Best I could tell from a distance, Tennessee spring football practice was dullsville. Squirrel was an exception.
“Squirrel can freakin’ run” said Kelsey Pope, new coach of wide receivers. “He doesn’t bat an eye when things get chaotic. He is flying around. If someone’s trying to be physical, he’ll match that intensity and physicality.
“He’s got the biggest heart. He’s the smallest in stature, but has the biggest heart in the room. Well, probably. Love that kid.”
“I love the way Squirrel White plays,” said tight end Jacob Warren. “Obviously, he’s not a very big guy, right? Super fast, super explosive. The way he plays is super interesting to me, because, obviously, I’m the complete opposite, right?”
Warren said Squirrel made a lot of big catches across the middle, which is very good to see from a young slot receiver.
Squirrel has gained two bold steps toward fame and possible fortune. He has unusual skills and strong identity.
Marquarius White can catch a football, run and create serious difficulty for those in pursuit.
Marquarius White has a great nickname.
The Tennessee freshman is sub-standard in size, maybe 5-10 and 160, but very quick. He is not zig-zag indecisive or stop-and-go confused like a real squirrel in the middle of a highway with trucks coming from opposite directions.
This Squirrel makes a move or two to clear space or cause defenders to miss. After that, away he goes for the goal. He may grow into a great slot receiver.
He was a very good high school player in Pinson, Alabama, four-star prospect, No. 7 in the state, 1,162 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns on 49 catches. His team had a 15-0 record. He was 100 and 200 runner-up in the state track meet.
Squirrel lost count of how many schools offered scholarships. He started naming them: Georgia, Michigan, Ole Miss, Auburn, Mississippi State, Kentucky, Alabama sort of, Missouri, Georgia Tech, Florida State … there were others.
He knows precisely how he got the nickname. His great-grandmother did it. She was holding the very little boy in her arms. They were looking out a window. A squirrel got a tomato from her garden and made some sudden moves.
It seemed to great-granny that when the squirrel moved, baby Marquarius moved. Maybe he just wiggled or bobbed his head.
“She started calling me Squirrel. It stuck. My whole family called me Squirrel. That’s basically my real name.”
Are you serious?
“Yeah, man, that’s for real. That’s how it happened.”
Squirrel’s coach at Clay-Chalkville High, Drew Gilmer, said, “I bet our team didn’t even know his name is Marquarius. I didn’t for the longest time. His mom calls him Squirrel and I thought that was his name.”
You can decide how good is the nickname. At the top of my list is Hacksaw, perfect fit for Jack Reynolds. The tale of the crusty linebacker sawing a car in half in frustration over a lost game became the stuff of legends in the NFL.
Second-best nickname? Swamp Rat. Dewey Warren’s high school coach, old Vol Lamar Leachman, called him that based on where he grew up outside Savannah.
George Cafego was “Bad News” to those who got in his way. Condredge Holloway became “The Artful Dodger” because he was one. To coach Bill Battle, Condredge was “Peanut.”
Jimmy Streater was “Bird Legs” and you didn’t have to ask why.
Reggie White was “The Minister of Defense” on TV and in out-of-town newspapers and magazines. At age 17, he was ordained as a Baptist minister. I always thought Reggie practiced what he preached.
Gary Wright became “Wide Wright” because a referee said a winning field goal against Alabama strayed to the right. Gary, Dewey and I thought it was good.
Antonio Richardson, tackle, 6-6 and 336, was called “Tiny” and he liked it just fine. It helped remind coaches there was no need to weigh him.
Inquoris Johnson was “Inky” and still is. Jimmy Noonan was ”Tasmanian Devil.”
“Iceman” Casey Clausen was cool under duress.
Beattie Feathers, said to be of American Indian heritage, was “Chief.” He was also good, an all-American tailback, College Hall of Fame honoree. He was first in pro football to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.
Before those nicknames, there was Roscoe “Piggy” Word, C.H. “Slick” Fonde, W.O. “Chink” Lowe, Adolphus “Buck” Hatcher, Roy “Pap” Striegel, Robert “Tarzan” Holt and Harry “Hobo” Thayer.
Herman Weaver became “Thunderfoot” but that is an NFL story. The Lions were practicing on an overcast afternoon. Howard Cosell was making notes for Monday Night Football. At the very moment Weaver punted one high, a big boom of thunder shook the ground.
Herman remembers: “Our placekicker, Errol Mann, looked over at Cosell and said everything was OK, that it thundered every time my punts reached their apex.”
No idea where Alton Howard got the nickname “Pig” but “Squirrel” is better.
Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is email@example.com