In the fall of 1995 I had not discovered creatine yet and was still a rail. Brandon on the other hand had worked his tail off to pack on a significant amount of weight and gain a ton of strength. He was now a redshirt freshman on the USL Football team, wearing the number 14. This was long before star wide receivers like Marques Colston made wearing numbers in the teens fashionable. We grew up on guys like #84 Eric Martin of the Saints and obviously #80 Jerry Rice of the 49ers. #14 for a wide out … what was that all about? It seemed a bit weird. Or perhaps it was one of the only numbers left and they tossed it to a scrub.
"Yeah, I know Brandon," a female classmate told me with a look of disdain, "He's trying to take my boyfriend's position. He'll probably have it easy because he's the coaches' son."
And predictably there it was … people skeptical because they thought Brandon would receive preferential treatment. They believed the full dose of good, ol' fashioned nepotism was on its way. In actuality nothing could have been further from the truth. Coach Nelson Stokley pounded his son at practice and wasn't actually dripping with praise for him when speaking to the press. I certainly can't recall specific quotes, but I remember the basic message being "He's got a long way to go."
During the second game of the season, I remember watching USL wax Alabama-Birmingham 56-21 at Cajun Field. As I stood in the stands with lifetime friend and fellow USL student Shannon Comeaux … I remember cheering as Brandon got into the game late and caught a couple of passes. Wasn't that nice? Stokley got a little playing time, hauled in a couple of balls in a college football game and broke into the stat column. Ok, let's go home now. We had no idea what was coming.
The following week a star was born. The Cajuns were beaten at Memphis 33-19, but the famed "Jake & Bake" connection would soar for the first time. I heard the score on the radio that night and paid it little mind. However, I was astonished the following morning when I picked up a copy of The Daily Advertiser. "I wonder if Brandon got in? I wonder if he caught a pass?" I thumbed through the sports page and was shocked. Are you kidding me? Stokley had gone absolutely nuts … 6 catches, for 155 yards and a touchdown. He and quarterback Jake Delhomme (Another future NFL veteran and Super Bowl participant) had obviously struck a chord and had great chemistry. Soon they would become one of the deadliest pass-catch combinations in college football. From scrub to star, Stokley would shatter Ragin Cajun single-season receiving records that year with a jaw-dropping 75 receptions, for 1,121 yards and 9 TDs. Crushing all the school's CAREER records would soon follow. And what happened to that skeptical, bitter girl in my class? Well, I can't even remember her name. And no one remembers her boyfriend either.
As I enjoyed red beans & rice, jambalaya and pork tip plate lunches at my favorite college hangout Campus Copies the following fall (yes, the best food on the USL campus was served at a place called Campus Copies), I noticed Brandon was beginning to pop up on Ragin Cajun posters all over town for the upcoming 1996 season. As I glanced at the photo of Stokley leaping like Superman, fully-extended with the ball in his hands as he broke the goal-line for a score … one date on the schedule stood out just like the beautiful women we walked past each day. Texas A&M was coming to Cajun Field.
September 14, 1996 was the date to be exact. I can distinctly remember tailgating that afternoon with my Sigma Nu brothers and others leading up to the upcoming kickoff. USL students always had a bad habit of partying like animals in the parking lot and then deciding not to attend the game. I always joked that if we could just get HALF of the tailgaters inside Cajun Field … the place would be packed every game. Unfortunately, it appeared this bad trend would continue. Even for the Wreckin' Crew. "Uhhh, I don't think we're gonna go to the game," I heard a few of them say. Being the sports nerd in the group who actually cared more about the game than what happened before, I wouldn't have it. "You guys don't understand. This is TEXAS A&M. This may never happen again (and it hasn't). You have to make it inside!"
Actually, most of them did. We were sprawled out across on the grass, on the hill behind the goal-posts. It's exactly what good times in college are supposed to be. The game did not start well. Delhomme would throw an interception on the first play of the game. It appeared we were in for a long night, as almost everyone expected. But the Ragin Cajun defense played the game of their lives, forcing the Aggies into an incredible 8 turnovers. USL returned three of those for touchdowns, as the D basically did all of the scoring. Stokley and the USL offense were actually quiet for most of the contest, but he certainly would deliver his signature moment. Late in the contest after what would be the game-winning score, Brandon snatched a critical two-point conversion from Delhomme for the last cushion.
Final score – USL 29, Texas A&M 22
The 36,000 in attendance rushed the field and tore down the goal-posts. I know a few of them who got hit with pepper spray from the police. Security was clearly not prepared for or experienced in dealing with such episodes. My Sigma Nu brother Parrish Jones got hit in the eyes from point-blank range. He crashed to the ground in pain for a moment, winced as fire burned his pupils, then rose to his feet and took off running with his arms in the air screaming like a mad man. The goal posts were carried to "The Strip", still the hot spot at the time. A fun night followed at The Keg.
Beating the Aggies was more Nelson's night than Brandon's. It would be the high point of his USL coaching career. For years the Ragin' Cajuns had lived in the shadow of Stokley's alma mater LSU … fighting for respect, begging and pleading for attention. On this night … with the Fightin' Tigers off, USL had the state stage all to themselves. And they would certainly cash in, knocking off a traditional national power and getting their share of ESPN love. "Hey guys! The Ragin Cajuns made Sportscenter!" There would be no sophomore slump. "Jake & Bake" kept cooking and Stokley snatched another 81 passes, for 1,160 yards and 7 TDs.
But Brandon Stokley has been no stranger to adversity and it would strike hard during his junior season in 1997. With Delhomme now gone, the Cajuns found themselves 0-3 after getting spanked by at Pittsburgh 45-13, Oklahoma State 31-7 and Texas Tech 59-14. To make matters worse … USL had to return the trip to Texas A&M. Yeah … good luck with that one. There was talk of the Aggies trying to score 28 points a quarter, to revenge their Lafayette embarrassment. It wasn't quite that bad, but it was bad enough. A&M blanked USL to the tune of 66-0 at Kyle Field. And that wasn't the worst news of the day for Stokley. While streaking down the field on a pass pattern, Stokley's foot planted in the turf and didn't let go. His knee was ripped to shreds, his season was lost. USL crashed to an absolutely abysmal 1-10 finish without him, getting destroyed by Tulane 56-0 and Ryan Leaf's Washington State Cougars 77-7 along the way. A long spring and summer of rehab lay ahead. Brandon's football career once again in serious doubt.
As the calendar turned to 1998, I was beginning my second year of interning at KLFY-TV in Lafayette. I needed to decide what the heck I was going to do with my life. Sports director Mike Roebuck and sportscaster Phil Aldridge were teaching me what TV was all about as my graduation approached. I quickly learned it was not about looking pretty, reading a few lines and then calling it a day. It was about learning how to edit highlights, editing them under intense deadline, picking up a 45 pound camera, shooting your own video and navigating the country roads of South Louisiana while hustling to cover high school football on Friday nights. They would also teach me cheering for Brandon on the sidelines or any other Cajun during games would not fly. Once you cross that line into the media … you don't cheer at games. I proved to have a good work ethic and little bit of talent. So TV-10 allowed me to occasionally do little feature stories. Stories that actually aired. I pitched a Stokley rehab/comeback piece. They said cool, good idea. It was fun to be interviewing Brandon at the USL weight room and shoot some video of his intense rehab. I think he appreciated the story that aired.
As fall approached, I had my most ambitious, and some thought most ridiculous idea yet … my own football TV show. Acadiana Open Channel (AOC) was the public access station in Lafayette, and presented most anyone the opportunity to air any show they envisioned. Believe me, I saw the quality of stuff that aired on that channel. People's weddings, a KKK show and long, rambling concerts shot with one camera that never moved. I knew we could do a quality show and kick some butt. We could do this. I called my best friend Taylor Begnaud, "You and I are going TV. We're gonna have our own show. LIVE." The name would be direct and simple - The Doucet/Begnaud Football Report.
Needless to say, friends and even my loving parents were a bit skeptical. The thought of Taylor and I hosting a one-hour LIVE television show conjured thoughts of Beavis & Butthead or Wayne & Garth. For those of you who don't know … that's A LONG TIME to be on television. If you've got nothing to say, nothing to contribute, nothing interesting to share … things can sink quicker than a stone.
Long story short … the show was a smash. Taylor and I landed guests like Kevin Faulk, Tommy Hodson and Dalton Hilliard. Fourth string Saints QB at the time Jake Delhomme was our first guest ever in the summer of 1998. We became recognizable on campus as "those dudes with that football TV show". Our friends … drunk and sober lined up and called in during the phone-in segment. Future LSU All-American linebacker Trev Faulk (A Lafayette High Lion at the time) led the way on the local high school smack talk. Rivals from different high schools called in to talk noise … but kept things clean and spirited. St Thomas More star and future NFL FB Luke Lawton was one of them also. When I needed the Stokley's … they were there for me. Brandon, along with USL punter and fellow former Comeaux Spartan Chris Shaw appeared with us to talk Ragin Cajun football. Both wore shorts and both appeared to have shaved their legs. That was something certainly brought up on the broadcast. Hey, it was the late 90's!
However, one phone call in particular led to an awkward moment.
"Hey, what do y'all think about Coach Stokley? Y'all think he's a good coach? I think it's time for him to go!" Taylor, God bless him, did what he always did to a caller he didn't like. He punched the phone placed between us and hung up on the dude.
"By the way, for those you who don't know," Begnaud said, "Coach Stokley is Brandon's DAD." Everyone laughed, including Brandon.
Without a doubt, Coach Stokley was a bit on the hot seat entering the year. The talk was he was being allowed to return, mostly because it was Brandon's last year. USL would allow him to coach his son one last time.
Coach Stokley, likewise, came on The Doucet/Begnaud Football Report. Looking back … that's really touching to me. He certainly didn't have to make time for us, but he did. What he saw was a young, 21-year old kid trying to get his career started, trying to do something special. He knew Brandon was my friend. He wanted to help me and he did. I won't forget that. Or the fact he got a few confrontational phone calls during that show … and still rolled with it smiling.
Brandon made a huge comeback from his knee injury. Despite lacking any consistent quarterback play … Stokley put up Stokley/Delhomme like numbers. He made 65 catches, for 1,173 yards and 8 touchdowns. The USL team however was a bit dreadful. The Cajuns finished 2-9 and tragically Brandon's mother passed away the night USL was blasted 42-10 by Daunte Culpepper and Central Florida in Lafayette. He was told of the news following the game. His father Nelson Stokley was likewise nudged towards the retirement door. His days of coaching were over. USL won the Stokley's final game 38-24 over Western Kentucky before a sparse, miserable, rain soaked crowd at Cajun Field.
And so it went. I graduated from USL in the spring of 1999. After a short stint as an afternoon sports talk show host in Lafayette, I was on my way to the minor leagues of local television … Alexandria, Louisiana. I had landed a job as a sportscaster at KLAX-TV. Despite some tough personal challenges, Stokley's future obviously looked much brighter. He was a 4th round draft pick by the Baltimore Ravens in the 1999 NFL Draft.
Although Stokley was at a much higher level in his profession, we both faced similar challenges and had similar thoughts. We were no longer in our Lafayette comfort zones (although I wasn't far). It was time to grow up and prove ourselves.