Playing like a true champion

Published 6:06 pm Wednesday, November 4, 2009

If nothing else, sports can be ironic.

In sports lingo, the simplest irony is called an “upset.” When the underdog defeats the favorite, an irony exists somewhere.

When more serious ironies occur, a tragedy usually is involved. This was the case last Saturday during the Auburn-Ole Miss football game.

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During the first half of the football game, Rodney Scott of Ole Miss was trying to pick up yardage against the Auburn defense. Defensive end Antonio Coleman and safety Zac Etheridge were looking to tackle Scott.

Both Auburn defenders had their sights on Scott. Neither were really looking at their teammate while they were trying to make the tackle.

So when both Auburn defenders collided, Coleman and Etheridge butted heads.

Coleman is 6 foot, 3 inches at 261 pounds. Etheridge is 6 foot and 212 pounds. Coleman has a distinct height and weight advantage.

So when the big Auburn defender knocked heads with the little Auburn defender, Etheridge suffered the worst of it.

To the point that Etheridge cracked his fifth vertebra and tore ligaments in his neck. His future — not just in football — was in doubt.

If not for the grace of God and Rodney Scott, however, Etheridge might not be walking today. Scott realized Etheridge was hurt seriously and was afraid if he moved, the Auburn player on top of him might suffer more serious injuries.

So Scott laid there, with Etheridge on top. And Etheridge realizes it.

“When it first happened, I was paralyzed for a little bit,” Etheridge told a reporter. ” I’ve got to take my hat off to Rodney Scott. It was a blessing that he didn’t move. If he would have moved anywhere, I wouldn’t be here today. I’d still be laying in the hospital bed.”

Fortunately, Etheridge spent only two nights in a Birmingham hospital and must wear a neck brace and chin support for the next three or months.

The irony in Etheridge’s injury is the smart thinking by Scott, an Ole Miss player. And almost 20 years to the day — on Oct. 28, 1989 — the Rebels suffered an almost identical situation.

Roy Lee “Chucky” Mullins, a 6-foot, 170-pound defensive back, was playing the nickel back on a third-down situation against Vanderbilt in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. The Rebels were having homecoming.

Mullins had been fortunate to get a scholarship to Ole Miss. He was orphaned in 1980 after his father abandoned him and his mother died. A recreation center worker took him into his family, raising him as a sports hero in Russellville. He was the team’s MVP in football.

Mullins wanted to play at Alabama, but he was only invited to walk on. So he met Ole Miss coach Billy Brewer and impressed him enough to give him a scholarship.

He redshirted his freshman year, then played his second year on the kickoff team and as the fifth defensive back in passing situations.

On Vanderbilt’s opening drive, the Commodores drove to the Ole Miss 12 and faced third down. Mullins entered the game.

On that play, Vandy quarterback John Gromos threw to running back Brad Gaines (6-0, 225). Mullins (6-0, 170) made the fateful tackle, striking Gaines in the back with a shot from his helmet. And a difference of 50 pounds.

The impact crushed four cervical vertebrae in Mullins and paralyzed him instantly.

He was airlifted to Memphis, Tenn., where he underwent a tracheotomy and a five-hour bone graft operation to fuse his vertebrae. He never got the feeling back below his neck.

After the injury, Mullins became a hero to Ole Miss fans and a symbol of courage to the nation. People started to donate money toward Mullins’ medical expenses.

Ole Miss established the “Chucky Mullins Trust Fund” that eventually surpassed $1 million. The City of Oxford donated land for a handicap-accessible house for Mullins.

Mullins returned to Ole Miss on June 20, 1990 to complete his studies. But because he had been in a wheelchair so long, blood clots formed inside him and a pulmonary embolism occurred. He died in the hospital on May 6, 1991, and was buried outside his hometown, Russellville.

While Mullins was in the hospital, he and Gaines became close friends. Every year since Mullins’ death, Gaines goes the gravesite three times: May 6 (the anniversary of Mullins’ death), Oct. 28 (the anniversary of the injury) and Dec. 25.

Mullins’ No. 38 jersey is only the second one retired at Ole Miss, after the No. 18 of Archie Manning.

For an Ole Miss player to come to the aid of another team is the type of selflessness Mullins showed. So for Rodney Scott, the part he played in Etheridge’s situation should be applauded.

Buster Wolfe is The Selma Times-Journal sports editor. Contact him at 410-1376 or e-mail