Freshman memories still fresh

Judging by what I see from my friends on social media, we are in the season of sending our kids off to college.

This year marks the fourth August we have experienced this, and next year we’ll go through the exercise with two kids. But whether this is the first time or a repeat experience, the act of loading a vehicle down with dorm or apartment stuff and hugging my son goodbye inevitably takes me back to that special time in my life when I made that journey for the first time.

In late summer 1988, my mom, grandmother and youngest brother loaded my stuff in the family car and drove to Troy, Ala. Dad was on a mission trip in Ecuador, so my freshman year began with unlikely entourage making the 8-hour trek from Lake Wales, Fla.

From my first day on campus at what was then called Troy State University, I made good friends with guys like Peter, Tom, Ross, Donavan, and Trey. David, who would become my roommate for nearly two years, and I met the first week as freshman tutors in the Writing Center.

As an extrovert, the college experience suited me perfectly. I thrived on the independence to make my own choices: when to go to bed, who to hang out with, what to eat, how much time to devote to studying. I excelled academically, and I enjoyed interacting with professors, particularly the journalism faculty.

Lance, top row first on the right, and nine friends from Troy University pose in the hallway of Alumni Hall on the campus of Troy University in 1989.
Alumni Hall alumni… Troy’s largest dorm no longer stands, but the memories made there last a lifetime.

A key to my happiness that first year was finding Campus Outreach. The evangelical campus ministry proved to be a safe place to grow in my faith and meet other people who had similar beliefs and faced similar challenges. Fun outings, meaningful worship services and connections to a local church expanded my horizons. Other groups that provided social opportunities included my Honors Program cohort and the staff of the student newspaper, The Tropolitan.

Dating came easily and naturally. If I saw someone I liked, I asked her out. One night during winter quarter of my freshman year, I happened to have scheduled back-to-back dates, and my across-the-hall neighbor, Dave, a football player, caught me between outings. When he found out I was about to leave for my second date, he dubbed me “the Love Broker.” It stuck because it was ironic. I was hardly a player.

I made friends with a group of guys from Miami who had somehow managed to make their way to Troy. My next door neighbor, Dino, shared a telephone with me, back when they were on the wall and had a cord. Dino took his calls in the hallway, and he once freaked out our resident assistant by yelling “Com quem? Com quem?” into the phone. He was asking his parents in Portugese “With whom? With whom?” The RA, who knew Dino was from Miami, thought he was placing a drug order, fitting the “Miami Vice” stereotype.

Trojan basketball games were a thrill for my group of friends, particularly the Sunday afternoon when they set the NCAA single game scoring record by beating DeVry 258-141. We saw a ton of movies at the Pike 3 cinema, went bowling at the all-night Bama Bowl in Montgomery and frequented the restaurants along the Highway 231 strip on Sunday nights when the on-campus cafeteria was closed.

That first year there was no hint of the drama that would unfold with my parents, and I frequently sent letters to my youngest brother, drawing little “Calvin and Hobbes” comics at the top. Lyle was in first grade and wrote to me about his G.I. Joe action figures and adventures with the dogs.

My freshman year of college capped off a great two-year run of happiness and put me on a road to a lifetime of happiness. I hope and pray the same will be true for my boys on their respective journeys to independence.

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.