By Joe Rector
The first time I ever eyed Howard “Redbone” Cochran, he was walking across the main quad at Tennessee Tech. I’d seen football players before, but Redbone almost seemed freakish with his towering height and bulging muscles. His bright red hair clashed with the school colors of purple and gold, but I wasn’t about to tell him, nor was anyone else, lest he tear that informer’s body parts from the torso.
Howard was an offensive guard for the Golden Eagles, and he had little trouble whipping the man in front of him. Then he’d look to find another victim to demolish. Howard’s teammates were every bit as fierce. They included such NFL players as Elois Grooms (Saints) and Jim Youngblood (Rams). The team won the OVC Howard’s senior year and went on to play in the 1972 Grantland Rice Bowl.
Most males in the freshman class of 1970 feared the members of the football team. Rumors flew about one monster’s beat down of a first-year student who dared to walk on the same side of the street. Other stories told of wild parties in Cooper Hall, the athletic dorm, where football players destroyed most every item in the dorm and relieved themselves in the corners of the elevator.
To help fill the physical education requirement for a degree, I signed up for weightlifting. No, I wasn’t an avid bodybuilder; in fact, I weighed a measly 135 pounds at the time and had arms and legs with no muscular definition. I took this course to knock out a requirement and thought it would be easy since a senior P.E. major was the instructor
My brother Jim loved to lift weights and asked if he could be in the class as well. We and one other fellow met that night in the football team’s weight room. The door flew open, and this red-haired giant walked in. I was terrified and sure that the guy would do his best to destroy us. He announced that he was the instructor and set out to teach us the correct techniques for lifting. Before half the class was finished, I could feel my tiny muscles straining and cramping. The next couple of mornings I was so sore that walking to classes was excruciating.
Just when I had a handle on the routine we followed, Redbone decided to change things up. He announced that we’d complete supersets. The idea behind the new plan was to complete as many reps as possible of one exercise in 30 seconds and then move to the next and do the same thing. By the time we finished supersets, none of us could move. Exhaustion made just standing up nearly impossible. I survived the course but promised myself never again to make such a horrible mistake.
A couple of weeks ago, Amy and I traveled on a bus tour to New York. As we approached the door of the bus, I noticed a hulking figure helping folks to get on the bus. Immediately, I knew it was Howard. I walked up to him and asked if he was, in fact, Howard Redbone Cochran. He nodded with a smile and asked if he was supposed to know me. I shook my head but told him of the class he’d taught fifty years ago.
Howard and I developed a fast and deep relationship on the trip to New York. We spent time talking about the old days, politics, and our aching bodies. I’ve never so quickly grown to like a person the way I do this man. He is kind, generous, thoughtful, and honest. He spent years coaching football, and I’m sure his players were better men for having met him. I remembered a certain play that excited him since no one else had ever mentioned it.
Going to Central Park with Amy was the highlight of our trip. She’d wanted to go, and nothing would keep me from getting her there. The most memorable thing in New York had nothing to do with the city. Instead, it completely dealt with reconnecting with an acquaintance from fifty years ago and becoming good friends. Redbone, thank you for making my first and last visit to New York so successful. We’ll be in touch before long.