In the South, there are two types of religions. In one, the faithful worship in churches on Sunday. And in the other, fans worship the football gods in stadiums on Friday and Saturday night. It’s a religion based on pride, violence and achievement. And one of its biggest gods was an 18-year old quarterback from the small town of Cochran, Mississippi.
Tommy Lawrence stood over 6’5″ tall. He had blonde hair, blue eyes and very little body fat — in fact, he looked like a football god. He had a big smile and a laid back personality. The son of an accountant and a kindergarten teacher, he was an unlikely success story. Playing his very first game as a Junior, Tommy was now on the cusp of leading the Cochran Bears to their first state championship one season later. Scouts from Alabama, Oregon, Ohio State, Tennessee, Ole Miss and Mississippi State practically lived with the family. Tommy Lawrence had a very bright future.
One strange thing about Tommy was that no one had ever seen his father, Thomas Sr., at one of his football games. His mom, Sue, faithfully sat in the stands, wearing a big button with Tommy’s picture on it. But his dad was no where to be found. Thomas Sr. was a mild-mannered man who seldom raised his voice. The only time anyone had heard him angry was the night when Sue put her foot down and screamed, “I don’t care Thomas — Tommy is not going to carry your baggage. He is going to use his God-given talent and play ball.” The neighbors could hear Thomas Sr. yelling a block away.
For two seasons Tommy had looked for his dad in the stands and for two seasons, he wasn’t there.
The morning of the big game, Tommy confronted his dad. ”You will be there tonight, right?” His father just grumbled and grabbed his briefcase. Tommy repeated louder, “YOU WILL BE THERE TONIGHT, RIGHT?!?”
Thomas Sr. turned quickly and glared at his son. He then screamed, ”YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND!” Tommy picked up an old trophy off the bookshelf and threw it at the door where his father had just exited. The brittle trophy shattered like broken dreams as it hit the wall.
“You’re right,” Tommy mumbled. “I don’t understand.”
His mom walked out of the kitchen and said, “Don’t be so hard on your father. He has a very good reason for not wanting to be there.”
“Why don’t you share it with me, then,” Tommy snarled.
“As soon as you drop that tone.”
Tommy walked over to his mom, hugged her and said,” Sorry.” He then sat down on the couch as his mother began to tell the tragedy of Thomas Sr.
“Your dad was as good as you were, if not better. He started his Freshman, Sophomore and Junior years. And then Coach Papa Bull was hired.”
“Papa Bull? He’s the coach of the team we’re playing tonight.”
“That’s right. And he was a monster to your father. No one is really sure why. He said your dad was cocky and overrated. And he wanted his son to play quarterback. He’d tell your dad he was no good, would bench him randomly. He had to do extra conditioning. He rode your father and tried to make him quit. He verbally abused him every practice.”
“What did grandpa do about it?”
“Nothing. Your grandfather was a workaholic. He was never there to defend your dad. Anyway, one practice, right before the biggest game of your dad’s Junior season, Coach Bull shoved your dad down on the ground. Your dad snapped and came back up off the ground and Coach Bull punched your dad in the face.”
“It gets worse. Coach Bull forced the players and the other coaches to take his side. Even your dad’s best friend Matthew was forced to lie by the coach. Your dad got expelled. So his family had to move to another school district. Your dad never played football again. In fact, he has never stepped foot in another stadium. This is hard on your dad, Tommy. Cut him a little slack.”
Tommy picked up a piece of the broken trophy. It read, “All-State Team, 1986 Thomas Lawrence.” He put it in his pocket.
He vowed to get revenge for his father.
The setting sun cast an orange glow in the sky over Memorial Stadium in Jackson. Colorful signs read, “We love you Papa!” “Win Papa’s Last GAME!” “Win one for the PAPA.” ”One last retirement gift for the PAPA!” Tommy felt his stomach churn as he saw the huge coach standing on the other sideline. He knew the coach knew his name. Now it was time to show him who he was.
And for three quarters he did just that. Tommy chewed up the Gaffney Giant’s vaunted defense. The score at the beginning of the fourth quarter was Cochran 28-Gaffney 7. But Coach Papa wasn’t going to be denied his last State Championship. He started sending in blitz after blitz. And he told his players that there would be a bounty for the first one to put Tommy out of the game. Tommy got punched in the groin. He got his eye gouged. Blood trickled out of his nose. With two minutes left in the game, Gaffney tied it 28-28.
Tommy looked over at the other Coach and mouthed, “I’m taking you down, you son of a…..”
And then he did it.
Sportswriters call it “The Drive.” Although there were 22 players playing, one person singlehandedly moved the ball 100 yards down the field. The football gods couldn’t have touched their chosen son. With no time remaining, Tommy ran a bootleg into the endzone and scored the winning touchdown.
Coach Papa Bull had fallen at the hands of the son.
As the two teams mingled on the field, Coach Bull walked over to Tommy. “You have more courage than your old man. But you’re still nothing. You’re a loser.”
Tommy said, “Get away from me, coach. I said what I needed to say on the football field.”
And then, without warning, Coach Bull punched Tommy in the face, knocking him down.
Before Coach Bull could turn around, he felt a crushing blow against his chin. He saw a flash and then hit the field face first. As he faded in and out of consciousness, he heard a voice he had not heard in 27 years.
“You don’t hit my son.”
Tommy swung around to see his father standing over his old Coach.
He ran over to his father and nearly knocked him to the ground. “YOU CAME TO THE GAME!”
His dad just smiled and put his arm around his son. “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
And as the two men walked off the field together, the football gods smiled.