NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The hero of a deliciously wild Southeastern Conference football game was greeted by a cluster of reporters outside the visiting locker room. He was notably, surprisingly, antsy.
Finally, after about a dozen questions, Jeff Scott blurted out why.
"Can we make this the last question, please?" the Mississippi running back asked. "My dad flew all the way from Miami and I want to see him."
After one last answer, Scott was off – running north across the Memorial Stadium turf nearly as fast as he went the other direction with the winning touchdown in a thrilling, 39-35 Ole Miss victory over Vanderbilt. He ran out of the gate at the end of the field and into a burst of applause from the hundreds of red-clad Rebels fans clustered by the team buses.
There were sweaty hugs in the humid Tennessee night, high fives and back slaps. He posed for one picture, then a second, then a third, even thanking some students for making the trip. But his head kept turning from side to side, looking for his dad. Finally, after signing a football and posing for one last photo, Jeff Scott Jr. and Jeff Scott Sr. embraced.
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The kid must have been tired after running for 138 yards on the night, the last 75 of them in one shocking chunk that put Ole Miss ahead for the third and final time, with just 67 seconds remaining. But dad was even more fatigued.
Jeff Scott Sr. worked the third shift in the Dade County Corrections facility, clocking in at 11 p.m. Wednesday night and checking out at 7 a.m. Thursday morning. Then he was off to the airport to commence his journey here, taking two flights to watch his son begin his final season as a Rebel.
Other than some quick catnaps en route here, the 25-year veteran of the sheriff's department in one of America's toughest counties had been awake more than 24 hours. It's the kind of borderline crazy effort a parent will make to see a child do what he loves most.
As the night turned for the final time on the boy's run – darting to the left sideline, finding stunning daylight there and then sprinting away from everyone in black to score – dad could scarcely believe it.
"I thought I was going to have a heart attack," Jeff Scott Sr. said. "It made the whole trip worth the while. I'm so happy for him."
At Mississippi, all the buzz this season is about the spectacular – and controversial – freshman class assembled by second-year coach Hugh Freeze. Southeastern Conference rivals have grumbled about the sudden success of a historically modest program, and NCAA investigators have been asking questions about the Rebels' recruiting methods. The reason for the buzz (and the angst) was immediately clear Thursday night, as no fewer than five true freshmen played major roles in the victory.
Jeff Scott was a hotshot freshman once himself – not a highly ranked recruit, but one whose natural speed got him on the field immediately in 2010. The 5-foot-7, 170-pound Scott was a significant contributor for two years under Houston Nutt, then increased his production last season under Freeze.
"He's really bought in," Freeze said. "He's one of my favorite players. He's living right."
But Scott was well short of a star, and Rebels fans grew frustrated with the little guy's sideways running style and propensity to go out of bounds prematurely. The thousands that came north to Vandy for this game were excited about the new guys, not the undersized senior running back some hoped would be beaten out by a bigger player.
That all changed on one run, the kind of play that could – maybe, it's a long season – be the start of something memorable in Oxford.
When offensive coordinator Dan Werner called the play in what looked like a passing situation – second-and-10 from the 25, trailing by three, barely more than a minute left – he was hoping for 10 or 15 yards. That seemed likely when Vandy's end misread the play – for seemingly the 100th time of the night – and Scott got to the boundary.
From there the Commodores almost seemed to relax. At the same time, Scott accelerated.
"People say, 'All he wants to do is go sideline to sideline, get out of bounds,' " Scott said, acknowledging his critical scouting report. "I think I surprised them."
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He downright shocked them by taking a simple handoff the distance. That was the final jaw-dropping swing in a game full of them, as Ole Miss raced to a 10-0 lead, quickly fell behind by 11, battled back to lead with 9 minutes left, fell behind again with 90 seconds to play … and then finally got the winning score.
"We stole one tonight," Freeze said. "… That was one of the wildest roller coasters I've ever been on."
Roller coasters can make you sick, of course. But they can also thrill you like few other things. The sheer entertainment of this game reminded us why we have a rather high tolerance for the nausea that often accompanies SEC football.
Ole Miss' recruiting controversies were only half the troubling context for this game. At Vanderbilt, the most esteemed academic school in the league and a place that has been resistant to the SEC's rampant off-field scandals, they are coming out of an ugly summer.
Five Vandy players have been arrested in connection with an alleged campus rape. Four of them have been dismissed, and the fifth is suspended. All have entered not-guilty pleas in court.
There is concern here, at the league's perennial punching bag, that the dizzying success of the last two years under charismatic coach James Franklin has come at too great a cost in reputation. As of mid-August, season ticket sales were down – and coming off the team's best record since 1917, some attributed that to backlash over the rape charges.
These issues were well-known to the folks who packed Memorial Stadium – Ole Miss' contingent made it a sellout – and to much of the ESPN viewing audience. But then the game was played, and the product on the field was so wildly entertaining, that the annual seduction was underway again: Despite the flaws, we love the games too much to ever stop watching.
And then when the game is over, you meet the Scotts – and you remember that there are feel-good stories out there. There are warm human moments amid the churning machine of the sport.
You find an undersized kid with a big heart who can bring thousands to their feet, then literally run away from the biggest star turn of his career so he can hug his dad by the bus. And you find a dad who can travel all day and go without sleep to hug that boy back.
- Sports & Recreation