By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
Jackie Sherrill never felt adequate enough to guide his players through the grieving process.
During his 13 years as Mississippi State head coach, Sherrill lost two players to tragic events. Defensive end Rodney Stowers died during the 1991 season from a fat embolism stemming from a broken leg; tailback Keffer McGee drowned to death in a swimming pool prior to the 1997 season.
Sherrill is using his experience in those situations to help current coach Dan Mullen as the Bulldogs deal with the death of sophomore defensive end Nick Bell, who succumbed to skin cancer Tuesday.
“We as coaches are not qualified,” Sherrill said Wednesday. “We’re not a psychologist or psychiatrist, we’re not a minister that does counseling. … When we lose a kid, it’s devastating, because we’re in an arena that we don’t know anything about.”
MSU made grief counselors and clergyman available to players Tuesday.
Sherrill has contacted Mullen to offer his encouragement and whatever help he can give.
“He knows how hard it can be, and anything that the team needs and the coaches need, we can count on him for any of that,” Mullen said.
Sherrill said what helped his players most was bringing in the mothers of the fallen players. And he made sure his players knew it was OK to grieve in their own way and in their own time.
“Players all their life have been kind of told, it’s not OK to cry, you’re supposed to be tough guys,” Sherrill said. “Well, that’s just the opposite of what you really need to do, and that is to allow yourself to do those things, and to allow yourself to go through the emotions where you may be laughing one minute and you may be crying the next.
“You have to allow yourself to do that.”
Sherrill said after McGee died, he made up cards to give to his players that read, “In certain situations, think and remember what Keffer would’ve done.”
MSU honored Stowers by painting his No. 97 on Scott Field, and players wore his number on their uniforms. McGee’s initials, K.L.M., were worn on the Bulldogs’ helmets and jerseys, and his locker was kept untouched.
MSU officials are currently discussing how best to honor Bell, and Mullen said he’ll seek Sherrill’s input on that.
Sherrill noted that not having a game this weekend is a plus for MSU, especially with Bell’s funeral set for Saturday in Birmingham. The No. 21-ranked Bulldogs are 7-2 (3-2 in SEC play) and riding a six-game winning streak, and Sherrill thinks an already close-knit team will become even tighter through the grieving process.
“You’ll be amazed. That’s one thing that it showed me more than anything, was exactly how it did bring players together.”
Mullen is trying to keep the players as close to each other as possible.
“I think as the days go by, they’ll be able to get more of a handle on their emotions,” he said. “We’re just trying to keep the team together as much as possible and around each other so that they have the coaches and the other members of this football family to help deal with everything that’s going on.”
Mullen has dealt with a player death before, as an assistant at Florida. In 2007, scout team quarterback Michael Guilford and another student died in a motorcycle accident.
Meyer flew in his friend, former NFL wide receiver Cris Carter, to speak with the team, “because I didn’t know what to do.” Carter had lost a teammate a few years earlier.
Meyer has offered Mullen encouragement.
“Well, getting overly deep, and it might be inappropriate – there’s only one answer, and that’s our Source,” Meyer said. “That was my message to him.”
Bell’s death reached well beyond the MSU football family. He was friends with several players on other SEC teams, including Alabama’s Marcell Dareus and Tennessee’s Raiques Crump.
Kentucky defensive line coach David Turner coached the same position group at MSU from 2007-09. He helped recruit Bell.
“David’s taking it really, really tough, really rough, because he was so close to the kid, so close to the family,” Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips said. “He plans to go down (to Birmingham) and show his respects.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
SEC coaches react to Bell’s death
- SEC football coaches offered their thoughts, reactions and sympathies Wednesday on the death of MSU defensive end Nick Bell, who battled skin cancer.
• Robbie Caldwell, Vanderbilt: “I know the best thing I can say is, Mississippi State, rally around Nick and honor him, and I think the players can rejoice in that and try to hang on to the fond memories and not dwell on the bad ones.”
• Gene Chizik, Auburn: “There’s nothing that’s probably worse than that. It’s just an extremely difficult time for families, for football teams, for universities.”
• Derek Dooley, Tennessee: “I told the team after practice (Tuesday) that it’s a great reminder to wake up every day and make the best of it with a great attitude, because you never know when it’s going to be your last.”
• Les Miles, LSU: “It’s hard to see it and see a life ended that had so much potential.”
• Houston Nutt, Ole Miss: “Life doesn’t stop. But it also teaches you a very valuable lesson, that hey, you’re never promised tomorrow, so you better go as hard as you can.”
• Nick Saban, Alabama: “You always feel horrible when a young, bright person who has such a future ahead of them in so many ways in terms of the things they can do in their life sort of all gets cut short.”