By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – There was a time Chad Bumphis did not love football. Didn’t really like it at all, in fact.
When he was a student at Tupelo Middle School, Bumphis was honed in on basketball. It was his first love, and football wasn’t even on his radar until eighth grade.
Clint Jordan, who coached the basketball team and was a football assistant at TMS at the time, wanted Bumphis to play the latter to get in shape for the coming hardwood season. He grudgingly obliged.
“I was all basketball,” Bumphis said. “Then everything just changed, and we had a good football team. Most of my friends played football anyway, so they drug me along with them.
“It ended up being the route for me, so I stuck with it.”
Football took Bumphis to stardom at Tupelo High School and earned him a scholarship at Mississippi State, and he’ll be wrapping up a record-setting career on Jan. 1 when the Bulldogs play Northwestern in the Gator Bowl.
Bumphis quickly made a name for himself on the gridiron at TMS as a tailback, running roughshod over opponents as the Golden Wave went 7-0 and won the Little Six championship.
During that season, Bumphis wanted to quit football. Jordan wouldn’t let him. One day as Jordan was driving with Bumphis to school – the two were neighbors – Bumphis said, “I don’t think I’m going to play any more. I’m just going to focus on basketball.”
Jordan replied, “No, you’ve already started, you’re going to finish what you start.”
Even at this early stage, Jordan knew what a special athlete Bumphis was. It was apparent on the basketball court, like the time he got a steal and surprised everyone with a dunk.
On the football field, Bumphis scored the first three times he touched the ball that eighth-grade year.
“He wasn’t tackled until the fourth time we handed him the ball. It was unbelievable,” Jordan said.
Art Dobbs, head coach of that eighth-grade team, said they were playing Noxubee County when an official sidled over and said, “It’s like a video game with him. He’s like one of those guys in a video game.”
Dobbs said Bumphis made moves reminiscent of former USC running back Reggie Bush, in particular a cutback move like the one Bush made a year later against Fresno State.
“The thing he had automatically, which is not easy for kids to have, is he just was naturally skilled to play football,” Jordan said. “He caught the ball the way he was supposed to the first time you threw it to him. He ran the ball with it tight, he jumped-cut without being caught.
“His instincts were all for the football skills.”
Despite Bumphis’ success in eighth grade, football didn’t win his heart until the next year. After quarterbacking the freshman team, which he enjoyed because he got to touch the ball more often, Bumphis was called up to the varsity late in the season.
Jordan recalled Bumphis recording a long punt return, “and people started screaming in the crowd. All of sudden he was like, OK, I like this.”
Against Horn Lake, Bumphis returned a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown. It was the first of 10 kickoff and punt return TDs during his prep career. He played running back and receiver at THS, and in certain situations quarterback. He punted, too.
Dobbs said Bumphis was a really good safety in middle school. There seemingly was nothing he couldn’t do.
“The funniest thing is his best sport may have been baseball,” Jordan said. “Oh my goodness, he was the best center fielder. He was 14 years old and playing center field, and if a ball was in the air, he could get it.”
Bumphis also ran some track, and he continued to play basketball until 10th grade, when he left the team late in the season. It wasn’t easy to give up hoops, but it was around that time that Bumphis realized he had a bright future in football.
That summer, he and quarterback Chris Garrett and receiver Justin Bean went to 7-on-7 camps and got noticed.
“That’s when I figured I had a chance,” Bumphis said.
That made Bumphis one of the last to know. Jordan knew it from early on.
“The first time that I saw Chad and thought, ‘Wow, this kid is going to be special,’ was in intramural basketball,” he said. “He was in the seventh grade, and I went down and watched them play, and I had never seen anyone that quick.”
On to MSU
Bumphis became a highly recruited player and was bound for Florida until its offensive coordinator, Dan Mullen, took the head coaching job at MSU. Now Bumphis finds himself leaving State as one of the program’s all-time great receivers.
He’s set a school record with 12 touchdown catches this season and needs 96 yards in the Gator Bowl to reach 1,000. He’d be just the second Bulldog to eclipse that mark in receiving, and Mardy McDole’s single-season record of 1,035 yards is within reach.
Bumphis’ 24 career TDs are a record.
This season has come on the heels of a tough 2011 campaign in which Bumphis battled injury and had a career-low 339 yards on 25 catches. He’s got 55 receptions this year and has looked like the player Dobbs and Jordan knew he could be.
“He got his confidence back, and he was just relaxed,” Dobbs said. “When he was relaxed and felt comfortable out on the field, there’s no telling what was going to happen.”