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Journey's End

John Grisham describes his undergraduate days at Mississippi State University.
Mississippi State Alumnus Magazine, Winter 1991.

It was not a significant event in my life when I arrived at MSU in 1975. It was, however, significant that I stayed.

I was a sophomore, I think. The uncertainty is because I had transferred around so much and lost so many hours that no one could determine exactly my status. I had also changed majors three times in three semesters, and this contributed heavily to the confusion. In fact, I arrived on campus unannounced, unregistered, without transcripts, and generally unconcerned by any of this. After all, I was just passing through. I had two roommates, and we were in the process of sampling every college in the state. My parents were paying for this, and even they had lost track of where I happened to be enrolled.

I was not ready for college. I was a professional athlete waiting to be discovered and signed. I had pretty much given up on football, which was fine because my true love was baseball. To my surprise, no colleges recruited me in high school and my name was not mentioned in the June 1973 draft.

Undaunted, I played my freshman year at a junior college, then decided it was time to move up. I transferred to Delta State and attempted to walk on in the fall of 1974. 1 walked on for three weeks until one day I stood at home plate and watched in horror as a fast ball came directly at my head at 90 m.p.h. It missed, but I was sick at my stomach. The next pitch was a bit slower but nonetheless headed straight for my ear. I immediately dived toward third base and did not see the ball as it dropped and curved beautifully across the plate. I could hear laughter as I rolled in the din and grass. I faked back spasms and crawled to the dugout. The next day, Boo Ferris, that perfect gentleman, called me into his office and confessed he didn't think I could hit a fast ball. And, since it had already been established I couldn't hit a curve, there wasn't much left. Pitchers can be cruel when they spot weaknesses.

Boo cut me kindly, and my career was over. My roommates were restless, and we left Delta State at the end of the semester. One of them wanted to study forestry, so we headed to State. The other wanted to see the mountains, and there was some talk about maybe trying Appalachian State next if the forestry studies didn't work out. I had shown not the slightest interest in things academic for the first year and a half of college. Someday, I was certain, someone with vision would pay me a lot of money to play baseball. My grades had started dismally, and declined. Who cared? How many Hall of Famers have college degrees?

And so it came to pass that I was stood with an attitude before a very patient lady in the admissions office and listened as she explained why I could not be admitted until my transcripts arrived. I had no idea where my transcripts were, I said rudely, and furthermore, I didn't really care. If State didn't want me, I'd simply go elsewhere. We'd been in Starkville three days, and my roommates were already restless.

She was a pro at handling jerks, and after huddling with her superior it was determined I could take classes for a few days until my records arrived. I wrote a check for the tuition and fees, and a week later this same sweet lady called my apartment and informed me the check had bounced. I had arrived.

In the course of all this, I had changed my major to finance, I think, and my classes were in Bowen Hall. McCool Hall was not yet finished. Attending class was a new experience for me. My first one was some species of economics. The instructor was a crusty old fellow who, on the first day, made the mistake of suggesting the military should step in and protect Saigon during the evacuation. This was 1975, the communists were rampaging, and our part of the war had been over for two years. This professor was one of those conservative bomb throwers who thought war was fine as long as someone else was fighting it, and his big mistake was to spout his beliefs before a class which happened to include two Vietnam veterans, one of whom had been wounded and neither of whom appreciated his armchair strategies. A vicious debate erupted as these veterans took him to task and virtually stripped him naked before the class. He tried to hold his ground, but he was rather pitiful. Others smelled blood, and he was soon surrounded by a nasty pack of angry students. It was wonderful. I was amazed at my class mates who were articulate and prepared and unafraid of attacking a professor.

Of course, I contributed nothing to the discussion. I hadn't even purchased the textbook. But at that moment, in my first class at State, I became a student - not a radical, but a kid who suddenly wanted to grow up and learn. I wanted to be able to attack professors and tie them in knots with my deft arguments and piercing analyses.

I bought the textbook, and went to the class for two weeks before dropping it. Economics was not my bag. One of the veterans was an accounting major with impeccable grades. He was bitter about the war, and he wanted to go to law school so he could sue people and in general fight the system. My grades were far from impeccable, but they were salvageable, he thought, but only if I went to work. He said accounting was the toughest major in business, and if I couldn't get into law school I would still have an excellent degree.

This sounded good. I told him I was not afraid to change my major. And besides, I thought to myself, there was still an outside chance of playing baseball, and if that happened then I would be in an excellent position to count my money. Whatever.

Much to the amazement of my room mates, I began to study and attend classes. I took notes, read the assignments, wrote the papers, and prepared for the exams. I decided it was best not to attack professors because, as I quickly learned, these guys give the grades, and suddenly I was caught up in the competition for grades. I laid off the professors. Lucky for them. By mid-term of that first semester, I was a regular scholar. We moved into McCool Hall, and I was there bright and early every morning reading the Wall Street Journal and brushing up on the assignments. I decided I would specialize in tax law and make millions representing rich people.(This never happened.)

Baseball started in early March, and I discovered Dudy Noble. This was B.P. (Before Polk), and the wins were scarce and the crowds were thin. On those cool spring nights, I liked nothing better than to sit alone in the wooden bleachers, far from home plate, with a thermos of coffee, just watching and thinking. I watched those players, my age and younger, with much sadness because they were out on the field, and I wasn't. Nonetheless, I loved the game.

It was at Dudy Noble, in the late innings of some long forgotten game, that I finally made peace with myself. It was cold, and as I huddled over my thermos I realized that none of the players I was watching would ever make a living playing baseball. In a few short years, they would be just like me--scratching and clawing to find a good job and get ahead. So, I decided, they were no better off. I told myself it was time to grow up, to stop dreaming of the World Series and adoring masses, to get a degree and then another, to simply get to work. When I left the bleachers that night, I was no longer a boy.

By the end of the semester, my room mates were ready to move on. They had watched my transformation with much suspicion, and it was time for the moment of truth. They announced they were leaving State, and demanded to know if I would leave with them. No, I said. I had found a home. Our journey was over. We parted as good friends, and remain so to this day.

Years later, I sat in the Left Field Lounge one night and watched the Dawgs pound some hapless opponent. My spot out there is on top of an antique, engineless, hand-painted maroon pickup co-owned by my pals Scott Ross and Bill Henry, two guys who keep plenty of food and refreshments and therefore their truck is a magnet for hungry and thirsty students. On this night, I had been thinking about my old days at Dudy Noble, and in particular that one night when I sat alone and said goodbye to the things of youth. As fate would have it, two young college boys sat in front of me. The game was boring, and I found myself listening to their conversation. One was a sophomore, and very confused, uncertain of his major, undecided about most everything, even contemplating a transfer to another school. It was me, thirteen years earlier.

I didn't say a word. I didn't know him, and I was over thirty, so he wouldn't have listened anyway. But I had so much to tell him, so much wonderful advice. I smiled to myself as he poured his heart out to his friend. I wanted so badly to put my hand on his shoulder, and simply say, "You've come to the right place."

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