By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Keffer McGee’s No. 21 jersey no longer hangs in the Mississippi State football locker room. It now resides in a recording studio in Horn Lake.
That studio is in the home of Nakia Greer, who was a teammate and roommate of McGee’s at MSU. Greer, who drives a truck for Estes Express and dabbles in music, took possession of the jersey within the last couple of years, saving it from storage.
That involved a bit of good fortune. Greer had called longtime equipment manager Phil Silva about getting a white MSU helmet and a jersey.
“He said, ‘Man, they’ve got Keffer’s stuff sitting over here in the corner. You can come down here and get everything,’” Greer said.
So he did.
On Aug. 5, it will have been 13 years since McGee’s promising life ended in a drowning accident at a Starkville apartment complex.
His memory has lived on in the hearts and minds of those who knew him or followed his blossoming football career as an MSU running back. The jersey was a more tangible reminder, but when the locker room was remodeled, McGee’s old locker was removed, along with its contents.
McGee’s No. 21 was taken out of circulation by then-MSU coach Jackie Sherrill, but buzz began stirring earlier this week that the school was going to let an incoming freshman have the number. That prompted another ex-Bulldog, Al Cotton, to start a Facebook page called “Coach Mullen Please Keep #21 RETIRED.”
Dan Mullen, State’s second-year coach, actually called McGee’s mother, Matilda McGee, to ask about using the number. They never made a connection, but athletics director Scott Stricklin drove out to her house on Tuesday and spoke with her about it.
“If there was a way to recognize and keep Keffer’s memory alive that was a different approach, that we’d love to consider it,” Stricklin said. “If she’s not comfortable with that, we’re not going to pursue it. She told me she wasn’t comfortable with it, and I thanked her for her time.”
Stricklin related Ms. McGee’s wishes to Mullen, and the AD stressed that the program remains dedicated to remembering Keffer McGee. Stricklin also spoke with Cotton on Wednesday, that conversation centering around “what everybody else has said, wanting to make sure we continue to honor him, and I think that’s what everybody wants to do,” said Stricklin.
Hill will carry on legacy
McGee’s memory won’t be on the sidelines the next four to five years. It will be present on the practice fields and on Scott Field, or wherever Brandon Hill is representing Mississippi State.
Hill, a freshman receiver who enrolled this summer, feels a kinship with McGee. That’s because Hill’s mother, LaTanya Bush, was friends with McGee at West Lowndes High School. When she was a senior and pregnant with Hill, McGee befriended her, carried her books for her.
McGee, a freshman then, became “like a little brother” to Bush, Hill said. Also a West Lowndes product, Hill has a mission to carry on McGee’s memory.
He was the first member of the 2010 signing class to commit to the Bulldogs.
“I feel honored to carry his story,” Hill told me last year. “Maybe I’ll be able to finish what he started.”
That’s quite a lofty goal.
As a sophomore, McGee rushed for 1,072 yards. His junior year, he was first in the SEC and third in the nation in rushing (481 yards) when he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the third game versus South Carolina.
Perhaps tougher to equal would be McGee’s off-field comportment. He boasted a high GPA, and he was all set to pursue a graduate degree. Greer called him a “humanitarian” for the way he interacted with fans and children.
“It was in every aspect of life,” Greer said, “and that’s why the guys that played with him and the guys that came after him, we tried to instill that work ethic, the schooling – it’s not just about going out there and playing football.”
In a 1998 story by the Birmingham Post-Herald, Sherrill said nobody would wear McGee’s number “for a long time.” That’s not the same as forever.
And let’s say his number is eventually worn again. There would still be other, more visible, ways to honor him: Perhaps an annual award to the senior who best exemplifies the qualities displayed by McGee, or a bust in Davis Wade Stadium, or a placard with his name and number on it overlooking Scott Field.
Truthfully, keeping McGee’s number off the field is probably the quickest way to let his memory fade. There should be something more.
So that’s where Hill comes in. His desire to carry on McGee’s legacy can awaken some old memories, and that’s not a bad way to honor someone. Not bad at all.
Brad Locke (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Mississippi State for the Daily Journal and blogs daily at NEMS360.com.