This will be part 5 of my 5-part series on each of my seasons at ETSU. The 1992 season.
This one starts in the off season. We again had made it to the quarterfinals and were so close to winning it all in 91. Losing so many on offense we had to rebuild quick. I was not huge on weight lifting and Coach Copeland I think had caught on to it. I was only interested in sit-ups and crunches to keep my abs looking good. Copeland made me his project for my final off season. He followed me to make sure I did every rep…every day! Granted I never did every rep…every day… but c’mon man! Finally I got brave enough to ask him why he was making sure I was doing all my work (keep in mind I had never done ALL my work) and his reply was “I know how you Paris guys are.” So fair enough. By the end of spring I was benching 325 and squating 450…made coach proud as I was as strong as most of his linebackers. Not bad for a 195 pound wide receiver.
Summer came and I went home and continued my summer program. One of my old high school teammates who I worked out with, Michael Hightower was to be a junior at East Central Oklahoma. He expressed his desire to me that he wanted to play for a winner in Commerce so I called one of the coaches and they got the ball rolling for him to transfer to ET. Michael was what we term an athlete these days as far as position went. He was gonna add depth to our defensive backfield originally.
Then came training camp day 1. We had lost our top 3 rushers to graduation the year before and then lost our top 4 RB’s to injuries and academics. Another kid left for personal reasons. Hightower, being the confident kid he was had already told Curtis Buckley he was coming for his SS spot. Of course anyone who knows Buckley knew that wasn’t gonna happen so the coaches asked Hightower if he could play running back. He took it without hesitation.
Game one was against the NAIA D1 defending champion Central Arkansas Bears. We only returned 2 receivers, a tackle and TE from that high powered 91 Offense. New qb’s in Centilli and Dolezel and 4 new starters on the line and it showed early on as we struggled. Trailing 12-0 early in the 2nd quarter we finally got a spark. My favorite play…right pro 26 stop ponteac. I faked out the safety on the post and flew by him. Centilli was a tad late on the throw and under threw me which allowed the safety to close the gap. As I reached back to grab the ball the safety leaped and managed to grab my arm at the same time but I tipped it up to myself, gathered it in and dashed for a 74 yard score. The Hightower kid who just started playing RB a couple weeks earlier. Well he came on in relief scampered for a couple TDs including a 79 yard punt return to boot as we rolled off 30 straight points en route to a 30-18 win. Next up was another date with the Gorillas for the 4th time in 22 months.
We were no match this round. Their running back Ronald Moore was a beast rushing for 190 yards and they beat us 27-13. We were just too inexperienced at the time as we had several turnovers that ultimately cost us. We returned home though the next week and got the mulerider off our backs with a 31-16 thrashing of the great Don Madden’s old team. It was our 11th straight win at what would become known as “The Hawk” some 26 years later…one shy of tying the school record for consecutive home wins. We showed some signs of improvement in the win also. Then came the annual trip to NW Louisiana. We were so close in 91. Put up record numbers. Not this time. Defense came to play as guys like the HOF player OLB Fred Woods and DT Duane “Big Baby” Hicks would lead the team in sacks while the offense stayed in Commerce evidently as they shut us out 20-0. Not even the fabulous Billy Watkins could convert as he had been our most consistent weapon to that point. I had never played in a game where we were shut out until now. We needed to do some soul searching. I was taking a beating getting smashed as these new QB’s were hanging me out to dry (not intentionally…at least I think). The extra muscle Copeland put on me was definitely paying off as conference play was about to begin.
Central Oklahoma had always proven to be a big offensive day for us in years past and 92 would be no different as we smashed them in Edmond 26-9. We were now 3-2 heading into the A&I game in commerce. Once again they were everybody’s pick. You could say heavily favored as they were by far the more “talented” team as even a couple of our own were heard questioning our chances. We had moved the Chennault Cup trophy for the winner since Livingston dropped from the schedule to help liven up the rivalry. We played our butts off, especially the defense. They gave us a chance late in the game trailing 17-10 and we were driving into the little piggies territory. A tackle for loss and a couple of sacks set us back for about a 4th and 28 from outside their 40 yard line. We ran our WeeBee set out there and 4 go routes. I was inside slot on Centilli’s right with my buddy Wade Labay wide right and the great and fast Anthony Brooks wide left. Centilli dropped back to pass. I cleared the underneath coverage and felt a couple guys up top closing. Centilli was looking straight at me as I thought “surely he’s not throwing me the ball.” Centilli stopped and wound up to throw as I felt like the whole secondary was surrounding me and he let it fly high for…yep you guessed it…me! The ball floated like they do in the movies in what seemed like super slow motion as I watched each lace twirling in the air towards me. I leaped high in the air above all the defenders (seemed like it was 13 but probably more like 2 with a 3rd running in). As the ball hit the tips of my fingers I squeezed it tight as I felt my lower body get hit and propelled into a helicopter type spin and I held tightly as I came crumbling down with the spectacular catch…1 foot short of the 1st down. They would down the ball and escape Memorial Stadium with a 17-10 win. My only loss in 4 games I played against those darn piggies. What a disappointment. It was the only game Dolezel didn’t play that year as Centilli was given a full chance at the starting spot. Looking at the film the next day showed on that play that both Wade and Anthony were wide open for an easy score in the endzone…but Centilli trusted me to make the play which I did…it was just a foot short. No doubt we would have scored if we had covered 1 more foot after that but…we will never know.
Now it was time to see if Dolezel was ready to take over…and finally he was. The first 5 games him and Centilli split time pretty evenly until the game against the piggies. Iowa Wesleyan was the unfortunate opponent we needed to let some frustration out on and we did just that in a 57-7 route. Dolezel established himself and it continued the next week in a 30-21 beating of ENMU as we started a new 2 game home win streak. A trip to Abilene continued to reaffirm the offense as we improved to 6-3 with a 52-10 beat down of the little wildcats. The offense was finally catching up with the great defense we had. Only 2 games were left including the home finale against Angelo State.
For 3 of the seniors, Mark Jones, Eric Turner and myself, it would be our final game in Memorial Stadium. We were the last remaining from the freshmen of 88. Other seniors playing their last home game were SS Curtis Buckley(one of the greatest players, teammates and friends), CB Patrick Williams(led the NCAA with 13 picks), OT Big Earl Bell, LB Terrance Tolliver and my best friend WR Anthony Brooks amongst others. We all had magnificent games as we destroyed them 25-11 setting a completion record and stifling their offense as our offense gave them their points on our mistakes. Memorial Stadium was a tough place for visitors as we racked up a 14-1 record there from 90-92. After the final home win we found ourselves with a 7-3 record and a NCAA ranking of #14 in the nation. We felt pretty good that with an impressive showing in Cameron we would get a playoff invite and now that our offense had found a groove make a run…but first, beat Cameron.
It was a bright sunny afternoon and the Cameron program was struggling mightily. There was maybe a thousand or so fans and most were ours. Dolezel was brilliant as we cruised to a easy 40-3 win. There was no doubt. All we needed to know was who when and where our playoff game would be as we waited the next day in the T-Lounge watching the closed circuit t.v. feed. 16 teams to the playoffs, ranked 14 going into the weekend, couple teams ranked ahead of us had lost that weekend so we were set. First set of match-ups flashed across the screen…no ET. Second set…no ET. Third set…still no ET. What? Final set…there has got to be a misprint…still no ET! What the HECK?! You have got to be kidding. We thought we had been pranked or something. Reality then began to set in. We had played our final game. No tears for me. I was taught long before to play your best and leave it on the field then you won’t even think about crying when it’s over because you left it all out there. A final 3-way hug from the 88 freshmen Eric, Mark and myself. We held each other up one last time there in the T-Lounge for what seemed to be as long as our time there had been. Playing football at ETSU was one of the greatest experiences for me. Big thanks to Coach Vowell and his staff for their dedication, especially Coach Ross and Coach Copeland. Made this little kid from Paris feel at home and like family. Got to call the roll 35 times during my time and enjoyed each and everyone of them. As I have gotten older you really appreciate the time we spent doing what we loved. Hundreds of great teammates from HOF players to walk ons and squadmen. Getting inducted into the hof with the 1990 team is one of the greatest moments ever. Something that can never be taken away. Thanks Lion’s family for letting me share my time with you. No matter where life has taken us or how good or bad it has treated us…we all know we can look to the small Northeast Texas town of Commerce and know it will always be home. Like and comment your memories as well and also share if you like. #lions4life