sports (2006-19)

Of Choices and Chicken

The tale of two completely unrelated sporting incidents

Of Choices and Chicken

by Tony Basilio

Just when you’re ready to throw in the towel on a sports world filled with the Barry Bonds, Kobe Bryants and late-night runs to everyone’s favorite convenience store on the Strip, along comes a horse to save the day. Or, at least save this column for a week. I was prepared to write about the fact that 25 percent of Tennessee’s ’04 football team has now run afoul of the law, but it’s not to be.

A three-year-old colt, Barbaro would have none of it. Make that a three-year-old colt and his forgotten hero of a trainer Michael Matz, who have changed fate here. Then again, Matz has been no stranger to fate or behaving heroically in its unforgiving face. So the array of UT off-the-field shenanigans will be diverted to another time.

Did the above just say that 25 percent of Tennessee’s 85 scholarship players from the ’04 team have now run afoul of the law? Let’s see. You’re not winning on the field. You’re not winning in the NFL draft. You’re not winning in recruiting. You’re keeping the police blotters popping. You’ve got problems. Marvin Mitchell is a good place to start.

On July 19, 1989 the Roth children who ranged in age from 10 to 16 were flying by themselves on a flight from Denver to Chicago and ultimately Philadelphia. When they stepped aboard United Airlines flight number 232, their lives would change forever. Engine trouble doomed the Douglas DC-10 from the outset. The plane was diverted to a tiny landing field on a strip of land in Sioux City, Iowa. Authorities awaited the plane’s fiery decent. A tail engine had failed on the plane, paralyzing its hydraulics. There were to be no wheels available for the landing. There was, however, ample press coverage as the crash landing was captured on video. One hundred and eleven people died in the fiery mass of twisted wreckage. 

Mitchell, a fifth-year senior at UT, just wanted his chicken wings. It was close to 3:30 in the morning, and he was hungry. A starting linebacker at UT has to eat, you know. So Mitchell is on the UT strip at the scene of Dwayne Goodrich’s crime from several years back. After having paid for a couple dozen chicken wings, something in the neighborhood of $8 and change in all, Mitchell went outside with a couple of his boys to grab some fresh air. That is until the police showed up and asked Mitchell to clear the area.

Michael Matz, then an Olympic caliber equestrian athlete (Show Jumping) was traveling with his fiancée (now wife), D.D. Alexander on the flight after judging a horse show in Hawaii. As fate would have it, Matz and Alexander weren’t supposed to be on the flight in the first place. They had missed their connection from Denver to Philly and had two choices. They chose flight #232. It seems life is about choices.

It probably didn’t help that the projected starter at middle linebacker was inebriated. So police ask him to leave. Mitchell’s side of the story is that he wasn’t leaving without his chicken wings. Choices.

Upon impact, records show Matz and Alexander landed fully conscious upside down. His part of the plane was intact, but believed to be moments from exploding. He was able to free himself and his wife before noticing the three young children across from him. Without hesitation after seeing his wife out of the wreckage into the arms of rescue workers, he retreated back into the charred plane and pulled all three Roth children to safety. Most people on the scene that day say the Roths probably wouldn’t be here today were it not for Matz’s effort.

So the police ask Mitchell to leave the scene. They were giving him a chance to get out with his reputation intact. No fifth-year senior who is also regarded as a defensive leader wants the poor pub wrought from off-the-field incidents.

So perhaps it was appropriate that 17 years later, the Roths were on hand in person at Churchill Downs to witness Matz’s ultimate triumph. Now the Roths and Matz are bound by triumph and tragedy and the sports world is all the richer for it. Even Marvin Mitchell could eat to that!

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