Former Ole Miss great, Ronnie Heard joined Sam Wells and I on “THE SEASON TICKET” radio show on RebelSportsRadio to discuss his time as a player at Ole Miss, the Chucky Mullins Courage award and his current position with the UMAA Foundation.
Before coming back to work for the University, Heard played six years in the NFL, five with the San Francisco 49ers and one with the Atlanta Falcons before retiring in 2006. A native of Lake Jackson, Texas, Ronnie, graduated from the University in the Spring of 2000 and was a Chucky Mullins Courage award winner in 1999.
Ronnie and his wife, LaToya, live in Oxford and have three children, daughters Kaitlyn and Parker and son Reid.
You came to Ole Miss in 1995 under a new coaching regime. You are around a pretty “high flying” offense now in Oxford, talk about the differences at Ole Miss now compared to when you first arrived as a freshman.
The main difference was we were on probation. There were limitations on scholarships, TV play and no bowl games. When Hugh (Freeze) got here, he had some of the same feel, not a lot of depth, not a lot of talent. But now, in year three, coming off a couple of bowl wins, there is a lot of talk about what this team can do this year, and what they can accomplish.
You were at Ole Miss at a really critical time in the program. Because of probation, you guys could have easily gone the other way and had a 10 year drought in bowl games, or more. How did Coach Tuberville get you guys to step up and get you motivated to overcome.
Tubs came in and did a great job of making us believe in ourselves. Really pushing us to expand our minds and make us believe that nothing is impossible. A lot of times we didn’t have a lot of depth so everyone had to play every snap. We felt like it was us against everybody. No one was going to give us a chance.
So, for the first couple of years that was the message; Go out and shock the world, believe in yourself, work hard, have dedication and it will pay off in the end.
Then when you win some games. When you go over to Georgia in 96 and you only travel with 57 guys; we didn’t even have a full team, and you beat a good Georgia team, those kinds of moments stick with you forever. I’ll never forget that and I appreciate every day the chance I had to come here and play football in a big time conference.
Fast forward to 1999, I think this 2014 team at Ole Miss might rival the talent you guys had back then. How incredible was it to play with a team that was probably the most talented team ever in the State of Mississippi?
Yeah, it’s crazy to think about the guys that played in the NFL. Even for just a year, and fulfill their dreams at the highest level. Yeah, we had tons and tons of talent. I kind of get chill bumps thinking about it. Guys like Terrance Metcalf, Todd Wade, Derrick Burgess, myself, Armegis Spearman, my brother (Grant Heard), Cory Peterson, Deuce McAllister. I mean it just goes on, Kendrick Clancy, Von Hutchins; tons and tons of talent. It all goes back to Tuberville. Coach Cutcliffe came in my last year in 1999 and took over the reins and kept it going, with Eli and Romaro, but Tubs kind of set the foundation.
I guess we took it over as seniors and made the young guys believe and work hard and not take plays off. It is great thinking about all those guys playing on one team at a time when we didn’t have a lot of scholarships and didn’t have a lot of depth. Hey, Rufus French, Kenyatta Lucas, it goes on and on, just a lot of them.
A lot of those guys were not highly recruited, I don’t know how your recruitment went but at the time Ole Miss was kind of looking far and wide to find players and they did a fine job of bringing everyone together. In your opinion, was that accomplished more by the leadership of the players on the team or more from the coaches?
It helped a lot for my first two years to have athletic dorms. To always be around the guys and build that comradery. To have those moments when you decide you have to depend on each other to get it done.
It’s just crazy to think about guys like Tutan Reyes, who played in the NFL for 10-11 years, was from New York, Derrick Burgess is from Baltimore, I was from Houston. Recruiting was different. We didn’t have 4 stars or 5 stars. You were either a blue chipper or you weren’t, or you were “greater this” or “greater that,” or you were “all state this,” or “all state that.”
It was good to get a lot of in-state talent at that time and then go out and get a few key guys from out of state. We had a ton of guys from the East Coast and Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee. We all came in and had to pull the rope in the same direction. To have the same common goal, and that was to win. I think we were terrified to lose, to think what would happen to us on Sunday. That was some of it.
Those 12 minute runs on Sunday were not fun if you lost! So that was some of it.
You had the rare opportunity to go head to head with your brother in the NFL. In, 2001 you were on the roster for the San Francisco 49ers and your brother had the chance to make the team. How special was that to share with Grant?
It was one of the best times of my life, along with being one of only 13 scholarship players the year I came to Ole Miss, it was special. I kind of took it for granted at the time.
We always grew up playing everything together. I’m only 16 months older, so if you took me on a team you knew my brother was coming right behind me. I knew I would only have to be in Oxford a year before Grant came too and we would begin to dominate and feed off each other.
I certainly didn’t want to hear about how much better he is than me, so we had this sibling rivalry going, that drive to do better than each other. So to have him come out to San Francisco was unforgettable.
I remember we were both in the Wilie Mayes suite during the NFL draft in 2001 and he got a call from our agent, (we had the same agent at the time) and he came back and said, “I guess I’ll be staying around a little bit longer. I’m going to sign here as a free agent!”
From there we celebrated and then started training and preparing ourselves together so he could have a chance to make the team. He obviously didn’t make it, but he gave forth the effort, it was just a numbers issue. The team didn’t need another wideout at the time, we needed more special teams guys.
If you know my brother, you know he is a bit of a “primadona” and he just didn’t have that knack of being the number four on the kickoff team or how to be a wing on the punt team and some of those things I did all my life. I always had the label of not being as athletic. We saw how that turned out! I’m just having some fun with Grant, (laughs) but it was fun playing those few months with him, seeing him every day, going against him in practice, helping him and teaching him some of the things I learned from being there. That was fun and it hurt to see him go.
I remember seeing him in the hallway on my way to an early morning meeting and I said, “Hey you going to this meeting?” He said, “I just got cut. They just released me.” And just like that it was over. It hurt then and it hurt him too. But things work out, he is back in town now on the Ole Miss coaching staff, coaching a position he grew up playing and loves.
This Saturday is the 2014 Chucky Mullins Courage Award Ceremony. You had a great opportunity to win that award and represent Chucky Mullins on the field. Talk about your time wearing number 38.
It was an amazing opportunity. I didn’t get to know him personally, but some of the guys like Mike Lowery, Derrick Jones and Alundis Brice; those guys had a chance to meet Chucky and be around him. So just from those guys and hearing the stories and watching the videos and hearing fans talk about him.
I came from Texas, so I had no idea about Chucky Mullins or the things he went through and what he had to overcome. So to hear his story and when they ask you to be the guy they think can represent his characteristics and attributes; that meant a lot to me.
I wore it with pride every day and I think I am the only one to wear it in the NFL too. I wore it in San Francisco and when I went to Atlanta. A guy already had 38, when I went to the Falcons, and I was going to buy the number but the coaches heard about it and told me to hold off. They ended up cutting the guy and I got to wear 38 there too.
It was surreal for me to wear it. I wore it just like I was still at Ole Miss. I also wore an Ole Miss athletic shirt every game under my pads. I ended up framing that shirt. So that connection stayed with me the whole time. I was known for wearing 38. The other guys in the NFL knew about the Chucky Mullins award and that I wore number 38. So it means a lot, not only in our community and our fanbase but guys in the NFL and that fraternity as well.
How special was it to see it return to the field? (A patch was worn by the award recipient from 2006 until it returned as a full jersey in 2010)
What’s funny was I had that idea in 1999. I was number two. I thought I looked pretty good in two, as a single digit and I didn’t want a big double-digit number. I said, “Can I wear a patch?” They quickly shot that idea down. I’m glad Cutcliffe and those guys made me wear it. To see it back on the field now, means a lot to me. It means a lot to the guys to see it. It’s a motivation factor. You have to pass by his statue on the way to the field after “Locking the Vaught.”
Out on the field, you have that guy that is going to be a vocal and inspirational leader wearing number 38. It means he is still with us, he is still out there making plays and putting in 150% effort just like Chucky did all the time.
So Ronnie, let’s get to the day job. You are now the Associate Director of Development at the UMAA Foundation. You guys have a big weekend in town with Auburn coming over in baseball, the Grove bowl, Nelly is in town. Tell us about the events going on this weekend and how they are going to run the Grove bowl. Will it be more of a situational practice or a real game this year?
It’s going to be offense versus defense. Freeze has a little bit of a different format. It’s going to be a full game this year. Last year it was more of a practice due to lack of depth and not wanting to get guys hurt. This year it should be a little more lively. There are some guys trying to compete for some spots.
The scoring will be a little different. If the defense wins, they get a point. This year if the offense starts a drive they can continue it down the field instead of the situational work they did last year with running four plays at a time and then, just coming off the field. You will get to see touchdowns and extra points or field goals so it will a little bit more of a game, still with the format Freeze likes to use, one’s versus one’s and two’s versus two’s, just to see what those guys will do in a heated moment.
It’s going to be a huge weekend. Hopefully we will stay undefeated this year. You can’t really lose the Grove bowl so we are all excited to get it started!