I've only been to jail once — in Starkville, Miss., just like Johnny Cash. I hadn't been picking flowers, though. I was 19, intoxicated in public and fleeing arrest. Good thing I didn't play football.
It was my second year of an ill-conceived stint at Mississippi State University. I'd followed the money out of high school and lost my scholarship almost immediately upon arrival. I've mentioned in a previous column that Starkville serves as a euphemism for Hell on Razorback messageboards. After I spent two years on academic probation before ending up delivering pizzas back in my hometown to pay for school, it seemed a lot more like some kind of reverse purgatory, an anteroom to the real Hell.
During freshman year, I snuck my baby brother into the student section to watch Arkansas get beat in the closing seconds. Bulldogs fans were so thrilled that they rushed the field and tore down the goalposts. Whether that's evidence of Arkansas's stature at the time or MSU's desperation, I'm not sure. In either case, my brother and I were left alone, high in the stands among the post-game rubbish. I wouldn't let him throw anything into the crowd below. Arkansas would get its revenge at home the following season, but I don't think my brother's ever forgiven me.
In 1999, the Bulldogs beat Kentucky to go 8-0, their longest winning streak in forever. I won't say I was celebrating, but it's always nice to have an excuse. Perhaps because of my reticence about joining a frat and my distaste for all things Bulldog, I'd fallen in with the PGMers: Trust-fund kids from around the country who only came to MSU for its major in Pro Golf Management. Their priorities might've been a bit out of whack.
I started off on whiskey, taking shots with some people I'd just met in a strange apartment. By the time I made it to the impromptu kegger my friends had thrown together, I had stopped off in two or three more apartments, garnering tequila, Jell-O shots and red juice from a nondescript trash can along the way. I was lucky to be fully clothed as I stepped into my friend's place, right before the police showed up.
The cop had a flashlight, even though it was plenty bright in the apartment. When he asked if everyone was of age, I should've kept my mouth shut. I hadn't gotten a beer yet, so I could've held my breath and waited him out. Instead, I popped off. “Sssssssssure, Ofisser.” The light shined in my eyes. He asked to see my ID, then continued surveying the party. Since his attention seemed to be focused elsewhere, I walked away. I should've run and ducked into one of those strange apartments. Seconds later, he had thrown me against a wall and cuffed me.
I was the only guy in the drunk tank in the full orange jumpsuit, probably due to inexperience. Everybody else wore street clothes. The small room was packed full, but I got the cot since I was such an early grab. I passed out unceremoniously and woke up around nine the next morning. It only took a few hours to scrape together enough dough for the bail bondsman. My friends were fascinated.
I didn't make the news. Nobody hemmed and hawed about my discipline issues over the next two weeks. No suspensions. No sudden reputation for misconduct. I turned out all right, I guess.
I've spent the last two weeks wondering how to address athlete arrests. To some extent, the stories are an unavoidable result of the off-season — both the excess of free time afforded student athletes and the dearth of news stories afforded sports journalists. Petrino's suspensions are sane enough, establishing a clear-cut consequence for unacceptable behavior. But it still doesn't seem quite fair that a teen-ager be given the media treatment. He shouldn't have to have his mug shot bandied about for making a common error in judgment. Not everyone is unlucky enough to be Freddie Fairchild. When the disciplinary structure of Razorback football is gone, maybe the only thing left is your picture everywhere on the screen.