Rod and I go to the game

Marie’s Olde Towne Tavern, despite the gentrified spellings, is an unremarkable joint on the north edge of downtown Knoxville, with the clientele one would expect from its location only a block from the Greyhound bus station.

But Marie’s does sport one thing that no other bar in town does. On the wall there is a framed, autographed photo of former University of Tennessee football player Rod Harkleroad. And on this October Saturday Rod insisted that I experience it. “I gave them an exclusive, so it’s the only bar in town where you can see it,” he said.

The year was 2002 and I was accompanying Rod on his ritualistic game-day circuit.

I had known Rod since grammar school – he and I had knocked helmets for a couple of years when we were about 12 or 13. Because we were the two biggest guys of our group, we always did the choosing when teams were picked. When we became semi-organized, with regular Friday-afternoon games, he quarterbacked the Stompers, I led the Bruisers. We played in the side yard of Danny Meador’s house, our only equipment being the ball and, for some, helmets. We imagined our games were the talk of Burlington, the working-class east Knoxville neighborhood where we lived.

Rod in his Vol uniform, 1964

Rod had gone on to play high school football, had made all-state as a senior and had received a scholarship to the University of Tennessee. He didn’t play much – on the depth chart, he was behind Bob Johnson, now enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame. But Rod was active in the Vols’ Lettermen’s Club and kept up with his old teammates.

I was trying to find a different perspective for a story on UT football and had decided that hanging out with the old players prior to a game could work. Rod liked the idea and agreed to get me inside the Lettermen’s Club before a game.

We decided on the Arkansas contest because its 8 p.m. kickoff would give us plenty of hanging-out time. And that’s why we were at the Olde Towne at 1 p.m. Marie’s was our third stop of the day. Rod, after a successful career coaching high school football, was now in the food-service business, and he had pre-game meetings with a couple of clients, providing food for their tailgate parties.

First, we made a delivery of yard-long sandwiches from Steamboat, a sub shop owned by another high school pal, Donny Anderson. The delivery was to Jefferson County, northeast of Knoxville. Then, after we had crossed back into Knox County, we stopped at a liquor store.

“I’m going to let you drive,” Rod said. I took the keys to his van and he mixed Jack Daniels and Sprite in a plastic cup. “I’ve got to meet another client at 3 at Riverside Tavern, so we’ve got time to stop by Marie’s.”

After my eyes adjusted to the lack of light in the bar, I found Rod’s picture. He was in full uniform except for his helmet, looking fierce in a dropback blocking stance.  “Nice, huh?” Rod said. “Enough to make me a regular here.”

After we finished our brews and fended off a half dozen entreaties from a beer-begging crone, we left Marie’s. “Swamp Rat’s on the air by now,” Rod said. “And Mrs. Parker needs to call in.”

Swamp Rat was Dewey Warren, who played quarterback for UT when Rod was on the team. He now was host of a call-in sports talk radio show. And Mrs. Parker? That was Rod, using his best soft, refined, feminine voice. We got in the van, Rod got out his cellphone, and soon had Dewey on the line.

“Mr. Warren?” he said. “This is Mrs. Parker and I was just calling to discuss the finer points of the game.”

The Swamp Rat was a legend among the Big Orange faithful, and Mrs. Parker had become a star of his show, especially on game days. Today, Mrs. Parker wanted to talk about quarterback Casey Clausen.

“I am reminded of breakfast time when I was a child,” she said. “We had to be quick if we wanted an extra biscuit. That young Mr. Clausen’s holding the ball too long and that’s why the young men on the other side break through and he gets his rear side blistered. He just needs to be quicker in order to get the last biscuit.”

Mr. Warren agreed, thanked Mrs. Parker and turned to another caller.

Mrs. Parker was bang-on in voice and manner, she did not take the game too seriously, and she possessed a propensity for double-entendre that was subtle enough to slip right by Mr. Warren and his producers. The voice disguise was perfect. “You know,” Rod said to me after he hung up, “Dewey didn’t figure out that I was Mrs. Parker until the third or fourth time she was on the show.”

I was now pulling into the parking lot of the Riverside Tavern, a popular spot within walking distance of Neyland Stadium. The Riverside, though it too was a “tavern,” had nothing else in common with Marie’s. The gameday crowd consisted of the more successful Big Orange boosters. True, some might be as drunk as the old woman we had left at Marie’s. And they might be overly friendly, but they were more likely to want to buy a stranger a drink than to try to cadge one.

Rod swapped opinions on the game with his client, and then charmed a tableful of Arkansas fans with a “soooie pig.”

We then set out on foot for the serious tailgaters, it now being only four hours to kickoff. It was too early, Rod said, for much action at the Lettermen’s Club.

There were a couple more client stops and a brief visit with a local politician at his set-up before we made our way to Danny Meador’s spot. Danny, my old Bruiser teammate, was now president of a heavy-equipment firm and ran the company tailgate at UT games.

Rod and I regularly joined Danny and his company crowd, so we were expected. Another of Rod’s UT teammates, Paul Naumoff, would sometimes show up, and they would regale us with football stories. Paul, an all-star linebacker, had spent a decade heading up the defensive unit of the Detroit Lions before returning to Knoxville. During their college days, he and Rod had roomed together.

One of Paul’s favorite stories involved another linebacker, a player who partied with the same abandon that earned him All-American honors on the field. Among the other players, he was also known for his insistence when in search of drinking partners.

“That’s the reason I roomed with Rod,” Paul would say. “When he showed up at 3 a.m. drunk and rowdy, Rod would start preaching and praying for his soul. After a couple of those sessions, he left us alone.”

“But Paul,” Rod would add, “I prayed for your soul, too.”

Several drinks and stories later, Rod and I headed for the Lettermen’s Club – there was barbecue and it was close to 6 p.m. and I was hungry. Inside, I found what I was looking for – though it was not what I expected. Instead of insights into the TV games or the upcoming UT action, mostly what I heard were complaints about “these young guys not knowing how to play the game” or “not being tough enough to win the head-to-head battles.” They groused, I took notes, and Rod visited with former teammates.

Finally, it was 15 minutes until kickoff, the Lettermen’s Club was emptying, and the noise from the nearby stadium was drowning out normal conversation. We set out for our upper-deck seats.

About half-way up the entry ramp, I realized how tired I was. I was game-dayed out. I looked at Rod, who had been going longer than I had and who had drank a pint or so of bourbon to boot. He, too, looked tired.

“Do you really want to sit through three hours of football?” I asked him.

Feigning surprise, he looked at me askance. “You mean you don’t want to listen to my insights before each play? And what about all the folks around my seat – they expect me there to tell them what’s going to happen.”

I had joined Rod at games before, and what he said was true. As soon as the opponent’s defense was set Rod would call the play, and 75 percent of the time he was correct. Then he would regale us with derogatory comments about missed blocks and coverage. A game with Rod was always fun.

Once, I asked Rod why he had quit coaching. At his last job, at a rural school north of Knoxville, he explained, he had been forced to lock himself in his office after a night game and call the sheriff’s department because a father angry at his son’s lack of playing time was waiting outside.

“I decided there had to be a better way to make a living,” he said. “Besides, this way I can just tell everyone how it should be done without having to worry about winning or losing.” So he stayed involved in football, and was especially active with the Lettermen’s Club, helping out when any of his old teammates needed assistance.

But tonight, he was as tired as I was. We did a 360 on the ramp, Star Spangled Banner blaring in the stadium. We heard the roar of the kickoff as we made our way back to the van, and listened to the first few minutes of the game on the radio as I drove back to where my car was parked. Rod assured me that he would sleep in the van until the next morning (his habit after such episodes), and I went home. The next day, I read about UT’s victory. Casey Clausen threw a touchdown pass to Jason Witten in the game’s sixth overtime. The game ended at midnight.

A few months later, Rod was diagnosed with advanced cancer. But that did not stop him from helping an old teammate. Steve Delong, a two-time All-American who had a career in the NFL, had fallen down a flight of stairs. The resultant back injury left him wheelchair-bound. He was in a nursing home, and Rod was a regular visitor, frequently accompanied by other former teammates, including Elliott Gammage.

“Every week, we’d go see him,” Gammage recalled recently. “Steve was angry about his circumstances, but what Rod meant to Steve was unbelievable. Here Rod was dying of cancer, but he had time to visit Steve every week. Rod Harkleroad demonstrated the kind of courage that I pray I’ll have when I’m near the end.”

A couple of weeks before Rod’s death, Danny Meador and I visited him at home. In pain, he was in a lounge chair, his reactions slowed by painkillers. His wife Brenda, a nurse, was at work. A woman we didn’t know met us at the door.

“I’m Rod’s first wife,” she said. “Second,” Rod corrected her.

“We couldn’t live together,” she said with a smile. “But we’re still friends.”

He turned to us. “It’s tough when you’re dying, fellas,” he said. “They even bring in your ex-wives.” We all laughed, finding comfort in knowing that he hadn’t lost his sense of humor.

At Rod’s memorial service, dozens of former UT footballers showed up. Tales were told and there was a lot of laughter. One former teammate, Mike Price, repeated a favorite story, one that all the players knew. Rod, Mike, and Art Galiffa, a quarterback on the team during the mid-‘60s, were quail hunting one fall.

“We were taking a break, headed back to the trucks,” Price said. “Art and I had gotten in front of the others when one of the dogs went on point behind us. I hear a gun go off and next thing I know I’m on the ground and blood’s going everywhere. They start trying to find where I’ve been shot, undoing my coveralls. Rod’s hysterical. We can’t find where the blood’s coming from. Finally I look at my hand and see that a pellet has gone through my thumb.

“Rod finally calms down and we head back to the truck to get a Band-Aid. Rod put his arm around my shoulder. ‘You know, Mike’ he said, ‘If I had to shoot anyone, I’m glad it was you’.”

‘Why?’ I wanted to know. ‘Why not Galiffa – I mean, he’s a cocky quarterback’.”

“Because,” Rod answered, “You’re such a nice guy.”

Several days after Rod’s death, several of his old teammates managed to fulfill one of his last wishes. They slipped into Neyland Stadium and surreptitiously scattered his ashes around Shields-Watkins Field.

“It’s good to know,” said Price, “that Rod’s there to tell the coaches when they’re messing up.”

Doc & the cowboy

As a college student in the 1960s, I supplemented my income, and my education, by working as a reporter for a local newspaper. The combination led to my initial first-hand encounter with abortion, then a shadowy, illegal practice. The place was the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where I lived off campus in a dilapidated two-story building popular with students.
My introduction to the area’s abortion specialist came through a neighbor, an animal-science major. Though the ridges and valleys of East Tennessee are far removed from the cattle-raising plains of the West, Roy was a true cowboy. A senior in his early 20s, he already was a successful rancher, leasing pasturage in a nearby county for his beef cattle. In his junior year he had sold one-third of a blue-ribbon bull for $10,000, testament to the animal’s breeding potential.
Roy exhibited Hollywood-cowboy traits, too. He was taciturn when sober and rowdy when drunk. And he was known to carry a .38 revolver.
A behest from Roy led to my discovery of the Doc. The Doc was a general practitioner whose office hours were 5 to 9 p.m. three days a week. His office was on the fringe of downtown, less than a mile from our apartments. (In this story, he will be called the Doc; the other names have been changed.)
Roy had come to me in an uncharacteristic panic. He had gotten a girl pregnant and he asked if I knew where she could get an abortion. Roy knew that I had contacts through my job. I worked at The Knoxville Journal, the morning daily.
I asked the Journal’s police reporter, he obtained the Doc’s name from friends at the cop shop and I passed the information along. I didn’t see Roy for a couple of weeks, and I assumed that he and his girlfriend had visited the Doc.
But the Doc’s name came up again a few weeks later when my friend Stanley came to me with the same problem. His girlfriend Jeannie was pregnant.
Stanley and Jeannie were involved in a more stable relationship than Roy was. When Jeannie’s pregnancy had been confirmed, they had decided not to have the baby. Stanley wasn’t mature enough for fatherhood and Jeannie was well aware of that. Indeed, a couple of months later, Stanley would be making another trip to the Doc’s – with another girlfriend.
In 1967, the options available to those confronted with an unwanted pregnancy were limited. The Pill had been available for a few years, but to most it was still a novelty, controversial. Roe v. Wade was five years away.
Knoxville had a home run by the Florence Crittenton agency, a national organization founded in 1896 to provide a discreet place where unwed mothers-to-be could stay during their last three months of pregnancy. But Knoxville girls, at least those with the means, usually opted to spend their pregnancies at Crittenton facilities in Nashville or Memphis, returning after the baby had been adopted. That way the pregnancy could be kept quiet, their absence explained as an extended visit with relatives or, in the case of one of my friends, as a lengthy treatment for a mysterious “infection.” Such visits depended on having the contacts, and on being able to take time away from jobs or school.
Another option was the Mexican abortion – Tijuana was popular. But Mexico is a long way from Knoxville, and Jeannie could not miss work.
The Doc provided another option. Most cities, even those in the 200,000-population range like Knoxville, had a doctor or two whose specialty was abortion. As I recall, the Doc’s fee was $200. For Stanley, the trip to the Doc simply meant a month or two of drinking less, catching his executive father in a generous mood with a convincing story, or borrowing the money from friends. Stanley cadged the $200 from a fraternity brother and made an appointment. Immediately after the procedure, Jeannie, pale and shaken, rested in my apartment; the Doc had no recovery facilities and Stanley lived in the frat house.
Later, through my job, I became friends with an emergency-room nurse. She knew about the Doc. And she knew about the girls without the knowledge or the means to visit him. Occasionally, she would be involved in the treatment of a girl who had attempted an abortion either alone or with help, often of the coat-hanger variety. There had not been any recent deaths in Knoxville from such methods, but she had heard stories from veteran co-workers, stories that I did not want to hear.
But that all came later, after Roy’s situation resulted in a first-hand encounter with a time-tested southern Appalachian solution to unexpected pregnancy. Whatever Roy and his girlfriend had decided, her family had their own ideas, and one night shortly after I had sent Stanley to the Doc, I was awakened by yelling outside my window.
The father of Roy’s girlfriend, flanked by his two sons, was facing the building’s second-floor balcony, where Roy was standing, shirtless, revolver in hand. The girl was behind her dad, at the rear of a mud-spattered car that I took to be the family sedan.
The yelling was mostly from Roy and mostly along the lines of “I’m not the one knocked her up.” The father’s arguments were measured, spoken quietly and determinedly. It was evident that the pistol in Roy’s hand was the reason he and his sons had not bounded up the stairs for a more physical confrontation.
As other lights came on in the building, the girl and her family climbed back into the car and retreated. The next day I asked Roy what all the yelling was about. He didn’t say much – just that he didn’t think he would need the abortionist’s services.
I don’t know whether his girlfriend had the baby or not. There could have been a marriage of convenience to a family friend to provide the child a name, or she could have visited a Crittenton home. Roy wasn’t saying. But he did ask me to help him move his cows to another farm, on the other side of Knoxville about 70 miles from the girl’s home county.
A few months later, Roy graduated and moved back home to Virginia. Eventually, the Doc retired – with Roe v. Wade, his services no longer needed.

Cooke, Lenny and the hooker



Lenny woke me about noon on a Saturday, early fall, pounding on my apartment door. He was upset.

“Cooke nearly did it last night,” he said. Cooke (all the names have been changed) was a buddy from school. We were all two or three years graduated, and Lenny had spent six months in the Navy until given a medical discharge. I was a junior at the University of Tennessee and Lenny had just enrolled. Cooke, who graduated high school only because the principal was tired of dealing with him, was not exactly college material. He was working a menial job.

The “it” that Lenny was talking about? Cooke was the kind of guy who, consensus had it, would eventually get himself – and whoever happened to be with him – thrown into jail. Our high school’s “Most Likely to End Up in Prison Stripes.”

I calmed Lenny and we got into his yellow Volkswagen Beatle and went to Brownie’s on the Strip for a burger – and an explanation. Stories involving Cooke were always interesting. And sometimes frightening. Carefully trying to edge the Bug into a spot too small to be designated for parking, Lenny cursed his car. “It was part of the problem,” he said.

Though he had his own wheels, Lenny was living with his parents, a half-dozen miles from my off-campus apartment. And Cooke, who did not have a car, had shown up at his house about 9 the night before.

They had made the usual rounds: Blue Circle, Pizza Palace, Tic Toc, Shoney’s on Broadway. After filling the gas tank, Lenny said, he was left with a couple of bucks. Cooke said he had five dollars, “so we didn’t do anything except cruise.” They finally landed a back-row spot at the Palace.

Cooke tried talking up a couple of girls, but, Lenny pointed out, it’s hard to get much action when you’re in a yellow VW.

Cooke was a talker all right. And he had a way with the women – until they got to know him. In high school, he convinced one of the teachers, a single woman who had a pristine, big-finned, two-tone 1959 Dodge, into loaning him her car in the afternoon when we were supposed to be in study hall. I accompanied him a couple of times, cruising the drive-ins.
But there weren’t a lot of cruisers out during school hours, and he had to have the car back by the final bell. He did garner attention a couple of times when I was with him, managing to burn rubber in spite of the car’s automatic transmission and push-button gear-shift.

Cooke decided that he and Lenny should go to the Park Hotel and get a hooker. When reminded that he only had five dollars, he insisted that Lenny loan him his two. With seven dollars, he argued, he could get a room and have enough left to pay the hooker.
The Park, on a seedy side street downtown, was the kind of place where such transactions were common. Rooms could be had by the hour.
Lenny argued, he said, throwing up “every objection I could think of — but you know Cooke.” Finally, he told him he would drop him off and then pick him up after a half hour or so. But he had another idea.
“I tell you what,” he said. “I’ll go in, get a room, then go into the bathroom in the lobby and write the room number over the urinal. You come in a few minutes later, tell the bellhop you want to use the bathroom and see what room I’m in and come on up. I’ll tell the bellhop to get me a girl.
“How are you going to pay for the girl, I asked. The room cost five. He said he’d figure something out. I dropped him off, then found a parking spot on the street. Not a lot of people downtown at midnight.” Another head shake.
So then you went into the hotel?
“Yeah, I walked in, nodded at the bellhop and found the bathroom. Sure enough, there was a number written over the urinal. Cooke was on the second floor. I walked back out into the lobby and started for the stairs. But the bellhop was wise to that trick. You ain’t registered here, buddy, he said. Out.”
So you went back to your car?
“And drove around downtown, killing time. Then a cop stopped me. He wanted to know what I was doing. I told him I was supposed to meet a buddy. He told me he didn’t want to see me circling the block again.
“I drove to the Blue Circle, made a few circuits, but didn’t see anybody I knew. Thanks to Cooke, I had no money so I couldn’t even get a Coke. I went back downtown. Same cop pulled me over and told me if he saw ‘this yellow Volkswagen again’ I was going to jail.”
And then?
“Hey, I’m not stupid. I went home. By then it was about 1 a.m. I figured Cooke could take care of himself.”
Well, if nothing else, I pointed out, he had a room for the night.
“Exactly. I went to bed. Sometime after I fell asleep, I heard the screen on the window rattling. It’s Cooke, of course. I’m not about to let him in, so I go out the back door. He’s shirtless. And short of breath. And pissed. Where were you, he wanted to know.
“I told him. He cussed the bellhop. And the cop. And the hooker.”
So the bellhop sent a girl up?
“That’s what he said. She told him she wanted her money up front. And he hemmed and hawed. Turned on all the charm, he said. But he was dealing with Sonya, a girl, he explained, who had seen and heard about everything.”
Sonya was a widely known Knoxville prostitute. And unlikely to be charmed, especially by a cocky 20-year-old.
“So he said she started to leave and he jumped in front of the door. Naturally, she yelled for the bellhop.”
Cooke still had on his clothes?
“He’d taken off his shirt. He was through the door and down the stairs before the bellhop could get from behind the desk. He ran to the Greyhound station on Gay Street and jumped into a cab. The driver took one look at him and asked for cash up front.
“Cooke gave him what he had left – my two bucks. That got him a few blocks out Magnolia. He then ran the six blocks to my house.”
So you took him home?
“Yeah, but I made him push the VW out of the driveway so we wouldn’t wake up my folks. He’ll probably come down with pneumonia, what with being without his shirt, and sweating. He got really pissed when I laughed at him, sitting there in the car shivering.
“When I dropped him off, he said he’s going to get his own wheels. I told him he’d better because he wasn’t getting into my VW again.”


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