Back On The Plains (debut TWER column by Thom Gossom)

I talked with Thom yesterday and told him he should write a column for the blog. And he totally did! Hopefully, it’ll be a regular thing…

By the time we made it to the elevator to transport us to the top floor of Jordan-Hare Stadium at Auburn University we were both sucking wind and ready for a comfortable chair. We’d walked maybe a quarter mile, but when you use a walking stick because of shot knees and a bad back, and limp like old gimp-legged Chester in the TV series “Gunsmoke,” a quarter mile can be an Olympian feat. For the record, my friend, brother, and former teammate James Owens was the one hobbling along with the cane. I was doing the Chester imitation because of a knee that a doctor told me ten years ago, at age 45, looked like the knee of a 75 year old. But hey, we made it to the President’s Suite and what a sight! It was my first game since the infamous 2002, reunion I speak of in my memoir, Walk-On. Thousands of shades of orange shone brightly under the nightlights of the Jordan Hare. Full, and plump from a full buffet, we sat down for a fun football game between my alma mater, Auburn and those dreaded tigers from the bayou, LSU.

While waiting for the pomp and circumstance to end and the game to begin, James and I tried to catch up on our lives. But well-wishers kept interrupting. Many know me from television and film work, the recent publicity on the book, and my days on the Plains as split end #49 with the huge afro. Some knew James, but not nearly enough, from his history making days as Auburn’s first black footballer.

James and I reminisced about our time together. We were Shug Jordan’s first two black players in the early 1970s when integration found its way to Auburn athletics. It’s a bond we’ll share all our lives. We remembered the fun stuff. We laughed at the sorry second team offensive linemen that Coach Pap Morris would daily dog cuss. “YOU ARE NOT A FOOTBALL PLAYER! YOU JUST WANT TO WALK AROUND WITH THE FOOTBALL PLAYERS! YOU JUST WANT SOMEONE TO SAY, ‘HE’S ONE OF THE FOOTBALL PLAYERS.’ YOU JUST WANT TO GET ON THE BUS WITH THE FOOTBALL PLAYERS. BUT YOU’RE NOT A FOOTBALL PLAYER!” We laughed about going to the Goal Post Grill and being served more hamburgers, fries and shakes than we could have ever paid for. With very little money we would come out with full stomachs and big happy smiles. Sadly, we remembered our brother, Henry Harris, Auburn’s first black athlete. We wondered what his life would be like today. James said to me, “He’d be proud of you.” I hope so. He and James were my big brothers in those dark days.

At halftime (I’ll get to the game) we ventured into the letterman’s lounge. I’d already seen many of my teammates. Bobby Davis and Jimmy Sirmans both linebackers, greeted me warmly. The lefthander, a good guy, defensive end, Rusty Deen, was smiling as usual. Receiver Mike Gates and fullback Rusty Fuller, perpetual twins, jazzed me up. Gates again gave me a hard time about the car I sold him. I’m lucky they didn’t have the lemon law then. Randy Walls one of my favorites gave me a big hug. Randy, as a sophomore quarterback, led us to ten wins against one defeat in 1972. We became know as “The Amazins.” Coach Jordan proclaimed that team his favorite after 25 years of coaching, and our miracle 17-16 win over Alabama.

Among unsure former teammates, my memoir, Walk-On has caused a stir. Many were cautious in asking about it. One asked quietly, ”Thomas I was nice to you wasn’t I?” “Of course,” I said with my fingers crossed. Two concerned women, cornered me and blurted out, “I’m not in that book am I?”

There was one flashback to yesteryear. One of the former footballers, whiskey breath and all, felt the need to tell me and James and any one else who would listen, how he now felt like he was a black man and the one final wish in his life was to f— a black woman. “I feel black,” he announced. He embarrassed his wife as he continued with his faux soul brother act. “Just one time I’d like to f— a black woman,” he kept telling me. We begged off and fled back to the Presidents suite.

The game: I’m sure the spread offense will get better, but will it be good enough to beat the better teams in the SEC? It’s hard to say, “yes” right now. The offensive coordinator says Auburn will throw the ball even more than we did against LSU. Hell, that’s a no-brainer when you can’t run. Don’t know what happened to the “Bow your neck up and shove it down their throats” lineman and running backs we had before. The personnel is still there. But the linemen are pass blocking NFL caliber defensive ends almost every play with no running threat. Hell, let’s run a dive so our guys can fire off and knock the shit out of them every once in a while. Mario Fanning doesn’t even carry the ball (enough said). Ben Tate, a good runner, spends his running plays trying to go east-west. In the SEC that’s a waste of a good down. If you ain’t hitting it north-south, forget it. Tristan Davis fumbled once. That’s it for him.

The offense has been bad the last three years. Last year’s quarterback, Brandon Cox, was shot after the Georgia game of 2006. Offensive coordinator, Al Borges was very limited in what he could call with Cox. A pass over the middle had the whole stadium and AU fans watching television, cringing. The new quarterback wears Cox’s number 12. Enough said. If Kodi Burns can’t play alongside this guy, he doesn’t deserve a scholarship. Can 90,000 fans all be wrong? If Burns doesn’t know the system, the coach should teach it to him. That’s his job.

Also, forget the numbers. The numbers don’t mean anything. I saw the game. These pop gun offenses without a running quarterback can pile up big numbers and beat teams when you have the talent edge. The offensive coordinator says the quarterback played good against LSU. I saw the game. I hope he gets better.

At the end of the night, James and I boarded the elevator to begin the quarter mile trek back to the car. In the crowded elevator, a man struck up a conversation with James. “Did you play here,” he asked? “Yes,” James responded. He then asked me. I nodded, “Yes.” Another gentleman on the elevator pointed to James and told the inquirer, “He was the first.” The questioner didn’t get it. But, the other man didn’t go further, not feeling comfortable saying the first “what” on the elevator. Finally, I told the inquisitive man, “James was the first black football player at Auburn.” The man looked at James admiringly.

Thom’s book Walk-On, My Reluctant Journey to Integration at Auburn University, is available in Borders and Walden bookstores, J&M Bookstore and at walkongossom.com

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3 Comments

Filed under As I See It by Thom Gossom, Post-Game

3 responses to “Back On The Plains (debut TWER column by Thom Gossom)

  1. Nice column. Nicer hair. 😉

    Agree re: running the ball.

    My wife says I can’t buy your book, because she wants to buy it for me for birthday/Christmas.

    James was at Auburn as an assistant coach (GA?) when I was there as a manager in the early 80’s. Great guy who doesn’t get the credit he deserves.

  2. CD

    Good stuff. Thanks, Thom, and I thank you and James for your service to Auburn University. I don’t know if you’ll read this, but I remember your would-be touchdown in the ’74 Iron Bowl. That ref’s call broke my 10-year-old heart. Glad you and James are doing well. Good luck to you both and War Eagle!

  3. …..That book is on my Christmas list, too! I was 14 years old during that fateful Iron Bowl. I thought that we had been robbed, when they called that TD pass back!

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