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From their vantage point a block away at Methodist Hospital, emergency room personnel didn’t hear the hit. They didn’t watch Memphis State quarterback Russ Vollmer make that horrifying tumble down the concrete stairs at Crump Stadium. But the doctors and nurses would certainly know about it soon enough.

The year was 1963 and then-Memphis State University was in the middle of a fairy tale season. The Tigers had bolted to a 4-0-1 record, including a stunning 0-0 tie with No. 2 ranked Ole Miss that knocked the Rebels out of the polls. By year’s end, Memphis would rise as high as 14th in the country, sport a 9-0-1 record and receive a bid to the Sun Bowl (they held out for a Gator Bowl invite that never came).

But a single play during an Oct. 23 tussle with Mississippi State not only looked to doom the season, it did something greater: it gave birth to a legend.

Vollmer, a local star from Central High School, had used the early part of the contest to run all over the Bulldogs. He returned the opening kickoff 79 yards to give Memphis an early lead. 

“I think that made them mad,” says Vollmer.

Russ Vollmer returns to Crump Stadium, Photo Courtesy of The Commercial Appeal
Russ Vollmer returns to Crump Stadium, Photo Courtesy of The Commercial Appeal

It didn’t help, either, that the Tigers had thrashed the Bulldogs 28-7 a year earlier in Starkville — Memphis’ first-ever SEC win. “Our students tried to tear down the goalposts after that win, but their fans beat the heck out of ’em with cowbells,” says Vollmer. “That set up an intense rivalry.”

So a year later, with Vollmer orchestrating what appeared to be a second straight upset, Mississippi State took exception — and things turned nasty.

“I was returning a punt down the sideline and they chased me out of bounds,” says Vollmer. “I had dropped the ball and was returning to the field when a guy hit me late. I really never saw him coming.

“I remember seeing the tops of heads as I flew over the Mississippi State bench. I hit the stairs to the dressing room.”

Memphis coach Billy “Spook” Murphy charged across the field, screaming into the faces of Mississippi State coaches. “You can’t do that to one of our players and get away with it,” the fiery coach said. “We are going to get you!”

The stadium went completely silent, then-student Larry Gardner says.

“They carried him off the field to an awaiting ambulance,” he says. “We thought our only chance of winning had evaporated.”

Indeed, it did look bad as Vollmer was rushed to the emergency room at Methodist Hospital.

“I had no feeling in my back,” Vollmer says.

To make matters worse, the 11th-ranked Bulldogs scored twice to take a 10-9 lead going into the half. As the teams sprang back on the field for the third quarter, there was still no sign of Vollmer.

But the unexpected happened.

“All of a sudden Vollmer appeared at the top of those same stairs where he had been hit,” recalls Gardner. “Everyone in the stadium, especially the students, went wild as he trotted around the field to the Memphis State side. We went from the doldrums to euphoria.”

Says Vollmer, “Coach Murphy pulled me aside and said, ‘Do you hear that? Now go out there and kick their butts!’”

Vollmer and the Tiger team did just that: late in the game, the quarterback drove Memphis downfield 70 yards to set up a game-winning touchdown by Dave Casinelli.

Vollmer was named Associated Press National Back of the Week. And the Tigers would finish the season with perhaps their best year ever. — by Greg Russell

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Last Updated: 5/15/15