So I was reminded the other day by my Sports Widow that my blog is supposed to be about my sports travels. Not sure what prompted the statement, but she also threw out this little gem – “You know, the stories you tell me are FAR more interesting than the stories you’re writing about lately.”
And she has a point. Sometimes you need someone to point that sort of thing out, because as writers we all have the tendency to become a bit too rote.
So let’s get back to my roots. Let me tell you about my encounter with Big Foot. The pizza. Not the Sasquatch.
This requires a bit of time travel, all the way back to 1993 and my senior year in college. This was back when I was cutting my teeth as a young sportswriter at Stephen F. Austin State University, and the Lumberjack football team was having a pretty surprising season. By early October the “Overland Express” (as former sports information director Gregg Fort nicknamed our impressive running game, which included current Auburn assistant coach Curtis Luper) had upset both Youngstown State and Boise State and was a legitimate threat to win the Southland Conference title and claim a playoff berth in Division I-AA (you know it as FCS now). The Lumberjacks did make the playoffs, but they didn’t win the conference.
The beauty of being young and eager to impress is that you’re willing to do just about anything to gain experience. For me that meant getting in a car and heading down to Huntsville, Texas, to cover the SFA-Sam Houston State game. Only thing is, I didn’t have a car.
Yes, I was without transportation until I got out of college (unless you count my bicycle). So was Chuck Cox, who at the time was the sports editor for The Pine Log, our student newspaper, and covered the Lumberjack football team. At the time I was the co-managing editor of the paper, but also worked as a sportscaster for KSAU, the campus radio station (“worked” is a misnomer; work supposes payment in return, something I did not receive during my three years at KSAU. The experience was enough, I thought at the time). Same went for our Pine Log staff photographer, Kirk Draut, who spent plenty of Saturdays shooting games for the paper.
Cox, Draut and I went on plenty of road trips in college, but doing so required us to convince someone else to drive. Fortunately we had Chris Hall.
Hall was my fellow sportscaster at KSAU. We hosted Lumberjack Update, the campus’ weekly wrap-up show for SFA athletics. In those days we taped to reels and had to do our own splicing during editing (or a less enticing solution, start over). After we honed our craft a bit and stopped losing our train of thought, we would use those large 8-track looking tapes that you could simply erase with a large magnet. And this was ONLY 18 years ago, but it seemed archaic to us even back then.
Hall loved going to games and he loved to drive his beat-up Toyota Corolla. So when it came time to go to Prison Orange Central, he was all too willing to drive.
If you have not been to Huntsville, it has two main features. The first is the statue of Sam Houston on I-45 just south of the main exit to town. Considering the statue is approximately 67 feet tall and stands near the interstate’s shoulder, it’s hard to miss. As a proud Lumberjack, I’ve often wondered where our massive Stephen F. Austin statue is in Nacogdoches, considering, you know, Steve is considered the “Father of Texas” (acknowledged as such by Houston himself).
The other main feature is law enforcement. Huntsville is the home of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the Texas Forensic Science Commission, the Texas Prison Museum and several state prisons, including the state’s death row. For that reason, Sam Houston State University has a well-regarded criminal justice program. But the joke is that their colors are prison orange and white. The school calls it “Bearkat Orange.” But I’ve seen prisoners on work detail on the highway and I’ve seen those Sam Houston helmets, and, well, you’d think the Bearkats would want to distance themselves from that.
And, yes, Sam Houston is the “Bearkats,” yet another misguided attempt by a college to differentiate itself from the other like-named mascots by spelling the name differently.
So armed with microphones and notebooks (we didn’t have laptops in those days), we made the drive down to Huntsville at Bowers Stadium and the annual “Battle of the Piney Woods.”
Truth be told I don’t remember much about that game. We won, 24-20, and it was the conference opener for both teams. I do remember Heidi, the former Kilgore Rangerette that Chuck introduced us to from his days at Kilgore College. Everyone liked Heidi, for obvious reasons. But the details of our win that night are blurry, and really inconsequential to this story.
After the game we needed to eat, and like most semi-poor college students we needed something cheap. So we found the local Pizza Hut and ordered a Big Foot.
So what is a Big Foot? Back in 1993 a Big Foot was Pizza Hut’s latest ode to largesse. Thanks to YouTube, you can actually find the old commercials advertising the creation. Pizza Hut billed it as two square feet of pizza, divided into 21 slices. At the time you could get three toppings for $10.99. That’s College Economics 101 – cheap and tasty.
With everyone sated, dinner ended and we hit the road. This was the rare time I called “shotgun” before everyone else and got the front passenger seat. Cox and Draut were in the back. There was plenty of talk about the game, about sports in general, about women, about school, about the future. So I guess we weren’t paying attention to the state trooper set up on the side of the road on Highway 94 outside of Groveton, and Hall wasn’t paying attention to the speedometer. So that’s why the trooper pulled us over.
Everyone fell silent as Hall searched for his driver’s license. I helped him fish out his registration from the glove box. And then, suddenly, from out of nowhere, Cox said:
“I am SO sorry.”
I thought that was an odd statement, considering Cox wasn’t driving. But a few seconds later we all found out why he was apologizing. Let’s just say the pizza wasn’t setting well with him. As someone who was Cox’s roommate on three different occasions, I can tell you that when food isn’t setting well with the big guy, the aroma ranges somewhere between spoiled eggs and horse manure. It just depends. But it can clear a room or produce spontaneous hair loss, let’s just say that.
And that night he should have cleared the car, but with the trooper headed our way none of us wanted to tempt fate and get out of the car. Cops don’t like it when you just suddenly burst from a car they’ve just pulled over. So we just sat there and held our breath. And boy it was bad.
Finally, the trooper came to Hall’s driver side window and knocked on it. So Hall reluctantly rolled down the window – and this was the funny part. The trooper leaned in to ask Hall for his license and registration and instead got a heavy dose of that stench. The trooper pulled back as if he had just been hit with a Taser. I’m sure that trooper had pulled over many cars with many odors, but he had probably never pulled over a car with THAT kind of odor.
The trooper needed a few seconds to collect himself. We needed a few seconds to stifle our laughter. Cox had just rocked back an officer of the law with nothing more than his stomach. Once the trooper’s mind was back on the matter at hand, he did all he could really do – give Hall a warning. From about 10 feet away from the car. He couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
We drove with the windows down for the next 10 minutes and couldn’t stop talking – or laughing – about what just happened. In our corner of the world, the night is legendary. Just the uttering of “Big Foot” makes all of us laugh, even those who weren’t there but have since been told the story.
See these are the things that make all of these sports road trips worthwhile. Sure, the game is great. But the stuff that goes around the game makes it just as memorable. I’ve thought plenty about that night, and it always comes back to one thing:
What does that state trooper tell people about that night outside Groveton? Or would he just as soon forget it?
Until next time …