KINGSTON - A really, really big gobbler is, for a turkey hunter, the equivalent of really, really big ballgame for a football coach. Let's just say big gobbler equals Sugar Bowl.
Johnny Majors knows a few things about winning Sugar Bowls. Last week he was learning a few things about big gobblers.
The former University of Tennessee football All-American and coach was sitting in a blind on Gene Hartman's farm and had heard the tales of the big gobbler that had been hanging out there. Majors had hunted turkeys in the past, bagging one bird in South Carolina a few years ago but hadn't been after them much recently.
Majors is no stranger to hunting, but when he was growing up in Lynchburg turkeys were not much more common than unicorns.
"Turkeys, deer, you just never heard much about them back then," Majors said. "Growing up, most of the hunters I knew hunted quail. There were a lot of quail then in that part of the state. That's what my dad hunted and he was an excellent hunter and an excellent shot. I'm not that good of a shot."
The good news about turkey hunting is it usually only takes one shot. But you have to find them to shoot them.
Longtime friends with Hartman, the opportunity was there to get the Sugar Bowl of turkeys.
Hartman's 1,700-plus acres has as much diverse habitat as you can find on one piece of property. If you don't like hunting turkeys in the open woods you can go to the fields of native warm-season grasses. If you don't like warm-season grasses you can check out the just-sprouting rows of corn. Turn your nose up at that and there are thick fields of clover that put most carpet to shame.
It was on one of those fields, in a blind tucked up in the tree line, that Majors sat up. And just a few minutes before daylight, when turkeys are usually gobbling most, there was silence.
Fifteen minutes passed and there were tweety birds chirping, crows cawing, a little thunder rumbling but not a sound that seemed anything like a turkey. Fifteen minutes turned to 30 and 30 turned into an hour, and it seemed like the bad old days when Majors was growing up and the only place to hear a gobble was at the local turkey farm.
There are a lot worse ways to pass time than talking with Majors.
Stories about the hunting prowess of his father Shirley or playing at Tennessee or being an assistant at Mississippi State and Arkansas, or the coach at Iowa State, Pittsburgh, Tennessee and Pittsburgh again, they all come easy. That first coaching job at Iowa State? He didn't even want it.
"I thought it was a coaches' graveyard," said Majors, who pointed out he was the third Iowa State coach in a row who had played at Tennessee. "I was making $18,500 as an assistant under Frank Broyles at Arkansas and they were offering me $20,000 salary . . . a total package of about $25,000 to go to Iowa State."
Majors admitted two things: He has a hard time telling people no and he's not a very good negotiator.
"When I went up there the last time I asked for $21,000 . . . and I took the job," he said. "I had gone up there intending to tell them no."
And he had gone to Hartman's intending to kill a turkey. Just before 8 a.m., after more than 90 minutes of hearing nothing, a clap of thunder got a turkey to gobble. About 15 minutes and some calling later a head popped up on the other side of the clover field. Then there was another head. Then another.
As the gobblers marched toward the trio of decoys it was obvious none of them was the Sugar Bowl. The biggest, a really mature-looking jake with a 6-inch beard, was more like the Outback Bowl. He had the Chick-fil-A Bowl and Music City Bowl following him behind.
The turkeys marched straight to the decoys and stopped about 10 yards out of range.
In football terms it was fourth-and-goal at the 1.
There wasn't any point in calling anymore because the turkeys were standing there looking at the decoys and right past them was the blind. The Outback Bowl bird stared at the decoys and appeared to be thinking "Why aren't you moving?" After 15 minutes they began to walk away.
Now it was fourth-and-1 with just a few seconds to play and no timeouts.
As the turkeys walked away they would turn to listen to a call, but only Chick-fil-A and Music City wanted to come back. Outback just kept on walking and he was apparently the boss.
In the end the turkeys left, the storms that pummeled East Tennessee on Wednesday began rolling in and those birds that came tantalizingly close would get no closer.
"That was very exciting," Majors said. "A lot of fun."
Ten yards can make a lot of difference in a football game. It can make a lot difference during a turkey hunt, too.
Bob Hodge is a freelance contributor.