Growing up in the South, it's very easy to become a sports fan. It's just as easy in Middle Tennessee where you have four different major sports within driving distance, including two different levels of college football. One of those is the Middle Tennessee State University Blue Raiders here in Murfreesboro, who are members of the Conference USA.
The Blue Raiders have always held a special place in my heart, my uncle played quarterback for the Raiders in the mid-seventies, another uncle and two cousins also played baseball as Blue Raiders. I remember my first tailgate as a kid in the area of grass between the Hall of Fame building and tennis courts anticipating the game ahead and that special memory would stay with me.
On Friday, September 6th, I had the great pleasure of being around three decades worth of players from MTSU that spanned from the seventies through the eighties. That included former head coaches Bill Peck, Ben Hurt and Boots Donnelly. As I sat down to dinner, I was able to ask some of the former players that were at my table what coming back to MTSU meant to them.
"It means unity and love", as wide receiver Gary Burchfield from Maryville said so eloquently. That theme would resonate through the entire evening. It wasn't just players coming across town for a dinner. Burchfield drove from Maryville in East Tennessee to attend the event. John Diefenbach drove from Black Mountain, North Carolina for the weekend to be with the friends he made during his four years at MTSU over 40 years ago. And others drove from states such as Texas, Florida, Indiana, Ohio and Georgia to celebrate the occasion. Another player I talked to was Ricky Davis, a former United States Air Force pilot, also a Blue Raider quarterback who played under Ben Hurt. "The ones with their hearing aids turned down had the most fun", he said in between laughs among his table. There was a lot of humor spread throughout an amazing group of friends.
A higher power of love that was brought up was the impact of the Baldwin family. Bobby Baldwin was the offensive coordinator for the Blue Raiders. And Mrs. Ginger Baldwin, Coach Baldwin's wife kept it all together. "Mrs. Baldwin was the PIC (person in charge) of the whole team", Davis said. Their children also played an important role being at every practice, first in their seats or standing outside the gates for games and all the team meetings you can think of in Baldwin's time at MTSU. They brought players dinner and helped in any way possible. None of the Baldwin's three kids played football for MTSU but with as much time as they spent around the program, they might as well have.
A third theme came into play after dinner had been served and people were given the opportunity to socialize. That theme was brotherhood.
Two players from each era got up to speak on behalf of their era, time they played and who they played with and for. One of the players, Buford, who played under Boots Donnelly, talked about his time with the coach. Buford talked in depth of how tough Coach Donnelly was, but also spoke very highly of the former MTSU Head Football Coach. One aspect of a Boots Donnelly team was "togetherness". His guys were either going to gel and become one or as Buford and Donnelly put it "catch that midnight train to Georgia", which was a common term for the freshmen who left during the middle of the night during fall camp. Donnelly cared about results on the field, but he cared more about the results in life once they left MTSU, he said, adding it became their responsibility to care and look after one another.
The first two to speak represented the Bill Peck era. Ed Miller and Raymond Bonner were both friends from childhood. They were raised in the small town of Cowan. They were both heavily recruited by all the major universities in the South. It was the late sixties - full of turmoil and change. They decided on Middle Tennessee and both stated it was the best decision they ever made. They even joined the Navy together in service of our country. They played defensive back, and along with Oldham and Coffee adopted the name "The Mod Squad " taken from a popular TV show at the time. They opened the door for black athletes at MTSU. Ed Miller was the first African American All American at Middle Tennessee State University. Bonner and Oldham went on to play in the National Football League. Raymond is currently working at MTSU.
As the night closed, former MTSU QB Mike Robinson, who played under Ben Hurt from 1974-78, spoke about the Mike Moore Memorial Scholarship Fund. Mike Moore was a fullback and a Hall of Fame running back for the Raiders at MTSU from 1974-78 with Robinson and passed away in 2016. His fellow Blue Raiders started an endowment fund to help the struggling students who find themselves in a financial crisis. "He never put himself too high", Robinson said speaking on Moore. "He wore my clothes, he drove my car. He was a very special person." As of now, only 18 people have given to the scholarship and the group says ideas are more than appreciated. He also stated, "This a direct reflection on the group as a whole, it is not about Mike, but all of us who have a chance to help another Raider student in a time of need. We cannot fail. And we won't."
I realized that this sport played by so many represents unity, love and brotherhood. It was the three things that brought over 45 years of Blue Raiders together on the night of September 6th, the night before the 2019 home opener vs Tennessee State.
This group calls on each other for anything, and everything from support, a friendly voice, and love when a teammate passes away and that has lasted for the past 45 years. Most of these guys are in a group text that is continuous and involves conversations going late into the night and the earliest hours of the morning. It's true what former coach Boots Donnelly said. "Football is a microcosm of life and this sport will give you everything you need to live a great productive life". I would urge any former Raiders who could not or chose not to attend to make the next one and be inspired by a tremendous group of athletes.