Football can be a cruel game

Marvin Westwestwords

If your idea of participation is enduring traffic congestion and paying steep prices to park, purchase a squeezed seat inside the arena and obtain refreshments …

If your idea of being really into it is to wear orange and yell “Go Vols!” and add the ungodly woo when the band plays Rocky Top, let me tell you, friend, there is another level behind the scene.

Football is a rugged, challenging game. Sometimes it is cruel. Critics call it barbarous. Gladiators sell some of their soul to be part of the show. For limited accolades, they risk hurts and heartbreak.

A relative few achieve greatness, fame and riches. Some get headaches and develop limps for life. Many others settle for the warmth of brotherhood and a T for trying. Some fall short, drop out and dredge up explanations for what happened.

Now and then, an Emmit Gooden comes along. For better or worse, this is one sad story.

As a boy in Brownsville, he wanted to play at Tennessee. He was bigger and stronger than his playmates. Those who watched began to believe he might fulfill his dream.

In 2014, he announced his commitment. The pledge lasted 10 weeks. Astute assistants assembled around Butch Jones eventually discovered Emmit was much better in the combat zone than the classroom. No way could he qualify for admission to the University of Tennessee.

Gooden decommited.

He says he departed Haywood High School with nothing, not even a diploma. Mississippi State became his chosen destination. The Bulldogs would take care of everything.

Alas, Even Dan Mullen magic wasn’t enough. He couldn’t get in there.

Emmit tried a detour to Holmes Community College. Gooden in Goodman, Miss., had a ring to it. History was favorable. Walter Jones had been there, on his way to Florida State and the Seattle Seahawks and the Professional Football Hall of Fame.

Gooden stayed a few minutes and moved on to Independence Community College in Kansas. You have, no doubt, heard of Independence. It was featured in the third and fourth seasons of the Netflix series Last Chance U. The since-departed coach Jason Brown was a primary figure. Emmit was prominent on the field and in the credits.

Last Chance U is not a point of particular pride but some good things happened to Gooden. He earned his high school equivalency credential. General Educational Development tests proved proficiency in science, mathematics, social studies, reading and writing.

Coach Brown persuaded Gooden to take a different look at life, to wear a coat and tie to class.

“Every day is a job interview.”

The coach said it over and over: “Every day is a job interview.”

Brown explained that what Gooden thought was hard work didn’t qualify as work at all. That led to another conversion. Emmit became a tougher hombre, second team junior college all-American. He ran over blockers, pressured quarterbacks and made 81 tackles as a sophomore. Recruiters were again interested. Emmit committed to Arkansas.

He decommitted again. Arizona State, Louisville, Florida and West Virginia paid for visits. Alabama called but nothing happened.

Jeremy Pruitt just happened to be at Alabama before he came to Tennessee in December 2017. He read old notes and saw that Gooden had grown up wanting to be a Vol. He had a phone number. Bingo!

Gooden, 6-3 or more and a little over 300, became the Volunteers’ second-team nose tackle behind Shy Tuttle last season. Emmit credited Shy with teaching him to “bring it every day and to have an attitude about the game.”

Tuttle explained the difference in Last Chance U, as he understood it, and best chance. He taught Gooden how to be a ball player in the big league. He wasn’t great but he made the same number of tackles as the oft-injured Tuttle.

Exciting, new 2019 was going to be Gooden’s year. He was Tennessee’s best defensive lineman. The front was going to be built around him. If the Vols were to show improvement over last season, Gooden would be one of the focal points. He was going to knock down the door and clear his way to the NFL.

Gooden was somehow an optimist. He thought the team was going to get it going. He said he could see this being a good year.

“We’ve just got to get that winning mentality back at Tennessee.”

What happened the other day was unbelievable. Before the team was even in full pads, another player rolled up on Gooden’s leg. The anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee ripped. He’ll undergo surgery this week. He is lost for the season.

The Vols will survive. Next man up. Hopefully, Gooden will recover and try again next year.

Meanwhile, if you really want to participate, say a prayer.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments and questions. His address is

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