This is the fifth in a series of columns about the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2019.
STARKVILLE – At lunch earlier this week Rockey Felker encountered a friend who recently lost his wife to cancer. Felker stood and embraced the man for several seconds.
“Rockey, it’s just not fair,” the man finally said.
“No,” Felker answered, “it’s not.”
This column is about Felker, one of Mississippi State’s all-time football heroes, about to be inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame Saturday night. It is about a man who in 1974 quarterbacked the Bulldogs out of college football’s wasteland and to nine victories in a single season for the first time since 1941. It’s about a man who returned to State as its head coach for five seasons – and then again later in his career in an administrative capacity. It is about a man beloved by his former teammates, coaches and also by the players he coached and the coaches he coached with.
But it is also about Rockey and Susan – the former Susan Tingle – and their 42-year marriage that ended Feb. 24 of this year when she died after a nearly six-year battle with cancer.
“She had no idea what she was getting into marrying a guy who was gonna be a football coach,” Felker says. “She had no clue the demands she would face, all the nights and weekends I’d be gone, all the moves we would make. She had no idea. But she was the perfect coach’s wife. She held our family together. She was a rock.”
It’s funny, now, how they got together. Originally, Rockey wasn’t pursuing Susan. No, he was after her roommate, a young woman named Nancy. You’d think the handsome, star quarterback would be able to get a date without much help.
“Nancy just wasn’t interested in dating a football player,” Felker said, but he kept trying and in the process became friends with Susan Tingle. Before long, they fell in love with each other.
“Susan didn’t know anything about football,” Felker says, smiling through misty eyes. “But she started coming to the games, at least the home games.”
She wasn’t there when Rockey became a folk hero that night in 1974 in Memphis, guiding the Bulldogs 98 yards against the clock to a huge victory over then-Memphis State. Felker scored the two-point conversion to win it with 49 seconds remaining. Felker also led the Bulldogs to victories over Georgia, LSU and Ole Miss that year. Running the veer option offense, Felker was a magician, knowing when to hand the ball off, when to pitch and when to keep. If passing was needed, he was accurate. He led the SEC in total offense and was named the league’s Player of the Year. State then beat North Carolina 26-24 in the Sun Bowl. By that time, there had even been a song written about Felker: “Rockey can help.”
Meanwhile, Rockey and Susan became a couple – and then husband and wife. And Rockey, a coach’s son, became a coach – an assistant to Bob Tyler at State.
Before Felker’s coaching career ended, the Felkers would move eight times. There were many successes and many heartaches. That’s coaching. The highs and lows of coaching – and all the moves – can be devastating to a marriage. Rockey says Susan made it work.
“It was never easy and sometimes Susan really didn’t want to move,” Felker said.
Along the way, the Felkers were having three sons – Jay, David and Stephen – all athletes, and all of whom would become ministers.
Other than Susan’s battle with cancer, the most difficult time had to be 1990 when Felker’s five-year tenure as head coach at State, which began when he was 33 years young, was coming to an end. He had inherited a talent-thin program from Emory Bellard, upgraded the talent level (especially across both lines), and set the table for Jackie Sherrill.
“I know I left it better than I found it,” is the way Felker puts it these days.
Still, there is no way to adequately describe the heartache the Felkers felt when they were, in effect, let go by their alma mater, the place where they married and the place they loved deeply.
“I was lost,” Rockey said. “I was just kind of in a fog, didn’t know what I was gonna do next.”
Susan had the answer: “Let’s pack the car. We’re going to Disney World.” And they did, with sons who were then 9, 7 and 1.
Oh, the things you remember …
“We’re headed down the road, and from the back seat David (then 7) all of the sudden asks, ‘What’s sex?’”
Rockey decided to let Susan handle this one. And she explained that it’s when your mother and father love and love on one another so much that it produces babies. And that seemed to satisfy the 7-year-old a few minutes until he piped in again, “Mommy, did you and Daddy ever do sex?”
And that’s when 9-year-old Jay piped in, “Come on, David, don’t be dumb. There’s me, you and Stephen. They’ve done it three times…”
Rockey laughed through tears as he told the story. And Rockey said Susan was delighted to learn last fall that he had been chosen for induction into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.
Said Rockey, “She was proud and happy for me. She said I deserved it. I think she wondered – and I did, too – if she would be here when it happened.”
Without question, Rockey says, her spirit will be.
There will be children, grandchildren and Rockey’s mother at the 10-top Felker table, nine of them all.
Said Rockey, “I think we’ll just leave that 10th seat open.”
Previously in this series: