When I traveled across the country to California for the NCAA Volleyball tournament a month ago, I discovered that an airport was a goldmine for a journalist.
Much was the same on this trip to Detroit for WKU’s first ever FBS bowl game.
Except this time, my goldmine was sitting next to me for 11 hours, and I didn’t strike the story until after the game.
This inaugural FBS bowl game for WKU had many story lines. It was obviously the school’s first bowl game, but there was Antonio Andrews’ sights on Barry Sanders’ single-season all-purpose yards record. There was the senior quarterback Kawaun Jakes story on passing former coach Willie Taggart’s record for career passing touchdowns.
Add in the coaching whirlwind with Taggart’s abrupt departure and the same for Bobby Petrino’s arrival and there’s hardly any time to sleep for a journalist at WKU.
As we loaded the buses to go back to the hotel after the game, Tammy Austin and I struck a true conversation after sitting next to each other for the entire first leg of the journey up north.
Tammy’s husband, Willie Austin, was born and raised in Detroit.
The family usually takes a trip up north every summer to visit family, but this trip held a special meaning unlike any previous one.
Tammy and her daughter Porshia, a junior at WKU, joined fan bus No. 11 to specifically cheer on junior running back Antonio Andrews.
The Austin’s are from Fort Campbell, where Porshia and Antonio had been classmates and best friends since the eighth grade at Fort Campbell High School.
Tammy’s son, Tyrone Johnson, was an assistant coach on the football team at Fort Campbell, where Andrews was a standout in both.
Johnson grew close relationships with his players, but Andrews was special because of the relationship with the rest of the family.
“They (Andrews and Johnson) always had conversations with each other about helping me out during college,” said Porshia, Tyrone’s younger sister. “Being a military student you never know when a parent is going to get up and have to leave, so they always were watching after me.”
The 2009 Kentucky Mr. Football winner led the Falcons at quarterback to back-to-back state titles from 2008-09. Andrews excelled in the spring during track and field, where he would continue to be mentored by Johnson.
Johnson won two state championships assisting the track team and had been hired in October of 2011 to become the head coach for the Falcons. Johnson – or as the players called him, coach “J” – would probably have won many more titles at Fort Campbell.
However, Johnson, 27, died from an asthma attack on Dec. 23, 2011.
So just over a year to the date of her son’s passing, Tammy Austin and her daughter Porshia made the trip to the Motor City with heavy emotions to watch Andrews shoot for history.
“It was bittersweet,” Austin said. “I told my husband ‘You and Tyrone should be up here’”.
Austin remembered her son at the game with a portrait pin of Tyrone attached to her shirt along with a 2007 Fort Campbell state championship ring attached to her necklace. Porshia keeps her older brother’s 2008 championship ring around her neck.
Porshia said the close relationship between Andrews and Tyrone served as a vital motivational tool for his historic year.
“I feel like when my brother passed, Antonio was motivated more so than he already is to do well,” Porshia said. “He did a lot of things this year in honor of Tyrone. Seeing him be motivated by my brother even helps me out when I’m struggling.
“Antonio and I are always there for each other.”
All the talk leading up to the Little Caesar’s Bowl was about Andrews’ quest of breaking Barry Sanders’ all-purpose yards record in a single season. Tammy and Porshia spoke with Andrews Christmas night via Face-time, where Porshia said Andrews had high-spirits heading into the game.
But Andrews couldn’t quite make it. He ended up about 90 yards short of the record.
Andrews said after the game that he would have next year to try again. Tammy says she has no doubt that Andrews will continue to carry on the lessons he learned from her son, and will be right back in the mix next year among elite running backs in the nation.
“I saw him after the game and he was smiling,” Tammy said. “He’s a very humble young man and will be back to try at it again next year.”