games ever played in Tiger Stadium. "I remember it
all the time," I said. "I don't always want to remember it,
because we lost, Coach, but I remember it."
"I remember it too," he said in a wistful sort of way.
The Trojans that year had one of the most talented teams in
college football history, with standouts Ronnie Lott, Charles
White, Marcus Allen, Brad Budde and Anthony Munoz. They would go
on to an 11-0-1 season and finish ranked second nationally behind
Alabama, and White would win the Heisman Trophy.
In his bed Coach Mac lifted a hand and ran it over the front of
his face in a raking gesture. "They called face-masking against
Benjy," he whispered.
"That penalty. The one at the end."
"Yes, sir. They sure did call it. And it cost us the game."
He swallowed, and it seemed I could see that night being replayed
in his eyes: the yellow flag going up, the 15 yards being marched
off, the subsequent touchdown with less than a minute to play
that gave USC the 17-12 win. "Benjy Thibodeaux didn't face-mask
anybody," I said, the heat rising in my face as I started to
argue against a referee's call that nothing would ever change.
Coach Mac was quiet now, and he eased his grip on my hand. I
stood and started for the door, determined not to look back. His
voice stopped me. "Hey, buddy?" he said. I managed to face him
again. "Always remember I'm with you. I'm with all you boys." He
lifted a hand off the bed and held it up high, just as he had so
many years ago after his last game.
"I know you are, Coach."
"And buddy?" A smile came to his face. He pointed at me. "Next
time don't wait so long before you come see your old coach
Now it is summer, the season before the season, and Major Marty
Dufrene, Civil Department Head of the Lafourche Parish Sheriff's
Department, motors his wheelchair to the end of a cement drive
and nods in the direction of a horse barn at the rear of his
38-acre estate. Five horses stand along a fence and wait for him,
just as they do every day when he rolls out to see them after
work. "I'm going to be riding before the end of the year," he
tells me. "I've got a saddle I'm making with the back beefed up
for support, so I can strap myself in. Of course I'm going to
have to use a lift to put me in the saddle. But I'm going to do
By now I have been with him for a couple of hours, and already
the force of his personality has made the chair invisible. After
the injury his muscles began to atrophy, and over time his
midsection grew large and outsized, his face swollen. But the
fire in his eyes hasn't changed. Marty is exactly as I remembered
him. "One thing about him," says his wife, "Marty might've broken
his neck, he might be paralyzed and in that chair, but he is
still a football player."
Their large Acadian-style house stands only a stone's throw from
Bayou Lafourche, the place where they met and fell in love as
teenagers. Lynne and their 17-year-old daughter, Amy, are inside
preparing dinner, and outside Marty is giving me a tour of the
spread when we come to rest in the shade of a carport. I reach to
touch the top of his shoulder, because he still has some feeling
there, but then I stop myself. "Marty, you must've resented the
hell out of me," I say.
He looks up, surprise registering on his face. He bucks forward
and then back in his chair, and it isn't necessary for me to
explain which of my failures might've led me to make such a
statement. "No, never," he says. "I saw you as my competition,
but I always have a lot of respect for my competition, and I did
for you, too. You were standing in my way, standing in the way of
where I wanted to be. But even then I knew my role and accepted
it. I was going to push you as hard as I could. That was my duty
to you and to the team. I looked up to you as a teacher, just as
you looked up to Jay Whitley as a teacher when he was playing
ahead of you. We were teammates, John Ed. That was the most
Lynne and Amy serve lasagna, green salad and blueberry cheesecake
in the dining room, and afterward Marty and I move to the living
room and sit together as dusk darkens the windows. He revisits
the nightmare of his accident and the rough years that followed,
but it isn't until he talks about his days as an LSU football
player that he becomes emotional. "Nothing I've ever experienced
compares to it," he says. "That first time I ran out with the
team as a freshman--out into Tiger Stadium? God, I was 15 feet off
the ground and covered with frissons. You know what frissons are?
They're goose bumps. It's the French word for goose bumps." He
lowers his head, and tears fill his eyes and run down his face.
He weeps as I have wept, at the memory of how beautiful it all
was. "It was the biggest high you could have," he says. "No drugs
could match it. The way it felt to run out there with the crowd
yelling for you. I wish every kid could experience that."
"If every kid could," I say, "then it wouldn't be what it is.
It's because so few ever get there that it has such power."
We are quiet, and then he says, "Whenever I have a down time, or
whenever I'm feeling sorry for myself, or whenever life is more
than I can bear at the moment, I always do the same thing. I put
the Tiger fight song on the stereo, and all the memories come
back and somehow it makes everything O.K. All right, I say to
myself. I can do it. I can do it. Let's go."
Marty and I talk deep into the night, oblivious to the time, and
finally I get up to leave. He wheels his chair as far as the
door, and as I'm driving away I look back and see him sitting
there, a bolt of yellow light around him, arm raised in goodbye.
I could seek out each one of them and apologize for the vanishing
act, but, like me, most of them eventually elected to vanish,
too, moving into whatever roles the world had reserved for them.
Last I heard, Jay Blass had become a commercial pilot. Greg
Raymond returned to New Orleans and was running his family's
jewelry store. Tom Tully became a veterinarian specializing in
exotic birds, of all things. And Jay Whitley, somebody told me,
is an orthodontist now, the father of four kids. If they're
anything like their old man, they're stouthearted and fearless,
and they eat linebackers for lunch.
When the pregame prayer and pep talks were done, we'd come out of
the chute to the screams of people who were counting on us. The
band would begin to play; up ahead the cheerleaders were waiting.
Under the crossbar of the goalpost we huddled, seniors in front.
I was always afraid to trip and fall and embarrass myself, and
for the first few steps I ran with a hand on the teammate next to
me. Arms pumping, knees lifted high. The heat felt like a dense,
blistering weight in your lungs. If you looked up above the rim
of the bowl you couldn't see the stars; the light from the
standards had washed out the sky. Always in the back of your mind
was the knowledge of your supreme good fortune. Everyone else
would travel a similar course of human experience, but you were
And so, chin straps buckled tight, we filed out onto the field as
one, the gold and the white a single elongated blur, neatly
trimmed in purple.
You wouldn't catch me 20 years later crowing about how it had
been back in the day, when as a college kid I'd heard the cheers.
His eyes were large and haunted from the battle, but it was
Coach Mac, all right. I snapped to attention when he spoke my
"I remember it all the time," I said. "I don't always want to
remember it, because we lost, Coach, but I remember it."
"Number 56 in your program, Number 1 in your heart," I'd write,
disgracing myself for all eternity.
"Whenever life is more than I can bear," Marty said, "I put
the Tiger fight song on the stereo."
There was a time when I considered stipulating that I be buried
in that ratty T-shirt.