BY M. SCOTT MORRIS
OXFORD – Roy Lee “Chucky” Mullins played football and he played it hard.
“He had tremendous heart and he was a tremendous hitter, probably the hardest hitter we ever had come through our program,” said Don Cox, former head coach for the Russellville, Ala., High School Golden Tigers.
At 6-foot-1, 170 pounds, Mullins wasn't Cox's most physically gifted athlete, but his spirit and determination earned notice from Division 1A schools.
He chose to play defensive back for the University of Mississippi, where a hard hit at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford on Oct. 28, 1989, left him paralyzed.
Mullins died May 6, 1991, at the age of 21, but his legacy and his number – 38 – continue to inspire fans, coaches and players.
Fifteen years after Mullins made his last hit on a football field, a pair of filmmakers, Micah Ginn and Matthew Nothelfer, will debut “Undefeated: The Chucky Mullins Story,” a documentary that chronicles No. 38's life from childhood adversity to big-time athletics to personal challenge.
“Add up all the snaps during football games every Friday, Saturday and Sunday around the nation and you realize how uncommon that accident was,” Ginn said. “It could have happened to anybody, but it seemed like Chucky was the best equipped to handle it. That's the sense we got from everybody we talked to. He was an amazing person.”
Eager to talk
Back in August, the filmmakers received funding from a source connected to Ole Miss who wanted to remain anonymous. They interviewed some 25 people, including friends, players and coaches.
“People were so excited about the idea because it gave them a chance to talk about Chucky,” Ginn said. “Everybody was so affected by him that you want to include everything they said, but you can't. You have to separate the good stories from the great stories. It becomes almost sad that you have to leave things out.”
After Mullins' mother died, Carver Phillips and his wife, Karen, of Russell became Mullins' guardians at his request. Phillips said he got used to talking in front of cameras after the accident, and he doesn't get tired of telling the story.
“I'm not nervous about the movie they're doing. I just want it to be the true story of Chucky Mullins,” Phillips said. “I think these guys have been doing an excellent job working on that.”
Mullins' father wasn't in the picture, and his mother died when he was in seventh grade. With the obstacles he faced as a kid, Mullins had plenty of chances to quit. It just wasn't in his nature, Phillips said.
“He wasn't the smartest kid on campus, but he definitely was one who would give you his best effort,” Phillips said. “He would give 100 percent every day. It didn't matter if it was a practice, a game or what. He always gave his best. I believe that's what made him a standout and made him special.”
Some driven people can be hard to know, much less like, but that wasn't the case with Mullins. Coach Cox remembers a “personality everybody wanted to be around.”
“He was one of those who was always cutting up, keeping the team loose. He always had something going,” Cox continued. “There were times we had to get onto him to tone it down, but you didn't want to tone too much of it down.”
That fun-loving attitude also was in evidence off the field, said Trea Southerland, who joined the Rebels the same year as Mullins. Southerland and his roommate shared a bathroom with Mullins and his roommate.
“He put a fake snake in the shower. In fact, it was a couple of them. One was in the bottom of the shower, so when it started filling with water, the snake would wrap around your leg. He had one snake on the shower head, so when the soap got out of your eyes, you were looking straight at the snake,” Southerland recalled.
“I think we had to replace some dry wall where I dented it coming out of the shower. He definitely got me. There were some return volleys that I don't want to get into.”
Leroy Mullins was the Rebels' head trainer the day Vanderbilt's Brad Gaines went out for a pass on third and goal. Just as the ball arrived, the Rebels' No. 38 delivered a solid hit to knock it loose.
“I was taping the wrist of another player, but you learn how to time it,” Leroy Mullins said. “I looked up in time to see the hit, then Chucky crumpled in a funny way. I was the first one out to Chucky.”
Memories of that day stay close to the surface for Leroy Mullins, who gives two or three talks each year to sports medicine groups about spinal cord injuries. He's spent plenty of time thinking about the accident, as well as the way No. 38 responded to the aftermath.
“He tried to teach us that you can persevere. He had good days and bad days, but he kept going and he stayed positive,” he said. “You can't help thinking how would I respond if something like that happened to me?' I've gone over it in my mind a thousand times and I've come to realize I probably would have been bitter. I don't think I could have handled it the way Chucky did.”
More than a million dollars were raised for the Chucky Mullins Trust Fund and part of that money was used to build him a specially equipped house so he could continue his studies.
He returned to classes in early 1991. A few months later, he stopped breathing and never regained consciousness. He died May 6, 1991, from complications from a blood clot.
The story continues. Every year, the Rebels' best defensive player is rewarded with the Chucky Mullins Courage Award and gets to wear No. 38 during the season. Southerland wore the jersey during what would have been his and Mullins' senior year.
“There's quite a bit of responsibility when you put the jersey on and run out onto the field,” he said. “You know the people are looking at you. You certainly want to do whatever you can to live up to his reputation as a fighter and a player.”
With the debut of the documentary at 7 p.m. Friday at David H. Nutt Auditorium of Scruggs Hall on campus, people who never had the chance to meet Chucky Mullins or see him play will have the opportunity to be inspired by No. 38. His friends think it's a tale well worth telling.
“This story is about Chucky. It's about a kid who grew up with virtually nothing, except for a humongous heart and the passion he felt,” Southerland said. “The guys doing this film have worked their tails off, and I'm just glad the story is getting told.”
Contact M. Scott Morris at 678-1589 or email@example.com