Winner, winner hamburger dinner

I attended what was then known as Troy State University from 1988 to 1992 on a full academic scholarship. The financial aid package, named for former Alabama Governor George C. Wallace (no relation), covered tuition, fees, room, and board.

The “board” part of my scholarship entitled me to 20 meals per week in Stewart Dining Hall, located conveniently adjacent to my dormitory, Alumni Hall. Stewart, or “Saga” as it was known by the students because of the former contracting company who ran the food service, was closed on Sunday nights. That supper was the only meal each week I had to come out of pocket for and fend for myself. That usually meant the TSU student deal at the Western Sizzlin’ steakhouse for about $5.

I didn’t have a lot of expenses at the time. I had to pay for my books each semester, buy school supplies like notebooks and pens, any clothes to replace what was worn out or out of fashion, and entertainment. I worked at spending as little as I could. I had so much paid for by my scholarship that I did my best to stretch my dollar to the very last penny. I learned to be frugal from my father, who was always finding ways to spend less and get the best deal at restaurants and retail establishments.

During my matriculation at Troy, the student activity fee covered admission to many activities and campus events. Since that, too, was covered by my scholarship, I viewed these opportunities as added value to my college experience. I attended on-campus movies, sporting events, plays, and musical performances throughout my four years of college, all at no additional charge.

My buddies and I found the Trojans Men’s and Women’s basketball games to be a particularly good source of entertainment. Tom, Ross, Donavan, Trey, Troy, Mike, Dino, Eric, Harold, et al, made up a noisy student section intent on both cheering our Trojans on to victory and heckling the other team’s star player mercilessly. It was the best free entertainment to be had in Lower Alabama.

The men’s team in particular was very competitive at the time. Led by Coach Don Maestri, the Trojans ran an up-tempo style offense that relied on three-point field goals. This run-and-gun style of play led to Troy setting the NCAA scoring record in 1992, my senior year, when they beat DeVry 258-141. It was one of the most memorable sporting events I ever attended, and it was great fun to see our Division-II Trojans on the ESPN SportsCenter highlights.

But the game that meant the most to me came on a Saturday night during my freshman year. My bank account had dwindled to pennies, and I had almost no money to my name. Sunday night was coming, and I had no money for supper. But free admittance to the basketball game on Saturday helped put my financial woes out of my mind.

In those days, the athletic department ran a promotion in the second half of each men’s game. Fans were encouraged at halftime to fill out slips of paper with their name and student ID, and every time Troy hit a three-pointer in the second half, they would draw a name and award a prize from an athletics department sponsor.

This was a free lottery, so my friends and I availed ourselves of this opportunity every game. Troy was so prolific at three-point shooting, and we were such faithful attenders to the games, I almost always knew someone who won something from the three-point shot promotion. When one of our names was called, we celebrated like we just hit the game-winning shot. We extracted personal glory from sheer, blind luck.

At halftime on that night, we gathered around the table, filling out slips of paper like madmen, and raced back to our seats. It was our habit, our tradition. I had never won the drawing before and didn’t give it a second thought. As the Trojans came out of the tunnel and back onto the floor for warmups, the pep band fired up, and I was living in the moment, having a great time with my buddies. I was succeeding at forgetting that a hungry Sunday night was in my future.

I don’t remember who Troy played that night, but the score was close. A competitive game in the second half was good for the three-point contest because that meant Troy would keep shooting three pointers, increasing the odds one of us would win a drawing.

Most of the basketball players lived on the second floor of Alumni Hall in the wing where my roommate, Dave, was the resident assistant. We got to know many of them. Shooting guard Neal Murray lived on the first floor, next door to Tom and Donavan, two of my first and best friends. Neal was always gracious with us, tolerating our breaking down the games when we ran into him. We cheered a little harder for Neal because of our connection, and he often delivered with well-timed three-point shots. He still holds the Troy record for three-point shooting percentage for a season (46%).

1989 Troy State University Trojan men's basketball team pose for a team photo on the porch of a cabin.
Neal Murray, circled in red, is my all-time favorite Trojan Basketball player, for obvious reasons. Several of his three-point shooting records still stand.

And so it was on that winter night, destitute and trying my best to forget my problems, I clapped and cheered for Neal and his teammates. And then it happened. A few minutes into the second half, Neal delivered a signature three, and we celebrated.

Our cheers hit a new level, though, when a few seconds later they called my name as the next winner of the three-point drawing.

“Lance Wallace, you’ve just won a Wendy’s single combo!”

In that instant, Neal Murray had not only helped the Trojans close in on another win, he helped me secure my Sunday night supper.

I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t won the drawing. I guess I just believed something would come up. Maybe I could sneak a few extra biscuits out of the cafeteria at lunch, or someone would graciously offer to share their Domino’s delivery. Neal Murray made all that moot. After the game I claimed my coupon, and on Sunday night, I enjoyed a Wendy’s single more than I had ever enjoyed a hamburger before.

Was it a miracle? I don’t use that term lightly. I don’t think so. Was it an answer to prayer? I can’t say for sure because I don’t remember making it an urgent matter of prayer.

I can say the one and only time I won the three-point shot drawing during my four years at Troy was at a time I needed it most. Neal Murray will forever be my favorite Troy basketball player.

Mercer pride

Suddenly, at about 2 p.m. Friday, this started popping up on people's Facebook profile across my network.
Suddenly, at about 2 p.m. Friday, this started popping up on people’s Facebook profile across my network.

I had just wrapped up a conference call and had about 15 minutes until I needed to leave my office for my next meeting on the other side of the Georgia Tech campus.

A quick check of the Mercer-Duke score revealed Duke had pulled ahead. No need to get excited. The Number 3 seed was doing what Number 3 seeds do in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

I spent some time working on a PowerPoint presentation and managed a few more productive edits before I clicked back over to see the score. With just a couple of minutes left, Mercer, the overwhelming underdog, had pulled ahead.

“This might get interesting,” I thought.

So like a lot of other Mercer fans – an almost nonexistent term until yesterday – I indulged and gave up a few minutes of my day to see an improbable upset, leaving my office only when the outcome was no longer in doubt.

I wasn’t much good in my meeting. I kept checking Twitter and Facebook to see my myriad social media connections to Mercer light up with jubilation. The unbelievable had happened.

That’s when I felt it, a moment I had never felt as a holder of a master’s degree from Mercer: school pride. Did I mention I used to work there, too? No? Well, I did, and now that Mercer has defeated Duke in the NCAA tournament, you can bet I’ll be mentioning it a lot more in the future.

“Yeah, I used to work there… you know, Mercer? Yeah, that’s right, the school that beat Duke.”

The Mercer Entourage in Raleigh to witness the biggest win in school history. Photo courtesy of Cindy Drury of Mercer Campus Life.
The Mercer Entourage in Raleigh to witness the biggest win in school history. Photo courtesy of Cindy Drury of Mercer Campus Life.

In the South, you must have your teams. I know this is more of a football phenomenon in the Deep South, but when you look to the Appalachian or coastal regions, basketball is king.

Having pride in your school’s athletic accomplishments is not just a Southern thing, but in the New South, it definitely gives you markers with which you can identify yourself on social media. You are either a Dawg or a Jacket, an exclaimer of “Roll Tide” or “War Eagle,” a fan of Florida or Florida State and so on. This is a socially acceptable and even socially expected way to identify yourself.

And up until yesterday, the shorthand “Mercer fan” had not existed. Yes, I have plenty of friends who work at Mercer and some whose children go there, and a lot of people in my personal network, including my wife, went there, but even those with close connections to the school weren’t really rabid with Mercer basketball pride.

Even my wife, who has not one once of athletic interest, managed to come up with a Facebook post that entered the realm of euphoric fanaticism… for her:

“Be the Bear, Mercer Proud, and all that jazz!”

Lame, I know, but that’s the point: Mercer has a bunch of graduates and “fans” like this who are ill-prepared to celebrate a success of this magnitude. Even I didn’t know what to do with these feelings of Mercer pride at first, but now that I know what this is, it’s growing on me.

For all the academic purists out there, this is where you have to admit that athletics plays an important role in higher education. For every alumnus who goes on to invent something great or achieve a lofty position or have a national nightly cable show, not even Nancy Grace can give a school the kind of profile that a bracket-busting victory in the NCAA tournament can.

This is why schools have athletic programs. This is ultimately why Mercer reinstated its football program this year after a 72 year hiatus. Sports get people excited. High-profile victories against national powerhouse programs put you on their level, at least for a day. Alumni feel pride. The general public talks about your school. High school kids suddenly think they may want to go there. Donors are inspired to write big checks.

We’ll see what happens Sunday when Mercer takes on Tennessee, but for now, there’s plenty to celebrate for “Mercer Nation” … another term that has never before been used in the English language until yesterday.

I, for one, will break out my “Be the Bear” T-shirt and wear it with pride.

OK, Mercer fans, it’s your shining moment. Share what you were doing when Mercer beat Duke. Were you at the game in Raleigh? Were you at work sneaking a peak at the ESPN gamecast? What was it like? Leave a comment below and let the celebration continue.