Run. It’s a simple word with endless uses. First-grade children run aimlessly for fun. Adults run to stay healthy. Politicians run for office. Multi-taskers run errands. Overwhelmed multi-taskers run like a chicken with its head cut off.
Athletes run to reach individual or team goals. Two weeks ago, Troymaine Pope kept Jacksonville State’s national championship dreams alive by doing what he does best: running.
The grass field at JSU’s Burgess-Snow Field was covered mostly in shadows in the final moments of the second-round FCS playoff game against Chattanooga on Dec. 5. With 4:50 remaining and JSU trailing 35-28, the Gamecocks lined up at their 25-yard line in a three-receiver set with Pope alone in the backfield.
As the offensive line pulled right, Pope took a handoff and found a massive hole on the left side. Only a Chattanooga linebacker obstructed Pope’s way. The linebacker missed an ankle tackle and Pope ran the remaining 70 yards untouched. The sun illuminated the senior from Anniston, Ala., as he crossed the goal line for the tying score.
JSU won in overtime as Pope finished with 234 yards rushing, the second-highest single-game total in school history.
“I asked God to give me the honor to go out there and play like that,” Pope said after the game. “He did but I could not have done it without my teammates.”
Fifteen months earlier, the 5-9, 205 pound Pope was running for his life.
The July 4 holiday fell on a Friday in 2014. Like all bars and restaurants, AJ’s Sunset Bar and Grill in Anniston had plenty of patrons celebrating Independence Day during the three-day weekend. During the day AJ’s is a good place to get wings, oysters, catfish and an adult beverage. Come night fall, it transforms into a club with attractive 20-somethings blowing off stream while enjoying local DJs spinning tracks. On weekends, AJ’s stays open until 6 in the morning.
In the early morning of July 6, as patrons filed out of AJ’s after a Saturday night of partying, a commotion started in the parking lot followed by gunshots. The Anniston Police Department’s report detailed a women from Talladega with a single bullet shot in the windshield of her 2001 Dodge Stratus. Prior to interviewing her, police responded to Northeast Alabama Regional Medical Center. A 20-year-old male had been shot, too.
It was Pope.
He ran from AJ’s parking lot north on Hillyer Robinson Industrial Parkway when he was struck.
A few months prior to that night, Troymaine Pope became a father to a baby girl named Cassidy. Two months from that night Pope was supposed to be in East Lansing for JSU’s season-opener at Michigan State.
Pope’s life as a dad and a football player could have ended in an instant. Yet in that moment, Pope did one of things he does best: run.
The bullet pierced Pope’s right bicep, the muscle that cradles his daughter and a football. The non-life threatening wound on his arm became a reminder of how lucky he was. It changed his perspective. It also changed his approach to his life, his daughter and football.
“He had changed a lot, as far as maturity (is concerned).” said Gamecocks head coach John Grass. “Any time something happens, it shocks you. He was shocked about that situation and thankful that the situation wasn’t worse than what it was.”
During this year’s preseason football media availability, Pope was asked about “being focused.” His response, which had nothing to do with football, perfectly illustrated his new priorities and his changed mindset.
“I’m tired of my mom getting up at 2 or 3 in the morning to go to work (so later in the day) she can take care of me and my daughter,” Pope said. “I don’t like people using their money on me. I need to provide.”
Pope’s aspirations of playing on Sundays are very real considering what he has accomplished this postseason — 665 yards and eight touchdowns rushing in three playoff games.
After dispatching Chattanooga, JSU continued its march to the FCS championship game by defeating Charleston Southern 58-38 in the FCS quarterfinals on Dec. 11. The Gamecocks rushed for a whopping 445 yards. JSU quarterback Eli Jenkins rushed for 195 yards while Pope bested his performance from the week before, rushing for 250 yards while posting three touchdowns.
On Saturday, Pope paced the Gamecocks with 181 yards rushing and two touchdowns in a 62-10 rout of Sam Houston State in the FCS semifinals, the first by an Ohio Valley Conference team since Eastern Kentucky in 1991. Pope leads the nation, both FCS and FBS, with 8.4 yards per carry. He is also the Gamecocks’ all-time single-season rushing leader with 1,757 yards.
Now he is ready to lead the No. 1 Gamecocks (13-1) into the FCS championship game against No. 3 North Dakota State (12-2) on Jan. 9 in Frisco, Texas. It’s the first FCS title appearance for JSU while the Bison have won four consecutive national championships.
Pope, who knows his fate on that July 4 weekend could have been very different, intends to make the most of the opportunity.
“God gave me a second chance,” he said, “so I just want to make the most of it.”
Above: Jacksonville State running back Troymaine Pope (24) leads the nation, FBS and FCS, with 8.4 yards per carry. (Courtesy of JSU Athletics)