This is the first of a 5-part series on my years at Commerce (88-92), and will be my view of each season.
ETSU had very little expectations for the 88 season. We were coming off back to back 2-9 seasons and hadn’t had a winning record since ’83. Coach Eddie Vowell’s first two years were off to a rocky start to say the least and he was needing a quick turn around to get things rolling and in the right direction. I was a true freshmen and had no idea what to expect as I was just happy to be able to keep playing football. Upon arrival I was introduced to the ET Mile. This year it was going to be four 400 meter runs, and for the skill guys we were given 65 seconds to do them in. I had met another freshman DB earlier by the name of Eric Turner. We both had participated in the state track meet a few months earlier in the 4×400 relays so we were primed for it, but not many others were though. We led the pack in it while lots of others struggled but everyone showed a lot of heart in their attempts at them.
Mike Trigg was a senior QB coming off injury. Bobby Bounds was a red-shirt freshman ready to take the reins. I saw talent all around these guys as we fought through two-a-days. We were picked to finish towards the bottom of the LSC of course. No one felt we had much of a chance outside of Commerce America…and we were fine with that.
The season started well for us with a big win in Livingston, Alabama. Before we knew it we were 3-0 after a couple home wins. A setback at D1-AA NW Louisiana saw our first loss but we rebounded with a conference opening win at Central Oklahoma. At 4-1 we were in pretty good shape but the next game would be our biggest challenge. We had no chance against the 2-headed backfield from A&I-Kingsville. In what turned out to be the biggest upset and first of many signature wins for Coach Vowell, we beat those little piggies from the south 42-35 in our best game of the year.
We went on to be 8-1 that season and ranked #2 in the nation at that point before injuries showed our lack of depth and we lost our final 2 games and a shot at the playoffs. Nonetheless, 8-3 was superb for a bunch of rag tags and JUCO transfers who weren’t expected to win much at all. We had great senior leaders on both sides of the ball including future HOFers Mike Cisewski and Mike Trigg. Those guys paved the way and showed their resiliency in how they played each week throughout the season battling injuries along the way. I knew from that point forward what type of leader I would want to be given that opportunity. At the national championship game I got to reunite with some of the seniors from that team. Being a freshman that year they didn’t remember me from that season but had watched what we accomplished after we left. One guy thanked me even though my contributions to our team success were minimal. He said in all his years of football, 1988 was the first time he had played on a winning team. Lost in high school and up to that point. He realized what a great time we had and ended his playing days on a high. Guys like him showed me I was at the right place and to appreciate our time together. The rag tag gang had almost pulled out a true Rudy-like season. But even at the end we had a lot to be proud of that season…and it was just the beginning.