From their vantage point a block away at Methodist Hospital, emergency room personnel
didn’t hear the hit. They didn’t watch Memphis State quarterback Russ Vollmer make
that horrifying tumble down the concrete stairs at Crump Stadium. But the doctors
and nurses would certainly know about it soon enough.
The year was 1963 and then-Memphis State University was in the middle of a fairy tale
season. The Tigers had bolted to a 4-0-1 record, including a stunning 0-0 tie with
No. 2 ranked Ole Miss that knocked the Rebels out of the polls. By year’s end, Memphis
would rise as high as 14th in the country, sport a 9-0-1 record and receive a bid
to the Sun Bowl (they held out for a Gator Bowl invite that never came).
But a single play during an Oct. 23 tussle with Mississippi State not only looked
to doom the season, it did something greater: it gave birth to a legend.
Vollmer, a local star from Central High School, had used the early part of the contest
to run all over the Bulldogs. He returned the opening kickoff 79 yards to give Memphis
an early lead.
“I think that made them mad,” says Vollmer.
It didn’t help, either, that the Tigers had thrashed the Bulldogs 28-7 a year earlier
in Starkville — Memphis’ first-ever SEC win. “Our students tried to tear down the
goalposts after that win, but their fans beat the heck out of ’em with cowbells,”
says Vollmer. “That set up an intense rivalry.”
So a year later, with Vollmer orchestrating what appeared to be a second straight
upset, Mississippi State took exception — and things turned nasty.
“I was returning a punt down the sideline and they chased me out of bounds,” says
Vollmer. “I had dropped the ball and was returning to the field when a guy hit me
late. I really never saw him coming.
“I remember seeing the tops of heads as I flew over the Mississippi State bench. I
hit the stairs to the dressing room.”
Memphis coach Billy “Spook” Murphy charged across the field, screaming into the faces
of Mississippi State coaches. “You can’t do that to one of our players and get away
with it,” the fiery coach said. “We are going to get you!”
The stadium went completely silent, then-student Larry Gardner says.
“They carried him off the field to an awaiting ambulance,” he says. “We thought our
only chance of winning had evaporated.”
Indeed, it did look bad as Vollmer was rushed to the emergency room at Methodist Hospital.
“I had no feeling in my back,” Vollmer says.
To make matters worse, the 11th-ranked Bulldogs scored twice to take a 10-9 lead going
into the half. As the teams sprang back on the field for the third quarter, there
was still no sign of Vollmer.
But the unexpected happened.
“All of a sudden Vollmer appeared at the top of those same stairs where he had been
hit,” recalls Gardner. “Everyone in the stadium, especially the students, went wild
as he trotted around the field to the Memphis State side. We went from the doldrums
Says Vollmer, “Coach Murphy pulled me aside and said, ‘Do you hear that? Now go out
there and kick their butts!’”
Vollmer and the Tiger team did just that: late in the game, the quarterback drove
Memphis downfield 70 yards to set up a game-winning touchdown by Dave Casinelli.
Vollmer was named Associated Press National Back of the Week. And the Tigers would
finish the season with perhaps their best year ever. — by Greg Russell