Good Bo, Bad Bo? No, but Watkins has written a great book
This entry comes with a caveat: Billy Watkins is a close friend, a writer I greatly admire. We worked together for decades. I believe he is one of Mississippi’s greatest-ever journalists, sports and otherwise.
One reason Billy is such a fine writer is that he is the best interviewer I’ve ever witnessed. He has a knack for getting people to open up. I’ve seen coaches and athletes tell Billy stuff they never intended to tell a soul. That’s because he is a great listener.
Billy is a people person. As a sports writer, he always understood that the story is not the x’s and the o’s, it’s about the people. His new book about Bo Wallace and the 2014 Ole Miss football season is such a must-read, not only for Ole Miss fans but for college football fans.
Sometime during the 2014 season — I think about halfway through — Billy told me about what he had going with Bo Wallace. That he and Bo were talking several times a week and that Bo was really opening up on every level. I told Billy what he already knew, that this was much bigger than a feature-length newspaper feature. This was a book.
And it has become a fine book. It gives so much insight, not only into Bo Wallace, but into what college athletes endure — the emotional highs and lows, the physical aches and pains. As the old ABC Wide World of Sports intro put it, it tells the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. And it tells it in such a readable way. Billy’s feature stories are some of the longest The Clarion-Ledger ever publishes, but they never seem so. As a reader, you can’t wait to get to the next paragraph and you are selfishly sad when the story ends. It’s the same with this book.
So much was written and said all during that remarkable 2014 season about Good Bo and Bad Bo. Watkins gives us the real Bo — and a great book.
Both Watkins and Bo Wallace will be at Lemuria on Thursday and Square Books in Oxford on Friday for the book’s kickoff. The signings will begin at 5 and then a talk will follow at 5:30 both places. On Saturday, Watkins and Wallace will sign books at the Ole Miss Student Union from noon until 2 p.m.
What follows is Neil White’s (Nautilus publisher and accomplished author himself) interview of Watkins:
How were you able to gain inside access to Bo Wallace during Ole Miss’ football season?
The short answer is, Bo wanted his story told. I offered to tell it. Sounds simple, right? But the truth is, a lot of stars had to align.
I had to know him well enough to approach him about it, and he had to trust me enough to share information about himself, the team, their game plans each week, personnel, injuries. And it certainly helped that the 2014 season turned out to be as dramatic as it was. Somehow, it all came together. I believe it was divine intervention, and I don’t say that lightly. I always seek God’s guidance about what I am supposed to write.
When did you approach Bo?
About two weeks after the 2013 Egg Bowl.
When he fumbled in overtime and sealed Mississippi State’s 17-10 victory in Starkville, I watched as he made that long walk from one end of the field to the other, toward the visitors’ dressing room. I told my youngest son, who was sitting in the stands with me, “Bo is going to have a long, long off-season.” Right after that, a voice in the back of my head said, “And you’re going to write about it.”
A couple of days later, the idea started gnawing at me. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to follow Bo’s senior journey from that Egg Bowl — which ended about as badly as it possibly could for a player — to the next Egg Bowl, which would be the final regular-season game of his career?” It really intrigued me. He was an accomplished quarterback, a centerpiece player on a team in the national spotlight, and somewhat controversial in the public’s eyes.
But I didn’t picture it as a book at that time. Maybe a long feature story for the newspaper I work for, The Clarion-Ledger, or maybe a magazine piece. I didn’t worry about that part of it in the beginning. I had to find out if Bo was interested in the idea.
How well did you know Bo?
Not well at all. I knew about Bo because he spent the year before going to Ole Miss at East Mississippi Community College, which I graduated from in the early ’70s. A lot of my friends and relatives watched Bo play there, and they kept telling me how good he was. When he was being recruited, I watched some video of him on a recruiting site and thought, “This guy has a chance to be special.”
After Ole Miss’ spring game before his sophomore year, I introduced myself to him, and we talked for a while. He mentioned that he was battling Barry Brunetti for the starting job, and I said, “Listen, forget all that. You’re going to be the starting quarterback here for three years. You’re going to win a lot of games for Ole Miss. And when you leave here, your name is going to be all over the record book.” He gave me this strange look and said, “Nobody’s ever told me that. Wow, thanks.”
After that, we would talk after games if I happened to run into him. He knew I was a writer for the Jackson newspaper, and after he led the upset of LSU his junior season, I wrote a blog about something that happened while I was talking to him that day at the spring game. Two young kids came up to him, the big star quarterback who had signed three months earlier, and those kids had no clue who he was. They were trying to find Andrew Ritter, the placekicker. One of them asked, “Is Andrew still out here?” Some of the players were still on the field, some had gone in. Bo said, “I bet he is. Let’s go find him.” And that really impressed me that he would take the time to help those kids find Andrew Ritter.
Ritter kicked the winning field goal in the final seconds to beat LSU after Bo had made some great plays with his feet and his arm to set up the kick. I wrote about Bo helping those kids and how most athletes would have just blown it off. I wanted to share a different side of Bo from the hot-headed guy I kept reading about. He came up to me a week or two later, after a game, and told me he appreciated the story.
And while I certainly didn’t write it to get an “in” with Bo Wallace, he told me later that it was one of the reasons he felt comfortable saying “yes” to the project. He knew I would be fair.
How did you pitch the idea to him?
Straight forward. I was able to get his cell phone number, and I called him. I said, “Here’s what I would like to do …” He said immediately, “I’m in.” That was around December 10. We did our first interview on December 19, right before he left Oxford for the Christmas holidays — and 12 days before Ole Miss played Georgia Tech in the Music City Bowl.
Did the first interview give you a good feeling about the project?
It did. Bo was amazingly open. It was the first time he had talked in detail about the fumble in the Egg Bowl, and I think he was glad to get it out of his system.
I remember Bo telling me how he had been really angry about Coach Hugh Freeze’s comments after the game. He felt like Freeze sort of threw him to the wolves. I remember asking him, “Are you willing to let me quote you on all this?” He said, “Hell yeah, quote me.” I knew then that I had a chance to write something that Ole Miss fans, and college football fans in general, would find interesting.
Bo told me early on, “If we’re going to do this, let’s really let people see what life is like for a quarterback in this league.” Which was exactly what I wanted to do.
How often did the two of you talk in the beginning?
I think the Music City Bowl was a good trial run as far as interviewing him about games. I talked to him a couple of times before that one. He talked about how important it was for the team to beat Georgia Tech and not have the Egg Bowl loss —plus a bowl loss — hanging over their heads going into off-season workouts. And he was anxious to play another game and make amends, so to speak, for that fumble.
But he also told me how they planned to attack Georgia Tech’s defense, and how worn down his body was from a grueling season. He had undergone surgery on his throwing shoulder about 11 months earlier and hadn’t been able to go through the summer weightlifting program like the other players. And while his shoulder was structurally sound, it needed rest. But he had to get through one more game. Ole Miss won and Bo was voted Most Valuable Player.
Once the 2014 season started, how often would you talk with him?
We talked at least twice a week, sometimes more. We talked right after games. And we texted. I would usually talk to him the night before a game, and those conversations proved to be crucial to the book. And then I would talk to him on Sunday or Monday. Again, sometimes more. It depended on what was going on.
When did you realize you had a book on your hands?
It first occurred to me after Ole Miss beat Alabama to go 5-0. But I think when Ole Miss beat Tennessee on October 18 and was 7-0 and ranked No. 3 in the nation — and Bo was playing really well — I started thinking of it in terms of a book.
Did you immediately tell Bo? Did you tell Coach Freeze or anyone at Ole Miss?
I mentioned it to Bo. I just said, “I think this has grown into a book. Nothing will change as far as our interview process. It’ll just change when you might see your story in print.” And he was fine with it.
I wanted to tell Coach Freeze and made several requests for a brief one-on-one interview so I could do so. By the time that worked out, the season was over and I had agreed to the publishing deal with Neil White at Nautilus. He talked with the people at Ole Miss and told them what we were doing. Nobody at Ole Miss ever said a negative word to me about it. When I met with Coach Freeze, he said, “The only thing I ask is that you write the truth.” I assured him I would. He said, “Well, then, I hope it’s a New York Times bestseller.”
As you got to know Bo, did the interviews get better?
Definitely. I think he grew to trust me more and more. After the LSU game that did not end well for Bo or for Ole Miss — and I wrote about this in the book — Bo texted me as soon as the team landed in Tupelo and boarded buses for Oxford. He was angry and frustrated about the play calling and saying they had to start throwing more on first down. He could’ve texted a lot of people at that moment, but he texted me. He said in an interview about the book that I became “almost like his psychologist during the season.” And there was some of that. Again, I think just being able to talk about things and get it out of his system really helped him clear his head.
What moments stood out to you about the 2014 season and watching Bo go through it?
It was a bit surreal to watch the fourth quarter of the win over Alabama unfold. He had told me three months earlier that Ole Miss would win that game. It’s one thing to hear him say it. It’s quite another to see it play out almost like he described it in the summer and the night before the game. Of course, the loss to Auburn when Laquon Treadwell fumbled at the goal line while suffering a broken leg was a night I’ll never forget. I was alone with Bo for a while after that game, and he was really emotional. All that’s in the book. And Bo suffering a badly sprained ankle at Arkansas the week before the Egg Bowl made for a dramatic few days leading up to that game. Remember, this was a story about his journey from one Egg Bowl to the next. Suddenly I wasn’t sure he was going to be physically able to play.
How challenging did you find the writing to be?
Hands down, the toughest thing professionally I’ve ever done. And I’ve thought a lot about why, and only recently have I come to understand it, at least a little bit.
I spent 14 months interviewing Bo, from December 2013 through January 2015. There was no way to write the book as the season went along. It was critical to find the right voice to tell Bo’s story, and I couldn’t find that until I knew how the story ended. The season was a grind for Bo, I saw it wear on him. But it was a grind for me, too. When the season was over, everybody else moved on to basketball and baseball. I was stuck in 2014 with one of the most dramatic seasons in Ole Miss football history to revisit and write about, centered around a quarterback who I’m convinced is one of the most misunderstood athletes I’ve ever known.
There were a lot of moving parts within the story. But as writers, we dig and dig until we hopefully find the correct voice and rhythm. Then we trust it and ride it to the end — and pray our instincts were correct.
What is the one thing people might find interesting about Bo Wallace that they probably don’t know.
He’s shy. I know people who have seen him head-butting opponents on television will find that hard to believe, but he really is, especially around people he doesn’t know.
Is there a random memory that will stay with you?
Yes. The Sunday night before the 2014 Egg Bowl, he was standing outside a restaurant in Oxford where we were going to eat supper. His right ankle was in a walking boot. He was on crutches. Doctors were telling him there was no way he would play in the Egg Bowl six days later. And there stood Bo … smiling. Smiling! As if he knew something nobody else did.