Sherrill kept his winning coach's mask -- on until tragedy struck

October 27, 1991|By Gene Wojciechowski | Gene Wojciechowski,Los Angeles Times

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Tears do not come easily for Jackie Sherrill. If anything, they are a last resort, a reluctant concession, a luxury Sherrill rarely allows himself.

But on Oct. 5, with about 2,000 mourners squeezed into Mississippi State University's aging Lee Hall auditorium, Sherrill's eyes betrayed him. He wept. Like a baby.

Two days earlier, Sherrill, Mississippi State's football coach, had walked into his office shortly before 7 a.m. and been met by a Mississippi State trainer, who, his own voice unsteady, told him Rodney Stowers, a 20-year-old junior defensive end, had died.

Stowers had entered nearby Golden Triangle Medical Center Sept. 29 to allow team physicians to insert a pin to help heal his right leg, broken the day before in a game against Florida. But four days later, Stowers suffered a hemorrhaging of the lungs, a tragic side effect, doctors said, sometimes associated with such an injury.

Sherrill couldn't believe it. This was the same Stowers he had wrapped his arm around minutes before a recent game and told that he needed his best effort. Stowers had happily delivered.

Now he was gone.

Sherrill and the trainer drove to the hospital, where athletic director Larry Templeton and Stowers' mother were waiting. At 1 p.m., a team meeting was held and later, Sherrill conducted a press conference so charged with emotion that he had to pause several times to compose himself.

The next day, on a chill, gray October afternoon in Starkville, where a tiny college town grieved for one of its adopted own, Sherrill stood in front of the memorial service congregation and searched for the proper words. The man who, critics say, cornered the market on arrogance and raised insolence to an art form, appeared wonderfully human and vulnerable. For a change, Sherrill wasn't in total control. His heart ached, and for once, he allowed the pain to be seen by all.

This wasn't the same Sherrill who, in 13 seasons at such places as Washington State, Pittsburgh and troubled Texas A&M, had a 105-45-2 record, and in the process, angered such traditionalists as Penn State's Joe Paterno, attracted the attention of the NCAA and generally treated everyone as his royal subjects.

Nor was this the same Sherrill who, by his own admission, once considered himself infallible and perhaps even invincible. It wasn't the man who, several years earlier, met an opposing coach at midfield before a game, and brazenly predicted he could swap teams and still win. Success can do that -- make a person think he is something that he is not. But as the words escaped him that day at Lee Hall and his deep voice wavered, Sherrill finally might have felt true humility.

"He tried to hold in his emotions," said quarterback Sleepy Robinson, "but he shed a tear."

Said Sherrill, now two weeks removed from the ordeal: "I've never been through anything like that. I'm telling you, it was the toughest week."

And, in a way, the most revealing.

Sherrill grew closer to his new team that weekend. He arranged for local ministers, psychologists and psychiatrists to speak with his staff and players about the tragedy. And when Robinson, who spoke briefly at the memorial service, was overcome with emotion, Sherrill sat next to him, hugged him and kept whispering, "Just take deep breaths."

"It was kind of touching," Robinson said. "You see, I was about to pass out, I believe."

This isn't the Sherrill people were accustomed to seeing. And in a way, it is Sherrill's own fault. For so long he had hidden behind a persona -- half-folklore, half-truth -- that no one knew exactly what made him tick.

"There's a mystique out there," Sherrill said. "It's: 'Who is this guy?' "

Sherrill could win football games, this much everyone knew. He has won four in seven tries this season, including an upset of then-ranked Texas. He could recruit. He could assemble a staff. He could organize. He could, when in the mood, even charm. But could he survive the wreckage of a career gone somewhat awry at Texas A&M, where he led the once-downtrodden Aggies to three Cotton Bowl appearances, 52 victories in seven seasons and, as things turned out, an NCAA investigation that resulted in 25 rules violations, nine of which were deemed "significant" in nature?

Never directly linked to any of the violations, Sherrill resigned, nonetheless, after the 1988 season. At the height of the controversy, helicopters would land near his house and out would jump television reporters in search of the real story. Sherrill stared a hole through them.

He will divulge the full details, he said, "whenever it's time."

And when will that be?

"Whenever I decide," said Sherrill, who has been toying with the idea of an autobiography.

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