#38 Chucky Mullins

#38 Chucky Mullins

From Chicken Soup for the College Soul

#38 Chucky Mullins

On homecoming day my senior year of college, I was in the stands, surrounded by my fraternity brothers and watching my school, the University of Mississippi, play against Vanderbilt. The game was scoreless late in the first quarter, and Ole Miss had their backs to the goal line. I happened to be sitting parallel to the play action on the field. The Vanderbilt quarterback drew back and passed to the tailback for what looked to be a sure touchdown.

All of a sudden, an Ole Miss defender—football jersey #38, named Chucky Mullins—read the play perfectly and charged the Vanderbilt receiver, hitting him helmet first and jarring the ball from his hands. As I stood up and cheered for the touchdown-saving play, I noticed everyone got up from the ground but #38, who lay where he had fallen.

The Ole Miss trainer ran out onto the field, knelt beside Chucky and asked him what the problem was. “I cannot feel anything, anywhere,” replied Chucky.

The emergency medical team immobilized him on a spine board and took him to the small community hospital in Oxford. Once the doctors X-rayed him, they saw the catastrophic damage that had been done to his spine. He was immediately flown to the neurosurgery intensive-care unit at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, eighty miles away. His status: paralyzed from the neck down and fighting for his life.

The force with which he had hit that Vanderbilt receiver had caused four vertebrae in his spine to fracture explosively. The neurosurgeon who operated on Chucky said it was the worst such injury he had ever seen. The surgery to realign his spine, although successful, left him paralyzed from the neck down without the possibility of a return of function.

Chucky, a sophomore, vowed not only to walk again, but to return to Ole Miss for his degree. Ole Miss officials quickly established a Chucky Mullins Trust Fund and invited contributions from students, alumni and other universities to help meet the phenomenal medical costs, estimated at ten thousand dollars per week.

The following Saturday, Ole Miss was to play Louisiana State University. The student body decided to take up a collection for the Chucky Mullins Trust Fund at that game. So many students signed up that hundreds had to be turned away. The students waded through the stands carrying buckets and trash bags, and collected donations in excess of $175,000.

Chucky, allowed to sit up in bed and listen to the game on the radio, was stunned to hear the announcers describe the outpouring of affection for him. The story was soon being told all over America. Money arrived from every state in the nation. Within a few months, the donations had reached close to a million dollars.

Later that year, the university was preparing to elect its “Colonel Rebel,” which is the school’s highest accolade. Seven students were in the running. All withdrew their candidacies by writing a joint letter to the dean saying that it was their hope that all students would show their support by voting for Chucky Mullins. Chucky, a poor African American from Alabama, was named Colonel Rebel that year. It is important to keep in mind that this is the same school where federal troops were once needed to protect a single black student who wanted to enroll.

The Ole Miss football team completed the season by defeating arch-rival Mississippi State and gaining an invitation to the Liberty Bowl. Miraculously, only a few months after the devastating injury, Chucky attended the Liberty Bowl game, bound to his wheelchair. Moments before the game, as the players crowded around him, all wearing #38 on the sides of their helmets, he nodded to them and whispered, “It’s time.” Ole Miss defeated the Air Force Academy that night 42 to 29, becoming Liberty Bowl Champions.

The following year, Chucky sat in the corner of the stands near the players’ exit, where each Ole Miss Rebel teammate clasped his hand before taking the field at the start of each home football game. That season, Ole Miss outgained their opposition by an average of forty yards per game, upset one conference powerhouse after another, won a national ranking and gained an invitation to the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida.

In January, against all odds, Chucky returned to classes at Ole Miss. Although some would call it his greatest achievement, his goal was to eventually get up and walk out of his wheelchair. He would tell reporters, “I know what the doctors say, but I will never quit trying.”

Wednesday, May 1, 1991, Chucky was getting ready for class when he suddenly stopped breathing. A blood clot shut down his lungs. He never regained consciousness and died five days later.

All of the Ole Miss football team members were present at the funeral, where he was laid to rest by his mother. Afterward, some people would say that it might have been better if he had died right away and been spared the suffering. Obviously, they did not understand. Chucky, who came to the University of Mississippi as a poor kid with nothing, changed his world forever.

James Simmons

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