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Kevin Sumlin’s Missing Years and the Guns N’ Roses Connection

Hooked by the hard-edged grinding rock of Guns N’ Roses and shaped by the feud between Axl Rose and Vince Neil, Kevin Sumlin infuses his work with a tinge of Heavy Metal attitude.

2016 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival - Weekend 2 - Day 2 Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Coachella

They captured in their ramble all the mysteries and magics of a March evening. Very still and mild it was, wrapped in a great, white, brooding silence -- a silence which was yet threaded through with many little silvery sounds which you could hear if you hearkened as much with your soul as your ears.
—L.M. Montgomery

This is a month of yearning. We think the winter has passed us by. False hope arises with that first warm green day only to be wiped away when the cold and mist returns. Plenty of time for the endless agony of summer later. Let’s not hasten the crumbling demise of our sanity just yet. Let’s not toil in the mines of meaningless chatter until we are completely out of time.

Too late.

When Kevin Sumlin enters a room, he owns it. There is an affability about him, an ease with which he works the crowd. It’s not his favorite part of the gig, but he does it no disservice. But when he’s ready to address a crowd, there’s a slight gripping of the sides of the podium. A flash of intensity across his demeanor before he begins. There’s an edge.

Sumlin grew up in Alabama a country boy, but he headed north for high school. He attended Brebeuf Jesuit in Indianapolis in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, just an hour down the road from where music history was being made. While Sumlin was excelling on the playing fields, a pair of skinny longhairs in Lafayette were forging the beginnings of what would soon become the biggest band in the world.

Izzy Stradlin and William Bailey were not good athletes. They weren’t good students. They were really only good at getting into trouble and playing loud music. They left Lafayette, Indiana for the allure of L.A. not long before Kevin Sumlin followed the weaving rhythmic beat of their music to Purdue University just across the river from where they grew up. He played walk-on linebacker, perhaps the most metal of any football position. They honed their individual skills simultaneously: one setting records for tackles, the others making records and tackling the establishment of glitz and glam rock in Los Angeles.

When Kevin Sumlin’s football career peaked his senior season in 1986, Guns N’ Roses was putting together one of the greatest debut albums in history.

A visit to Kyle Field and the football facilities in 2017 is a pilgrimage to glitz and decadence. It’s as over-the-top as any late-’80s hair band, and it’s no coincidence that its main conceptual architect came of age in that era. Every successful man has some aura of mystery about him, and Kevin Sumlin’s happens to be the two years that don’t appear on his official bio or his Wikipedia page.

Is it coincidence that this time frame is precisely when the Appetite for Destruction Tour occurred? Perhaps. But no one can be certain. A beefy Big Ten linebacker who played ball where half the band grew up is probably going to be on the short list of ideal candidates to travel with the band. Roadie, bouncer, fixer, driver, loyal fan, security, backup vocals, guitar tech, or completely innocent bystander, only Kevin Sumlin, Axl, Izzy, and the rest of the gang knows for sure. But there are hard lessons learned on the road, and not all of them popular or positive. During their touring, Duff McKagan and Slash were consuming every substance known to man in volumes that would render most cattle insensate. 99% of humans would have wilted and shocked their bodies into pathetic demises, but the musicians were at the apex of their performance skill. They were left alone to their own discretion for the sake of their art. It was a precarious balance that was beautiful and dark while it lasted. Not unlike Johnny Manziel’s two seasons in the SEC 25 years later.

What we do know is that Sumlin’s first football gig came in 1989 out at Washington State as a GA. By this time GNR was off the road and back in the groove of studio work, basking in the fame. That’s when it happened: pent-up rage and territoriality between bitter rivals broke out at an awards show. Motley Crue’s Vince Neil decked Izzy, igniting one of rock’s more famous feuds. Sumlin was presumably up and down the West Coast in 1989, recruiting, scouting, soaking it in. The brashness and the bravado, the blitzkrieg early attack followed by tenacious bellowing in the hopes that the opponent would simply give up on their own. It was a formula he would come to employ in his own gameplans years in the future.

He moved back to the heartland soon after, and Guns N’ Roses dissolved within a couple of years as well. All parties involved meandered away on their own distinct paths, honing their skills, experimenting, coming into their own after their early dose of the limelight. The stage is empty, but it is not silent, and people are still watching to see what happens next.

When Sumlin finishes speaking, there’s a wolfish grin, then he works the exit. Outside he puts on his shades, ready for the next stop. There is a slight hitch in his gait, but is the war wound from his playing days or crowd control in Indianapolis in summer of ‘88? Out of old habit, he’s always checking his bearings; working the room, knowing his exit strategy, gladhanding, smiling, keeping an eye out for trouble, because the only thing more volatile than a heavy metal fan is a dedicated college football booster. He’s scanning the crowds with practiced ease, survival foremost on his mind. Ready for the next gig.