If a Hollywood screenwriter pitched the story of Mike Flynt as a movie, they would probably be told that the story was just flat out unbelievable. At the age of 59, Flynt used his remaining semester of college eligibility to come back and play college football for the Sul Ross State University Lobos.
In 1969, Flynt was expelled from Sul Ross and kicked off the football for getting into a fight. While he still graduated and would go on to have a highly successful career as a strength and conditioning coach at Nebraska, Arkansas, and Oregon. He would create a business that patented several new types of exercise equipment and a system of physical education for home schooled students.
A strange confluence of circumstances found him back on the football field as a linebacker when many people his age were looking forward to retirement. He earned his Hollywood ending – and redeemed his life’s greatest regret – in his “senior” year in West Texas. Ten years later, his story still just as incredible and just as inspiring as it was the first time it was told. Flynt took some time away from his still busy schedule of public speaking to talk about his odyssey through the game of football.
EM: I know you grew up in Odessa, Texas, and I think it is pretty common knowledge how passionate folks are out there about the game. With that said, would it be fair to assume you started playing football at a fairly young age?
MF: Yes, that’s true. I started playing organized football in the third grade at Burnett Elementary there in Odessa. Playing football was something that everybody did out there, at least they tried. You learn at an early age how important football was even back then. What was also true about playing at such a young age is that you learn pretty early on if football was something you wanted to pursue or not.
I just loved everything about it, especially the contact. Even at a young age, I loved that aspect of it and I think that’s why I always gravitated to the defensive side of the game. I just enjoyed hitting people! [laughs] I was small for my age, but it was one of those things that gave me an advantage. I did not mind the contact. The harder it was, the better I felt about it.
EM: So, you were a starter on Odessa Permian’s first state championship team; I know quite a few players off that team went on to play at the collegiate level. What were your options when it came to school and how did you decide to attend Sul Ross originally?
MF: Yes, when I was a senior, Gene Mayfield took over as Head Coach and he completely changed the culture there at Permian. He created an atmosphere that allowed the talent we had on that team to rise up. When it came to school, in state, I had offers from the University of Houston and SMU and I had some minor college offers, including Sul Ross State University.
I made a few immature and stupid decisions and ended up at first at Ranger Junior College. There were four other players off of Permian’s team that went to Ranger and that played a part in that, as well. I do remember that Coach Mayfield came up to me one day in the cafeteria and he said that he’d gotten a call from the University of Houston and they were offering me a full scholarship. I didn’t even go visit or anything.
When you’re young, sometimes you make dumb decisions. It didn’t work out with Ranger and I ended up at Sul Ross. It was a punch in the mouth at the time to end up where I did, but it all worked out how it was supposed to, I guess.
EM: It’s pretty well known what happened before your senior year there at Sul Ross; you go into it in detail in your book. How painful was that experience for you?
MF: I tell you, for my entire life after leaving Alpine [where Sul Ross is located], I went on to be pretty successful strength and conditioning coach, I was a successful businessman, I think a good husband and father, all of that. But, not finishing my senior year was the biggest regret I had in my entire life. I don’t think even my wife knew how deep that regret was that I felt.
Over time, I think I made peace with my part in it. I got into a fight and even though everyone agreed it wasn’t my fault, that wasn’t the first one I had gotten into while I was there and that one was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I was able to accept that, but what I couldn’t get over was the feeling that I had let my teammates down.
My senior season, we had all of our team coming back and I thought I would be able to get the most out of them as team captain. I really thought we could make some noise that year and win a conference championship. When I left school, that team went 4-6-1, they didn’t even have a winning season, and it broke my heart because for all of those years, I felt that it was my fault.
EM: Prior to leaving school, had you given any thought to what you were going to do once you were done playing? Had you already thought about going into coaching?
MF: Oh, no, not at all. I met Boyd Epley, who they call the Godfather of strength coaches, in Arlington, Texas, at a gym there. He had had some of his players at Nebraska come down for a weightlifting tournament. He and I got to talking somehow and he was telling me about an assistant of his that had gotten the strength and conditioning job at the University of Arkansas. I had never heard of that job before and when he explained it to me, it was like a light bulb went off in my head.
I told him I needed to know more about this. He was there for three days for the tournament and we talked every day and ultimately he could tell I was passionate about it and he said he needed a new assistant and asked if I would come up to Nebraska and work as a graduate assistant. I told him absolutely.
By the grace of God, my wife had just finished her degree in court reporting and so we moved to Lincoln and it was a few lean years there while I was building up my resume and she supported us, but it turned out great. I was able to work there at Nebraska and help build the program in Oregon. I had a great career and am incredibly grateful to have had the chance to do it.
EM: So, how does it come about that you go back to Sul Ross and play for the Lobos almost 40 years later?
MF: Well, in the time that I left, Sul Ross moved down to Division III and that changed some of the rules. It turned out that I had a semester of eligibility left because I was dismissed from the university while I was not actively taking classes then because the incident happened before classes began.
I wouldn’t have known anything about it, except in 2007 I kept getting calls about a college reunion. I really didn’t want to go because I knew a bunch of the guys from the team were going to be there and I didn’t want to have to deal with that feeling of having let them down. My wife ultimately convinced me and when I went I told some of the guys that if I could I would go back right now and play because I honestly felt I was in shape enough to do it.
They all laughed except for one guy and he said “Why not?” He told me about the move to DIII and I went home, researched it, contacted the NCAA, contacted the school and told my wife I was going out there to see what the coaches said. I don’t think she really believed anything was going to come from it. I went out there in the summer, met with the coach.
EM: How did he take it? I’m assuming that you were at least his age if not older than him, right? What were his impressions of you and how serious did he take it?
MF: I think up until I spoke to him in person, because I had been calling prior to me coming out there, was that he thought I wanted to be a volunteer coach. I was honest with him though and told him I wanted to walk on as a linebacker. I told him my story and I told him that I could help a bunch of these young men that I don’t even know.
I could tell them about the mistake I had made and I could be there for them to ensure that they never had anything like that happen to them and help make up for those guys that I let down all those years ago. Long story short, he gave me that chance so I flew back home and told my wife that we were moving back to Texas. She couldn’t believe it at first, but then she said well, you would do this for me so we came back to Alpine. I started practice that fall, I made the team, and played quite a bit that season and the rest, I guess, is history.
EM: Would it be fair to assume that your story turned out how you wanted it to? What I mean is, do you feel like you got the most out of this second chance and made up for the regrets that you had?
MF: It was really amazing, to be honest. At Homecoming, 27 of my former teammates and coaches came back to watch me play. The President of the University met with me and told he was going to be introducing the players and he wanted me to dress out before the game so he could introduce me too. Nobody knew that part and I was off to the side of the stands where no one could see me.
Anyway, he introduced all the guys and then he called out my name and I came out onto the field in my uniform and all the players turned and started walking toward me. As I got closer to them, I had to look down and to the side because if I looked directly at them, I knew I would start crying. When I got to them everyone of them were crying.
They all embraced me and one guy pulled me aside and said they kept reading how you hated that you let us down. He said, look, we knew that fight wasn’t your fault and besides because you came back to play, you got all us back together again. That was one of the things that I wanted to accomplish. I think I got the forgiveness from my teammates and that helped me to overcome that regret.
EM: Seeing how your story turned out and knowing now how much of an impact you have had on people, even now, would you have changed anything?
MF: Not at all. My first game back, we won the game in triple overtime 45-42 and I was on the field when we won. My whole family was there to see me play. My Mother was there, my wife, all of our children, my oldest grandson, everyone. My wife told me that God gave me the chance to get my senior year back. He knew that it was going to be so much more special because we would all be able to share in it with you. I accomplished everything in football that I wanted to accomplish.