By: Zac Ellis
NASHVILLE – When times turned tough, Mike Mang turned to Vanderbilt football.
Mang, a former volunteer with the Commodores' equipment staff, needed an escape this summer after suffering tragedy: his wife of 49 years, Linda, passed away following a lengthy illness on July 11. For a period of time, Mang felt lost without his former high school sweetheart.
After a while, Mang decided to do something about it. He placed a call to Jordan Hunt, Vanderbilt's football equipment manager. Before he knew it, Mang was back on the practice field helping the Commodores prepare for the 2018 season.
"I hadn't been around the team since the end of last season,' Mang said. "But since the passing of my wife, I needed to get out. I reached out to Jordan and asked if I could come back over and help out. It's been a big help to be back around the program and stay busy during the day."
Mang was hardly an unfamiliar face in McGugin Center. The Nashville native spent 43 years traversing the country as a truck driver for Fed Ex and three other companies, but his hobby back home was in the equipment room. Mang ultimately volunteered for more than a decade with Vanderbilt's equipment staff following a stint with the NFL's Tennessee Titans from 1998-2004.
Eventually, Mang became a mainstay on West End, even helping Vanderbilt quarterbacks warm up in pregame situations. He said his favorite memories involve hauling in practice throws from the likes of Jay Cutler, Jordan Rodgers and, for the last few seasons, Kyle Shurmur.
Once, Mang humorously recalls, Rodgers overthrew Mang during warmups and hit a cameraman in the face. The cameraman had a few choice words for Mang on the sideline. But, Mang says, "I love all my quarterbacks."
Mang's Vanderbilt memories often coincide with those of his late wife. Upon returning from most football road trips, Mang used to routinely re-watch the taped Commodore games with Linda. She never cared about the final score; instead, Linda simply wanted to spot her husband.
"We'd sit down and she'd say, 'I want to see if I can find you," Mang recalled. "So we'd sit down together and look for me on TV."
Today, Mang sings the praises of Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason – "My favorite head coach," he says -- and the equipment staff for allowing him to rejoin the program amid heartbreak. He said Commodore football gives him a sense of purpose alongside his kids, two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren as he copes with the loss of Linda.
But the Commodores are just as thankful to have Mang back in the locker room.
"Mike is part of our family," Hunt said. "Witnessing his positive attitude after enduring loss so recently is an inspiration to everyone in this program. We hope Vanderbilt can play a part in his healing process."
During fall camp, Mang can be spotted setting up the practice field, shagging punts or moving the chains in the summer heat. At 69, Mang is healing the only way he knows how – and he's not slowing down.
"I love Vandy," Mang said. "Always have, always will."
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics.