Monday, January 18, 2021

Ole Miss Football 1989: Success and Tragedy

By Tyler Komis

IMC Student

Photo courtesy of Ole Miss Athletics

John Darnell and Ole Miss football were focused on having success in 1989. And while they did, there was tragedy along the way.

During that season the Rebels looked to their senior quarterback as one of the leaders of the team. Darnell was entering his third season for Ole Miss and was looking to make a spark after attempting less than 100 passes in his first two seasons as Mark Young’s backup.

The team ended up finishing the 1989 season with a record of 8-4 and won the Liberty Bowl against the Air Force Falcons. Though the Rebels were successful that year, that success did not come easy. 

During the 1989 season tragedy struck in Oxford. Week eight on October 28 when the Rebels were taking on Vanderbilt, Rebel defender Chucky Mullins tackled Commodore fullback Brad Gaines on a pass attempt. On the play Mullins had a shattered vertebrae in his spine and was paralyzed, which was the case for the remainder of his life.

Darnell explained how an already tight-knit team became even closer.

“We were all pretty close and we all lived in the athletic dorm,” he said. “You got to be real close in there. We all ate together. When Chucky went down, it was like one of us. It hurt but the University did a good job managing it.”

Mullins spent multiple weeks in a hospital in Memphis. 

“When we got time off, which wasn’t often, we always ran up to Memphis to see Chucky,” Darnell said. 

After Mullins’ injury, the team still had four more games to finish, so the Rebels kept pushing.

“We had to get ready to play LSU the next week,” Darnell said of the rivalry game which was also to be played in Oxford. “For me there wasn’t much time and you had to stay focused on the team.”

Darnell and the Rebels lost a close one in a dramatic comeback against the Tigers that fell just short. They were down big in the game but rallied to lose only 35-30. After losing at Tennessee, Ole Miss closed out the regular season with a 21-11 win against Mississippi State.

Then it was on to the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, and that’s where Mullins remained in the hospital.

“There were times we rallied for Chucky. One of them was the last game we played in the Liberty Bowl,” Darnell said. “That was tough but we rallied around that. During the Liberty Bowl he got to come out there and it was really special.” 

Those last few games rounded out a roller coaster 1989 season. Darnell and the Rebels never seemed to give up even when faced with adversity. Darnell had his best season by far in 1989, throwing for 2,326 yards to go along with 11 touchdown passes.

Chucky Mullins died on May 6, 1991, a year and a half after his injury. The Ole Miss football program still honors the team’s inspiration for that 1989 season. The Chucky Mullins Courage Award is one of the team’s most important awards and honors the memory of the former Rebel. The winner gets the great privilege of wearing the special No. 38 jersey for the season. 

Rebel cornerback Jaylon Jones is the most recent winner of the prestigious award and has worn the jersey throughout the 2020 season.

The Rebel football team of 1989 wasn’t just a group of teammates but a family of guys who still stay in touch to this day, 31 years later.