Being a sportscaster in Baton Rouge, Louisiana hardly compares to being a veteran wide receiver in the NFL. Let's get that straight right off the bat. It's more the football equivalent of playing in the Arena League or something worse. However, when the Saints dismal 41-36 opening round playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks was complete, I still had to smile. It was one of those "Man, this is pretty cool" moments that I've experienced many times during my nearly 10 years at WAFB-TV. That's because on that field after the game, I realized that two little skinny guys from Lafayette, Louisiana were all grown up. And they were doing exactly what they always dreamed of doing.
Brandon Stokley and I are basically the same age … he's roughly five months older. We grew up together from our days in Junior High. I still remember our woeful Milton Yellow Jackets squaring off against Stokley's Paul Breaux Tigers at their dark, dingy, dungeon of a gym in 8th grade hoops. They killed us. However, I used to have this great photo in my locker (remember those, lockers?) of me soaring for a lay up over that little, goofy, blonde dude with braces. It was certainly the $100 Air Jordan's that elevated me that high, right? My dad made me buff and polish those shoes for years to justify the money we spent on them. Spike Lee would've been proud. Little did I, or anyone else know it would be Stokley soaring over all of us to become one the most recognizable sports figures in Louisiana. Who knew he would grow up to excel at the highest level of professional football?
Brandon and I ran in the same circle of friends and went to the same parties in high school. Although he went to Comeaux High School and I went to North Vermilion … I saw him almost every weekend. Because almost all of my childhood friends went to Comeaux (Taylor Begnaud, Greg Broussard, Stacy Meaux to name a few), I threw parties for those crazy Spartans religiously. I made friends with all of them easily and likewise ended up getting dates to many of their dances. To this day, I'm told many of those 1994 Comeaux graduates still look for me at class reunions. "Jacques didn't go to school with us? What?" As the years passed, my Patriot classmates began to attend in large numbers and blend at our parties as well. My dear friend Scott Breaux is still friends with many of them. Not to brag … but that quirky, yellow, blue and white barn tucked away in Maurice became legendary. Strangers would never see it … we would never miss it. A spoiled, only child (I'll admit it), the entire upstairs of the house acted as my personal apartment. It was not only huge, but the only way to access it was from the stairway outside. Someone could always be on look out for the approaching authorities. There was also a balcony that featured a hot tub and a basketball court below. The music played and the good times rolled. I truly was living better at 16 than I am now.
Stokley was always at these parties. And like most great athletes, was highly competitive at everything he did, which included the card games that went down. There he sat, talking noise and taking everyone's money at the table, while Pearl Jam or The Offspring blared from the stereo. Occasionally I would pop in some Van Halen/Van Hagar. "Turn that #&*@ off Jacques!', Stokley barked annoyed, "It's just … OLD."
Brandon was there for all my big Super Bowl parties too. There he sat on my couch crunching on chips or whatever, as we all watched the biggest sporting event in the world. No, we didn't care about The World Cup. The Super Bowl … it was all bigger than all of us combined … an event that dwarfed our young minds and anything we could ever imagine partaking in. We were all goofy kids, watching from a barn in Maurice, Louisiana! To think I would one day cover the Super Bowl as a sportscaster and be in the lockeroom as the New Orleans Saints (Never!) won a World Championship simply astonishes me. It's something I can't grasp or get my brain around sometimes. It's an experience that still gives me pause. And on an exponentially more amazing level … to think Brandon would not only PLAY in the Super Bowl but catch a touchdown in it? No words. There he sat on the couch … a scrawny little teenager snacking on Doritos.
Amazingly, Brandon almost didn't play football at all in high school. This was a bit baffling to all of us, considering his father Nelson was a former standout LSU quarterback from 1965-1967 and at the time was also the head coach of the USL Ragin Cajuns. The recent firing of Rickey Bustle with the Cajuns and likewise Jerry Baldwin before him really makes me realize what a good coach Stokley was. Although the wins began to dry up near the end of his tenure, there were many more good times than bad during Stokley's run (1986-1997). Watching quarterback Brian Mitchell at Cajun Field in the late 80's was something else. Mitchell was truly a once-in-a-lifetime type of athlete as his NFL career would prove and those USL teams he led were likewise pretty good. In 1989 USL finished 7-4 and almost upset the Alabama Crimson Tide on the road before barely losing 24-17. That team, along with Stokley's 8-3 1993 squad and perhaps several others would've probably played in a bowl game these days. Back then, there weren't nearly as many as the 35 bowl games now … so the Cajuns were stuck at home. I often stood on those sidelines with Brandon and the other coaches' sons. We served as ball boys or held the assistants headsets. Among them was my good friend Chad Beach, whose father Jerry was the defensive coordinator. Chad loved his dad and the team he coached. He often told me Mitchell was much better than my hero at the time, LSU QB Tommy Hodson. We would argue over this and how he thought the Cajuns could beat the Tigers for hours. Looking back … as the Tigers slipped with Mike Archer, I think the Cajuns actually might have had a shot! Chad went on to be a deep-snapper for the Louisville Cardinals and I once watched him recover a fumble live on an ESPN broadcast. That was pretty cool. And he sure reminded me how cool it was many times! Another one was a chubby kid named Kyle Kipps, who wasn't so chunky when he played tight end and defensive end for the LSU Tigers from 1998-2001. I would cover Kipps during my first year at WAFB, which was a bit surreal. The Tigers would win the SEC Championship that year for the first time in 13 years. And of course, standing not far from his father in admiration … there stood Brandon.
The younger Stokley was all about basketball at Comeaux. It wasn't until his senior year that he decided to play the game he was destined to star in all along. With our buddy and quarterback Reggie Flugence firing bullets, Brandon would catch over 80 passes for over 1,000 yards. We all shook our heads and laughed. After sitting out for all these years, he strolled out there and made it look so easy.
When college rolled around in the fall of 1994, there I was sitting with Stokley in freshman Algebra at USL. I admired Brandon, and thought it was cool to share a class with him after we went to different high schools. We had fun, but it would be the first of several times I would drop that stupid class. I hated math … unless it came to sports scores or statistics. That's all I needed in my future anyway, right? And likewise Stokley's football career also seemed on the verge of being dropped. He was basically my size … not exactly the type of build you need to play Division 1-A football. As a matter of fact, when people asked me why I had never played football in high school, I would give them an incredulous look. "Are you kidding? Look at how skinny I am!" To which many of them would reply, "So? Look at Stokley! He's just as skinny as you!" Indeed, we were both about 6'0 and maybe 150-155 pounds. For me it was all about shirts with horizontal stripes … those made you look wider. And gym shorts under your jeans could also give you the illusion of thighs and a butt. I thought I knew all the tricks. Not really. And despite Stokley's huge senior year, only McNeese and maybe a few other small schools had shown any interest in Brandon. And yes, once again Brandon was talking basketball. He wanted to be a star in the Cajundome, not at Cajun Field. So he walked on for Marty Fletcher's hoop team and dreamed of 30-point nights. I still vividly remember the look on Brandon's face when we watched USL's season opener that year at Memphis, which was televised by ESPN. He had been told that, along with several other players, he was not going to make that trip. Turns out, he was the only one left behind.
Likewise, it was now time to leave basketball behind for good.