As Joe Dunn drawled on and on and on and on, I listened intently, noddled my head, acted like I comprehended every syllable, while my heart clung to one monumental hope: surely someone has the English translation. Maybe we can get the interview back to the station, go over the tape, and someone can figure out what the hell he is talking about. Because I sure couldn’t understand it. This was like trying to decipher code. The guy sounded as if he was gurgling with molten lava.
It was my first week as a TV sportscaster in Montgomery, Alabama. I had been sent out to a local country club to interview Dunn, the former football coach of Eastern Alabama University. (Eastern Alabama was a very prestigious state school located right near the Georgia border) He talked extremely slow and syrupy, like molasses being poured from a bottle. You could just about order out for Chinese food between his sentences. In fact,you could order it from Hong Kong. He positively butchered the English language, showing little homage for sentence structure, the proper tense or the correct pronunciation of half the words coming out of this mouth. And to top it off, while I’m not any court-certified expert on alcoholism, I’d have bet the deed to my new Nissan he was drunker than Cooter Brown.
I knew I wasn’t going to interview a Rhodes Scholar but this was ridiculous. I started off with a nice generic question, “What have you been doing with yourself the past few months, Coach?” And Dunn started rambling all over Hell’s Half Acre.
“The problem with a kee-kuh,” he babbled along, (and how we even got on this subject is beyond my comprehension) “is dat a kee-kuh many only be on da footbawl field …what?
“Maybe fifteen, twenty seconds a game. Yet dat kee-kuh can determine da outcome of dat entire foobawl game, dat entire footbawl season.
“Here at Eastern, our kee-kuh…” he paused and stared off in the distance with a puzzled look on his face. Like some scholarly Greek Thinker in deep thought. Then he looked directly at me and asked, “What’s da name of dat boy who keeks da footbawl for us? Dat little feminine-acting boy?”
Christ, I hadn’t been in Alabama a week, I couldn’t have told you who the lieutenant governor of the state was, much less the kicker at Eastern Alabama University. I felt foolishly on the hook. Here he was, the coach of the team, the guy who recruited the damn kid, kept him on scholarship for four years, sent him on the field hundreds of times and he doesn’t even know the son of a bitch’s name? Yet somehow, I’m the one who feels quite idiotic. Here I was, interviewing one of the most prominent coaching names in the country, trying to make a positive impression, and I suddenly have this worthless empty feeling. Like a kid who showed up to class without doing his homework and was suddenly called upon by the teacher. Was I being set up? What the hell is the answer? Who the hell is the Eastern kicker? He might as well have asked me to name all the Supreme Court decisions over the years I disagreed with.
My heart arrested when someone standing near by listening piped up, “Ricky Chester, Coach.”
“Oh yeah, Ricky Chester,” Dunn mumbled. Then he proceeded with his southern-drawl dissertation. Up until that point I was trying to give Dunn the benefit of the doubt. After all, the man was a football coach, not some statesman, philosopher or poet. His job was to analyze x’s and o’s and teach his players to run, block and tackle. Not eloquently conduct interviews like some erudite head of state. But upon realizing he didn’t even know who his own kicker was, his benefit-of-the-doubt collateral was dissolving quickly.
And I had another big problem. The reason I was sent to interview him was to try to get his first public comments on his horrible fall from grace at Eastern Alabama. He had been forced out on the heels of a messy scandal. I was told he was still ultra sensitive on the matter. Sensitive to the point he couldn’t bear to talk about it with anyone. Not even close friends or relatives.
A former linebacker named Tyrone Powell had come forth with charges Dunn ran an incredibly corrupt program. This included everything form illegal inducements to grade fixing to under-the-table payments for players. Of course, Eastern Alabama responded that Powell must be on some sort of strange medication. Because at Eastern Alabama, they run the most honorable, above-board college football program on the plant Earth.
But Powell produced tape recordings with members of Dunn’s staff. Two assistant coaches could be clearly heard talking in detail about how Powell was to get some illegal payments and whom he was to get them from. Blatant sleaze! Blockbuster stuff! Information that would appear everywhere from the front page of the Los Angeles Times to the opening segment of 60 Minutes. All the national embarrassment and public ridicule caused Dunn to go into virtual hiding since his dismissal.
Still, like the stock market crash, it happened and questions about it needed to be asked. And I had every intention of asking Dunn about it when I walked in the door.
Once meeting him though, I got cold feet. Upon observing his intelligence level, as well as his stocky, powerful build, I decided to check and see what kind of hospitalization coverage my company had before asking Joe Dunn a question he might regard as an insult. Even though it had been decades since he was an all-American fullback at Mississippi, he was still in pretty remarkable physical condition, looked quite capable of delivering a pretty impressive forearm shiver and hit pretty damn hard with doing it.
After Dunn exasperatingly mumbled along for five or six minutes in his esoteric language, I mercifully concluded the interview. For all I comprehended, he might as well have been talking in Farsi. Several times in my career I have interviewed a number of people who were so intelligent–Henry Kissinger and Peter Rozelle come to mind–they intimidated me. This is the first time I could recall interviewing someone who was so dumb he actually intimidated me.
When we walked out of Dunn’s earshot I had just one incredulous question for my photographer, “Is that guy as damn stupid as he just acted.?”
My photographer, a recent college graduate named Mike Alford, responded with a look indicating he was as confused as I was. “I done a dozen interviews with Dunn,” he replied. “And he always acts that stupid.”
Wonderful, I said to myself. Another thing I said to myself, something I said to myself two weeks after pledging a social fraternity in college: what the hell have I gotten myself into? Do I really want to work and reside in the Deep South?
Was Dunn really that stupid? Or was that some sort of dumbass country-boy shtick? I tried to justify his apparent ignorance by figuring maybe he was dumb like a fox and had made a career out of eating the sack lunches of those who underestimated him like I just did. After all, he won many championships, got appointed to company boards and landed cushy government patronage jobs. All of which, made him a multimillionaire. Surely you couldn’t do all of that and be stupid? Or, in the Heart of Dixie, could you?
At the time,I sure didn’t know the answer. All I knew was I had just interviewed one of the state’s leading citizen’s and he acted like some dolt who just hopped off a turnip truck. Dunn certainly didn’t dispel the ugly, preconceived notions I had always heard about southerners: poorly-educated souls who married their cousins and trafficked in moonshine.
Up till a week ago, I had never even crossed the Mason-Dixon Line much less lived in the middle of the Deep South. And it had me extremely uncomfortable. So there were other thoughts going through my mind aside from not getting a comment from Dunn on his forced resignation. Thoughts like: what will the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan think when they realize the new TV sportscaster in town is actually an Irish Catholic from metropolitan Philadelphia? Surely, they won’t burn a cross on my lawn? Surely they wouldn’t publicly lynch me? Surely they don’t do stuff like that in the Deep South anymore? Or do they?
I only knew two things about Montgomery, Alabama, neither of which particularly thrilled me. First off, it was the “Cradle of the Confederacy” and I was sure hoping no living ancestor of Jefferson Davis would take issue with the fact that ole Jefferson so passionately hated people from my neck of the woods he tried to start his own country. Surely, there was no more animosity about that. And I came down here feeling for sure no die-hard Nathan Bedford Forrest fan would throw a fire bomb through my front window some dark night, but after observing Coach Dunn’s intelligence level, I wasn’t about to bet on it.
The second thing, this was the “birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement” and from what I had read, northerners who showed up hoping to make a contribution civilizing this place were greeted by state troopers with billy clubs and tear gas. Not to mention Klansmen shooting guns from passing cars. Surely there was no more animostiy about that. And I came down here convinced no modern-day Bull Connor would show up on my front porch wielding a Double Jacket Fire Hose, but after observing Coach Dunn’s intelligence level, I was no longer a hundred per cent sure about that one either.
To read the rest of chapter one click HERE.