Football Writers Association of America 2003 BEST WRITING CONTEST

Ron Higgins, Memphis Commercial Appeal

The emergency waiting room was full at Baptist Hospital North Mississippi.

There were no TVs, no radios, no contact with the outside world on this Saturday afternoon in a college football town.

An elderly lady with an aching foot wrapped stared into a space. A baby was wailing. And on the phone, a man in an Ole Miss cap spoke in hushed tones.

Craig Zeigler hung up the phone, his stomach churning and his eyes red. As a football father, he had been in this position too many times with his son Doug, an Ole Miss senior tight end.

Ron Higgins
Memphis Commercial Appeal
Age: 47
College: LSU
Background: Higgins was raised as the son of late LSU sports information director Ace Higgins. He has covered sports for more than 20 years for the Shreveport (La.) Times and Journal, the Advocate in Baton Rouge, La., the Mobile (Ala.) Register and The Commercial Appeal. He has been married for 24 years to the former Paige Blanchard, and he has two sons, Carl (21), who plays football at Division 1-AA Southeastern Louisiana, and Jack (9).

First, it was Doug's punctured lung during his senior football season at Wilmington (Ohio) High. A few months after that, Doug's senior season in basketball ended when he broke his jaw trying to block a shot.

Last year, he was on his way to a huge season with the Rebels when he broke his arm against Georgia.

"I've never heard Doug complain, he just takes it in stride and gets back after it," Craig said choking back in emotion and taking a deep breath.

Through the years, it became Craig Zeigler's habit to search for his son's jersey number whenever play was stopped on the field for an injury. It happened on Saturday with 50 seconds left in the first quarter against Vanderbilt.

In a double tight end set, quarterback Eli Manning rolled right and threw a 4-yard pass to Bo Hartsfield who banged ahead to the Vanderbilt 3. The giddy prospect of being on the doorstep of a touchdown quickly gave away to a silent Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

Craig Zeigler, sitting with his wife, began searching for No. 89. "Oh no, not again," said Craig, seeing his son facedown on the turf and being surrounded by trainers who quickly determined Doug Zeigler's left leg was broken in two places.

The leg was in such a grotesque position that Manning, Zeigler's roommate in an off-campus apartment, couldn't even bring himself to approach Zeigler.

"I'd never been in that position before," Manning said. "I was trying to keep my head in the game. I didn't know if I could do that if I went out there and saw Doug."

Senior center Ben Claxton refused to leave Zeigler's side. They'd had both been recruited by the previous coaching staff of Tommy Tuberville, and stuck around when Tuberville made his midnight ride to the Auburn job. They both dreamed they'd get the job the done for the Rebels.

"Doug is my best friend and I knew I had to be there with him," Claxton said. "His leg was laying in a way it wasn't supposed to be laying. It was bad wrong and I could see how much pain he was in."

After 10 minutes, Zeigler was removed from the field and Ole Miss scored on the next play before Zeigler could even be loaded in the ambulance.

But the injury of Zeigler and also linebacker Lanier Goethie (who broke his foot) seemed to linger with the Rebels. Ole Miss coach David Cutcliffe addressed the matter with his team, but even he couldn't shake the site of Zeigler's injury and the scared look of Craig Zeigler who hurried to the field to check on his son.

"(You have) a lot of anger," said Cutcliffe when asked about his initial reaction to Zeigler's injury. "I'm sorry, but that's what you feel. There's not enough rocks to pick up and throw."

As the Rebels were riding a second-half rollercoaster, going from a 38-17 lead to a 38-38 tie to a 45-38 victory, the Zeiglers gathered at the hospital. Every once in awhile, someone would pop through a curtain and tell Doug Zeigler how his teammates were doing.

Maybe it was the painkillers. Or maybe it is Zeigler's remarkable resolve to handle adversity in a career that started when he was a fifth-grade quarterback.

He wasn't shedding tears as he waited for surgery.

"I was supposed to run a pattern on the play, but the (Vanderbilt) guy leg whipped me," Zeigler said. "It's football. Stuff like this happens. It will be a matter of time before I'm playing again.

But it won't happen this year, and likely his college career is over since he has already used a redshirt year.

With good doctors and the proper rehab, Zeigler should be good enough for an NFL team to take a chance on.

In the meantime, Craig Zeigler and family won't have to make the 9-hour drive from Ohio anymore. There won't be any more football weekends in Oxford, starting with dinner on Thursday night with his son and also a Friday lunch.

He thinks about that. He thinks about how hard his son has worked to become a football player, the endless hours of weight lifting and running.

"Oh boy," said Craig, his voice breaking and the frog jumping in his throat again. "Oh boy."

Comment by the judge, Gene Duffey: Beginning the story at the hospital then flashing back to the game, made it exceptional. Good analysis of the play from every angle. Good quotes from father talking about son's previous bad luck.

Second Place: Scott Wolf, Los Angeles Daily News
Third Place: Dennis Dodd, CBS Sportsline
Honorable mention: Brett McMurphy, Tampa Tribune; Eric Hansen, Irish Sports Report; Todd Jones, Columbus Dispatch