Arkansas calls itself the Land of Opportunity, so maybe Arkansas State Tight End Jerry Mack should be playing elsewhere; opportunity, as it has come to be defined in the age of free rides and multimillion-dollar contracts, just does not seem to interest him. Seventy-nine of his 102 teammates are on scholarship, some occasional stumblers and fumblers among them, and kickers who play but briefly. But the 5'11", 205-pound Mack, who has started 27 straight games, doesn't have a scholarship, and won't accept one.
Apparently, knocking over 250-pounders is its own reward; that and scoring clumps of unexpected touchdowns. A-State Head Coach Larry Lacewell, mystified by Mack's seeming indifference to what could be his for the asking, summoned him to his office last January. "Jerry," he said, "you've played good ball for me, so let me ask you this: Would you like a scholarship?"
"No, sir," Mack replied.
Dumbfounded, the normally articulate Lacewell croaked, "Why?"
Mack said, "I figure if I take it I'll be cheating some other guy who needs it more than I do. Besides, I just enjoy playing the game."
"That's great, I understand," Lacewell said, though he couldn't begin to. Certainly Lacewell had little familiarity with such behavior, having been defensive coordinator at Oklahoma for eight years before arriving at A-State as an unpaid assistant in 1978. As Lacewell has told friends, "This is the most baffling experience of my 23-year career."
Mack has been asked about his real motivations virtually ever day since that meeting, and recently he has been saying, "If I can get through college playing football without a scholarship, it will help me all my life; when dark clouds arrive, I won't panic."
Mack's bulletin board is plastered with newspaper stories about him—the word "scholarship" prominent in all of them—some insinuating that he's executing a clever publicity ploy, others describing him as "humble" ad nauseam. And then there is the secret income theory, which doesn't hold up, first because family wealth rarely if ever stops college athletes from accepting scholarships; second because both of Mack's parents are dead, and were poor when alive. He worked every summer: on the assembly line of a shoe factory this past summer, washing linens at a hospital in 1980. After work he would rush back to the campus to lift weights with teammates, an off-season activity that is optional for non-scholarship players.
Mack does have a Basic Education Opportunity Grant (BEOG) from the Federal Government, worth $1,382 annually. But a scholarship would amount to $2,480. Besides, scholarships for most college athletes seem to be as important for reasons of status as they are for reasons of finance. Last week Lacewell shuffled through some questionnaires he had his players fill out. The last question was, "What is your greatest achievement thus far?" Most of the players wrote in, "Getting a scholarship," or words to that effect. Mack wrote, "Playing college football for two years."
Last month Mack was elected one of the Indians' four captains, an almost unheard-of honor for a walk-on. Offensive Tackle Paul Gilbow says, "It's hard to earn a starting position as a walk-on, and having to work as hard as Jerry does, not being on scholarship, has earned him a lot of respect."
Mack, the youngest in a closely knit family of three sisters and two brothers, grew up in Memphis, 75 miles southeast of Arkansas State's Jonesboro campus. His father, a carpenter, died when he was 11, and his mother two years later. His 32-year-old sister, Ann Gathright, and her husband, Dewitt, became his legal guardians. Mack played basketball and baseball at Memphis' Westwood High, and for three years he was a valued running back, making all-conference and second team all-state his senior year.
Ann Gathright recalls, "We insisted that Jerry had to keep his grades up if he wanted to play football. We told him, 'You can't bring D's and F's into this house, and we won't stand for any ghettoish behavior, either."
Mack was recruited by Tennessee State and he enrolled there, accepting the scholarship offered him. But the practices were so long and rigorous that he couldn't keep up with his studies and he quit after one semester, enrolling at Arkansas State in January 1978. NCAA rules made him ineligible to play football in the fall of 1978, but the following spring he showed up at practice as a walk-on. He wanted to be a tailback. Lacewell, newly arrived from Norman, didn't pay him much heed at first. The kid didn't have a scholarship, so how good could he be? Besides, Lacewell recalls, "Jerry was the worst runner with a football I've ever seen. In the open field he was like a magnet; he drew tacklers to him. He had excellent speed straight ahead, but he wasn't much for lateral moves."
It may have been because of a lack of balance. One day the running backs divided into pairs for stretching exercises. Half of the backs stood on one leg while their partners held the other leg in the air, helping them stretch thigh and hip muscles. The whole group was lined up in a row, pair by pair, with Mack and his partner at one end. Suddenly Mack toppled over, and the entire bunch followed, like a row of dominoes. Shortly afterward, Mack's 4.6 speed in the 40 resulted in Lacewell's converting him to tight end, where he displaced Gilbow, all 6'5" and 240 pounds of him.
In that season—1979—Mack blocked superbly; that is what Lacewell, with his wishbone offense, needed most of all from his tight end. Mack also caught 11 passes, two for touchdowns, but the team was rebuilding and finished 4-7. Last year A-State was 2-9 (with sophs and freshmen making up 80% of the team), but Mack caught eight more passes, and four were for touchdowns.
"Sometimes I forgot he didn't have a scholarship," Lacewell says. "One day in the off-season he was out there lifting weights, and he wasn't giving his maximum effort. I scolded him. He could have said, 'You're not paying me,' but he didn't."
Bill Templeton, Arkansas State assistant athletic director, says of Mack, "What's exceptional about Jerry is that he realizes what college athletics is all about, that it shouldn't be all 'Gimme,' that 'I give back' is important, too.
Mack has obviously changed a great deal since he accepted the scholarship at Tennessee State: "I used to want people to do things for me that I could just as well have done for myself. But then I decided that the only way I was going to make something out of Jerry Mack was to get out and start working."
As a senior with a major in physical education and a minor in history, Mack maintains what he calls, "a good, stable C average." Occasionally his sister sends him some money, and then he takes his girl friend to a movie or out for a hamburger or a pizza. He loves jazz and soul music, but he doesn't own a stereo or a tape deck, so he waits for recordings by Aretha Franklin and the Jacksons, his favorite singers, on Memphis radio station WHRK. He hopes to coach someday, he says, but he also wants to give pro football a try, though he knows he would be very small for an NFL tight end. He'd probably be tried as a running back or defensive back.
"Maybe in Canada," he said last week. "But what I want most right now is for us to win the Southland Conference Championship."
Last week Arkansas State played its first conference game of the season, against Southwestern Louisiana. The team was 2-2, and in those early games—including a one-point loss to then-undefeated Kansas—Mack had caught four passes and scored two touchdowns, giving him 23 career receptions, eight for touchdowns. Mack didn't score or catch a pass against Southwestern Louisiana, but his blocking helped Indian runners gain 224 yards in a 14-3 win.
Mack was asked, "Were you disappointed not to score a touchdown today?"
"No," he said. "I had a great game blocking. And we won, didn't we?" That, after all, is what college football is supposed to be about.
Walk-on Mack is making State a winner.