The Senior Class That Never Gave Up
Nov. 19, 2017
By Brian Scott Rippee, OleMissSports.com
There isn’t a whole lot that looks the same as it did when the 2014 signing class stepped onto Ole Miss’ campus as freshmen four years ago.
The playing surface inside Vaught-Hemingway stadium is different. Both the North and South end zones in the stadium look different. There is even a new coach roaming the sideline in their fourth and final year. This senior class is on the verge of completing a career that has seen some of the highest moments in Ole Miss Football history.
“We went through a lot,” senior kicker Gary Wunderlich said reflecting back on some of the moments that have made his career memorable. “I feel like we have handled it pretty well. We are a tight group and it has been a fun four years.”
Wunderlich recalled students flooding onto the field after a program-defining upset win over Alabama in 2014. Jordan Wilkins remembers standing on the sideline as fans filed out of Bryant-Denny Stadium early in the fourth quarter a year later after the Rebels throttled the Tide in Tuscaloosa for the first time in over 30 years. Wilkins scored a touchdown that night.
“We kind of rallied around that and came together because of it,” Wilkins said. “It was kind of like ‘Oh yeah we are beating their tail’ so that is always a good feeling.”
DeMarquis Gates remembers it all too. He remembers both wins over Alabama.
“You remember that,” Gates said. “That is Alabama. That was a big time game. To have them filing out like that was a great feeling.”
He remembers a Sugar Bowl win in New Orleans too. He stands on the practice field with two braces protecting his battered shoulders. He, like many, has battled through injuries this season, one in which he could have packed it in a long time ago. But that’s not what he wants. That’s not what this senior class is all about.
“I have not gotten them checked out yet,” Gates said. “They are just bruising and hurting. I am just going with the punches right now and trying to win some games.”
The senior linebacker wants to savor every win he can in his final couple of games and soak in every moment. Gates reflects back on his decorated career – one that’s included over 250 tackles – a smile as he goes through ups and downs of it in his mind.
“The highs and lows are just like anyone else’s highs and lows,” Gates said. “You are going to have fun and won’t when it is low. At the end of the day I think the best thing that came out of this is that we have a lot of mental toughness. We learned from a lot of situations, learned about other people, and who is really with you and against you.”
This class is not short on mental resolve. Just ask senior defensive end Marquis Haynes, a guy who could’ve gone to the NFL a year ago after seeing the Rebels hit a decline in 2016 with a cloud of uncertainty in front of them in 2017. That’s not how he preferred to leave, however.
“I think we will be remembered as the class that never gave up,” Haynes said. “I think some of us came back for our last year and we all stayed because we wanted to help this team get better. We wanted to lead through adversity.”
Of all the moments in the career of Ole Miss’ modern-day sack leader, Haynes chooses this 2017 season when asked about the most rewarding part of his career. He didn’t hesitate when being asked either. There is no doubt in his mind.
“Out of all the moments that stick out to me, this year has been the best one,” Haynes said. “Because no matter what we were put through, we always kept pushing and putting up a fight. Even when we were down, we always kept pushing and fighting. We set expectations for one another and held each other accountable.”
This group saw the possibility of their program slipping into despair and wanted to stabilize it. It’s why Gates walks off the field with shoulder braces in aching pain each day. It’s why Wilkins is playing through a torn planters fascia. It’s why Wunderlich has continued to kick through a nagging hamstring injury. It’s why the team didn’t roll over down 10 on the road at Kentucky. A season that seemed meaningless to many outsiders means more to them than they can put into words.
“It is just mental toughness, man,” Gates said. “You can’t let stuff get to you. We have been through a lot. There isn’t much more you can really do to us. We just had to put our cleats down and keep going.”
Each dose of adversity has brought them closer together. In some ways, it has ignited a desire to show what they suit up and play for each day.
“We have fed off people saying we have nothing to play for,” Wilkins said. “Our coaches are working their tail off. We play for this university. There are so many things to play for.”
For Haynes and Gates, it’s their family in both the present and future that pushes them to get back up off the mat each time.
“I push for my daughter and my girlfriend,” Haynes said. “I go out there every day to work hard and go get better. I don’t want to be in a circumstance where I cannot provide for my daughter to go to school and stuff.”
“Everyone has their own reason why,” Gates echoed. “First and foremost, it is our team and brothers. I also have family. I eventually want to start my own family. I have to take care of them. This is what I do. I play football. It is for the love of this game.”
The seniors were the ones most affected by the bowl ban. They knew for nearly a year in advance their season would end on Thanksgiving night in Starkville. It didn’t deter them. They want to be remembered as the glue that held the program together.
“They want to leave a legacy,” head coach Matt Luke said. “They have done a tremendous job of carrying this team on their back.”
Luke was the man tasked with keeping the team together and invested. He and this senior class accomplished that and survived some trying times. Luke also serves as an alarm, reminding the seniors their time left here is dwindling each day.
“You couldn’t have asked a better guy to step in as coach,” Haynes said. “He reminds us every day how many days we have left. We just take it day-by-day until that day actually comes.”
Most of them haven’t thought much about senior day, but all admit emotions will surface and running out of the tunnel at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium one last time will be a strange feeling. It’s a venue in which they’ve seen unprecedented highs and some painful lows. Through it all they never gave up, which is what what they want to be remembered for.
“I hope I left a good legacy,” Gates said. “I hope I inspired people in our great fan base. I hope I did everything I was supposed to do as a player and an Ole Miss athlete. I hope everyone enjoyed watching us play. I hope I put it all on the line for them.”
• Accomplishments during the 2017 seniors’ careers include...
o Appeared in back-to-back New Year’s Six Bowls (2014 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl & 2016 Sugar Bowl)
o Nationally ranked 33 times, including eight weeks ranked in top 10
o Highest national ranking (No. 3) since 1964
o Were ranked amongst top 10 eight separate weeks
o Own top three single-season spots in all-time record book in total offense ... On pace this season to crack top four.
o First win over No. 1 team in program history (Alabama, 2014)
o Back-to-back wins over Alabama for the first time in program history (2014, 2015)
o Wins at Alabama and Auburn in the same season for the first time in program history (2015)
o No. 1 scoring defense in the country (2014)
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