Defensive back Johnny Simmons stood up and asked Shug if he could speak, if he could do his part to set the tone of his senior season. And everyone lost it. Grown boys full of fire and testosterone had tears welling up. And it was only the first game. But for crying out loud, the Auburn Tigers — the Auburn Tigers — were underdogs… to Mississippi State. In the soul of Johnny Simmons, this would not stand — it could not stand. He couldn’t do anything about the spread, but he could do something about the results. He by God wasn’t going to bow out on a football team that lost to Mississippi State.
“No Mississippi State team,” he shouted, “is supposed to be on the field with Auburn!”
Shug looked around and nodded and nodded and nodded. He thanked Johnny and picked up the torch and in his own way said the same thing.
Shug held up his left hand, fingers outstretched. “Five plays,” he said. “We’re going to beat the mighty Bulldogs in their backyard with five plays.”
They put their helmets on and locked their chin straps, but Terry Henley, the joker, everybody’s best friend, the Bard of Oxford, couldn’t help himself.
“We gon’ beat’em with five plays, Coach?”
“Well, we only got eight, what are we holding back the other three for?”
Shug smiled, Henley smiled, and out they went into the Mississippi night, hungry for blood.
Randy Walls stepped onto the Memorial Stadium turf in the biggest shoes any Auburn quarterback or even player up to that point had ever had to fill. And he did it.
14-3, at night, on the road. He was a sophomore. He played like a sophomore. But he also played like a winner.
He was methodical, only a few mistakes. That run on the opening drive? It wasn’t spectacular. It wasn’t designed. It was just damn smart. He’d faded back to pass, wanted to throw, but saw an opening. He dashed up the middle for 15 and a first down like it was nothing. He lined everyone back up quickly, gave the sledgehammer to Henley again and kept going.
Henley fulfilled the promise three and four yards at a time. Ten days earlier he’d bragged that he’d give Auburn, the team that had dominated the conference from the air for the past four years, a ground game like it hadn’t had in a decade. James Owens helped. That night in Jackson wasn’t one for the record books. But it was more than enough for the win column. Henley ran like a man fleeing a house fire.
On the opposite end, Simmons and Danny Sanspree and David Langner were animals.
The football program that every expert under the sportswriting sun predicted would just close up shop after Sullivan and Beasley had not.
The cowbells went all night. First with excitement. Then with frustration. State fans weren’t happy. They’d wanted it. They had thought they were going to get it. They didn’t. And they weren’t gracious about it.
The announcer came over the P.A. in the final seconds. “Attention: Please delay leaving the stadium so our Auburn friends may get a head start.”
The boos began immediately, followed by an organized chant from State students. “Go to hell, War Eagle, go to hell.”
It went on for minutes. You could still hear it in the locker room. It was loud. Shug loved it. He had to shout at all the reporters to be heard.
“It’s always good to get that first one under your belt and in the victory column.”
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