SR: Coach thanks for taking the time to speak with me. Tell me about the work ethic and the practice habits of Keffer and the other things the average fan wouldn’t know.
JS: Well, when you first recruit a kid you never really know that much about him. He was really an excellent young man in high school. He was being recruited by everybody. In high school he was a good running back, but where you really noticed him was on punt returns and kickoff returns and catching the football. He had very, very soft hands.
That summer he was working on a job and somehow a metal rod got dropped on his foot and broke his foot. He missed part of two-a-days, so he redshirted. He came in with the class with Nakia Greer and some others that was really a very good class.
He jumped out very quickly as being different. A lot of kids come in and get wrapped up in the social aspect of it and want to go and experience college life, especially when they have never been away before. When other people were going out or going to a movie, Keffer was going to his house. He was that way all the way through. He graduated in three and a half years.
What really made him different was that he commanded so much respect and not only with the players and his classmates, but his professors and really everybody. He was a kid that came from modest beginnings and didn’t have a lot of monetary stuff, but you could never tell it. Everyday his pants were pressed and his shirts were starched. He just carried himself a little different than normal students.
We had two very good running backs, Bouie and Davis. We used Keffer on screens and stuff like that out of the backfield because he had such great hands. He was very, very successful as a freshman.
He really started to show out as a sophomore. By himself and by the way he played we were able to beat Memphis. He had a really good year and then when he came out the next year he was averaging over two-hundred yards a game until he hurt his knee against South Carolina.
The rehab was very, very tough on him because he had never been hurt before. With all of these things that happened he was becoming a leader on the team because of the respect that the players had. He was the hardest kid on the field when it came to practice and being on time. He was very polished. When he came into the meeting room the other players would be laughing and doing those type things, but when he came in they changed their attitudes.
He was very educated and very intelligent. He was very, very strong as a person character-wise. He made a decision really early on in his life that he was going to accomplish some things with his life.
One thing that most people don’t know is that J.J. Johnson came to Mississippi State because of Keffer McGee. He was so impressed with Keffer when he came on his visit he wanted to come play with him.
The night that we reported, Joe Lee made the comment, “Keffer, my hero!”. Keffer was very modest. He said, ”Coach I am not a hero. I am just a player.”
That night when they called me I thought it was a dream. I was asleep when they called me and that was the furthest thing from my mind. Now I go down to the hospital and by the time I get there of course it is too late.
SR: Do you remember who called you?
JS: I believe it was Nakia, but it may have been Greg (Favors). When I got there it was really hard to understand. Seeing the effect on the players was amazing. I don’t think I have been around a player and I have been around a lot of great, great players you know Dan Marino, Hugh Green, Tony Dorsett and all the way up to Eric (Moulds), Walt (Harris) and the kids we had here, but I have never seen another player have that much respect from his teammates. Even the teammates he never even socialized with.
SR: As a staff what did you all do to get the team ready to start two-a-days and get ready to play football?
JS: The thing that really got us through it was I called quite a few ministers from around town. We brought in the university psychiatrist and tried to understand how do you help the players. The two people who did the most were Ken Smith. He was a minister that really had a lot of experience with this sort of thing. In fact, he was one of the ministers that helped at out Columbine with that tragedy and Keffer’s Mom.
She came and talked to our team. I mean the strength, compassion and love that she showed really affected change to our football team. There is no question that losing Keffer had a drastic effect on our football team, but it was a very positive effect. Up until that time we had never closed practice with the Lord’s prayer. No one set it up or asked if we could do it, but out of respect to Keffer more than anything else people wanted to do it.
SR: After dedicating the 1998 season to Keffer and then making it to Atlanta, I know when you took the field he could not have been far from your mind.
JS: No. I really had a hard time and it really took me three or four years and I still had a hard time. We were going to speak at a school with a few players and I told them we are going to French Camp you all follow me. Edward Yates said he wanted to ride with me.
So we start driving and you have to know that Edward is a very straight forward person. He doesn’t utter any idle words. He asked me why I hadn’t gotten over Keffer. We talked on the way over there and on the way back and Edward was the one that helped me get over Keffer because I just never could get over it.
You have a kid with so much promise and so much to give and so much in front of him. He was completely unselfish. It was very hard for me to understand it and to overcome it.
SR: You made a promise to the McGee family that “We will never let Keffer down!” That is a promise that you kept. Is that a promise that you still keep today?
JS: Yes. There is not a day that goes by when someone doesn’t ask, “Who was the best player?” My first thing is, “What position?” If you’re asking about the total player then without question, Keffer was the best total player. I am talking about leadership on and off the field. I am talking about character. You name it, Keffer had it. Here is a kid from a little bitty school out in the country that commanded the respect of everybody.
SR: When you look back on 1998, 1999 and 2000 where Mississippi State had unprecedented success, do you give a lot of that credit to Keffer?
JS: Oh, absolutely! You talk about Favors and Nakia and those kids, they themselves made it a point to not let him be forgotten too. There is not one of them that doesn’t have deep feelings about Keffer most days. It’s phenomenal because you won’t find one player, one student or one professor that has one negative thought about Keffer. No one was jealous of him or envious of him. That alone is special.
I have coached a lot of kids and played with a lot of kids. I played at Alabama and had the chance to play on two national championship teams. I played with Joe Namath and Leroy and those guys, but I have never been around a kid that had the total package like Keffer. It was amazing!
The good thing about this is that it had such an effect on so many people.
SR: Coach are there any special moments that stand out that really illustrate the kind of person Keffer was?
JS: Supposedly there was a group that went to Rick’s and there was an altercation. Keffer got singled out. Now Keffer was never there, he was at the movies. I told him that he needed to go down (to the police department) and they were going to talk to him. I didn’t realize that they were going to book him, so when he went down there they booked him, fingerprinted him and took his mug shot. It was early, around one o’clock that afternoon, but he wasn’t there when we started practice.
I knew something was wrong, so I sent someone to look for him. Well, they found him and he came out on the practice field. He walked up to me and he said, “Coach, you lied to me.”
I said, ”What do you mean?”
He told me, “Coach, you said I had nothing to worry about. I would have paid to have the window repaired instead of having to go and be embarrassed and embarrass my family.”
I told him, ”Keffer, you can’t do that. If you said you would plea bargain then that meant that you were guilty. You are either guilty or not guilty and I know you are not guilty, so you couldn’t handle it any other way.”
He just didn’t understand that then and he was very, very upset. Later on he won and his name was cleared. He was hurt. I felt terrible, but he didn’t have a choice. I wasn’t going to let him do that if he was not guilty.
Let me tell you how smart and perceptive he was. We elected a squad committee and certainly (laughs) he was one of them. He told me he didn’t want to be on the squad committee.
I asked him why and he told me, “Coach, you are not going to do what we tell you anyway.” He was dead serious. He just knew we can have a squad committee and they can think they have an input, but they really don’t.
It made me laugh because it reminded when Coach Bryant was going to have a squad committee at Alabama. We would go in his office after morning practice. One morning I raised my hand and told him, “Coach, I think we ought to have two class cuts a semester.”
He looked at me and said, ”We aren’t here to cut class.”
A little later he started talking about Davis our kicker and he was a four point student. Coach said that he had established, due to his ability, that he could handle his academics however he needed to.
I said, “Coach the rule for one is the rule for all.”
He looked at me for about five seconds and it felt like three hours. He didn’t say a word and when the meeting was over we didn’t have a squad committee anymore.
So I understood what Keffer was saying. He was just a lot smarter and a lot more perceptive than most kids.
SR: What would be the one thing you would want people to know about Keffer?
JS: There are players that come along and that there are no molds for. There was only one Keffer and there will never be another Keffer McGee.
Coach Jackie Sherrill is the all-time winningest football coach in Mississippi State history. Coach Sherrill is now retired and spends most of his time spoiling his grandchildren. This fall, he will work as an anchor for the FoxSports college game day experience.
Steve Robertson is a staff member of Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website, the source for Mississippi State sports on Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.