It was the football season of 1955 and I was starting at defensive guard on the Cumberland Bulldogs. I was a sophomore that year and had lettered the year before, but this was my first year to be a starter. Five of my 10th grade teammates and I had been playing on the high school team since the eighth grade, and this year we were playing in every game.
When we first came out in the eighth grade, Cumberland had just come off a Delta Valley Conference Championship and almost everyone had graduated. The coaches were desperate for players and we had jumped at the chance. Not only had we paid our dues over the past three years, but we had matured physically. I was 5’9” and weighed 165 in the eighth grade. I started this year at 6’2” and 228. We were enjoying the first winning season in Cumberland since that Championship year.
The Delta Valley Conference had three senior-laden, outstanding teams in 1955 and we had already played one of them. Kazoo City was loaded with talent and ran the new T formation that had been introduced by Coach Bobby Dobb of Georgia Tech. They had beaten us badly early in the season. Winona had one of the best athletes to grace the Mississippi high school scene in years, a quarterback named Billy Stacy. He was a senior and was being recruited by half of the Southeastern Conference. We would be playing them in our next to last game. Tonight we would be going up against Indian Springs on the road. They were 6-0 and we were 5-1. Everyone was expecting a good close game and we were thinking upset.
The seventh period bell rang and most of the students hung around the campus planning to go to the girls’ gym for the pre-game pep rally starting at 5:00. I pitched my books in my locker, grabbed my letter jacket and set out to the team meeting in the football locker room. I met up with Benny on my way to the boys’ gym and he fell into step beside me.
“Got your game face on?” He asked.
“You know I don’t believe in that crap. I have never understood why banging my head on a locker would make me a better football player.”
“Your problem is that you have a deep seated dislike for authority.”
“Well, there’s that too, but I don’t need to conjure up additional hostility, I’m plenty damn hostile; as it is.”
“You know what they say about good football players; they should be ‘mobile, agile and hostile.”
“Yeah, and the greatest of these is ‘hostile.”
We entered the gym and joined in the general hub bub of players starting to get the pre-game jitters. Everybody gets a little edgy just before a game; we called it getting “butterflies in your stomach.” Some guys got so worked up that they would vomit and nearly have a nervous breakdown before the first licks were passed. A whistle blast quieted down the mob scene and Coach Wiley signaled for everyone to take a knee and listen up.
“By this time in the season ya’ll should all know the drill, but since some of you have the attention span of a yard chicken we are going over it one more time. I am going to cover the whole game plan before we breakdown into offense and defense. There are a couple of the brighter guys who will be going both ways and ya’ll will have to decide which side of the ball you need to work on most; it’ll be up to you. I’m turning the meeting over to Coach Biles who will lay out the game plan.”
Coach Lacey Biles was our assistant head coach and offensive coordinator. He plunged right into the game plan.
“Both teams will be running the single wing, but Indian Springs does it with a slight twist. They will come out with an over shifted line on every play. They will have two guards between the center and tackle, and this could be strong side right or strong side left. Coach Kemp will cover how we intend to defend against this when we break up into offense and defense.”
Coach John Kemp nodded his agreement and Biles continued,
“Defensively they will be in a standard six-man front and they will over-shift to our strong side as we go from right to left with our blocking back and wing back. They are particularly strong on defense and probably have the best linebackers and defensive halfbacks in the conference. Nobody’s been able to run on them this year, and they are tough defending against the pass. We’ve put in a couple of variations on offense to confuse them and maybe give us an advantage.”
Coach Wiley took over and said,
“Okay, let’s break up into offense and defense. The pep rally starts at 5:00 and I sure don’t want you lads to miss your inspiration.”
The defense moved to the rear of the gym and gathered around Coach Kemp and Coach Slade, the defensive line coach. Coach Kemp walked up to the chalk boards and started laying out our defensive game plan. Seeing that we had been practicing this all week, it wasn’t much of a surprise, but we knew better than to act bored. Coach Kemp went through the overall plan and quickly turned the linemen over to Coach Slade.
“Well, girls, here we are again, playing a team with a hell of a lot better players than we have. Since ya’ll may be the least talented players in the DVC, it is good that you have such a superior coaching staff. It is my job to make chicken salad out of chicken shit. It’s a large task, but one that I am willing to accept.”
“When I look down the Indian Springs offensive line I see three, maybe four seniors who will be playing on Saturday next year, most probably in the SEC. They have two ends that are top notch. Larry Smith, their strong side end, will line up on the over shifted strong side on every play. He maybe the best blocking end in the conference; he weighs in at 220 and is 6’3”.
“Their other end is a speedster with good hands. His name is Kent Loveland and he is a sprinter in track and their favorite receiver. We’ll have to double cover him or he will eat our lunch. Their weak side lineman are just ordinary, in fact, if we have an advantage at all it will be here. They seldom run to the weak side and when they do they pull the beef from the strong side to lead the play.”
“Their strong side is something else. The center is a senior named Wayne Browner and he is huge. They carry him on the program at 255 and 6’5”, but he probably he’s more like 285 and 6’6’. That’s the bad news; the good news is that he can hardly run out of his shadow, I’ll have to admit that he cast a pretty big shadow. He is virtually immoveable, but he is also immobile and won’t be a factor outside of his three or four-yard area. We’ll just have to run around him. Larch, you and Tong are going to be playing nose- up on Browner all evening, think you can handle him?”
What was I going to say, “No coach, probably not, he’ll just beat us by himself’? I had been at this football business far too long to fall into that trap. In spite of being outweighed by thirty to fifty pounds and being half a foot shorter I quickly snapped,
“John and I got him covered coach; he’ll be dragging his fat ass around looking for an escape route when we finish with him. He’s nothing but a tub of lard.”
“Now that’s the attitude I like. Larch is not intimidated by Browner and will take care of that problem.”
Right, I thought, Browner is nothing but a tub of slow moving lard. Of course he can probably out run our backs and can bench press a John Deere. He shouldn’t be a problem.
Coach Slade moved on to the two strong side guards. The outside guard was named Marvin Terrell and not a lot was known about him. He was about 6 feet and close to 200 pounds. This was his first year to start and he played in the shadow of their super star, “Buck” McKinney. McKinney had been all DVC for the past two years. He was 6’1” and 230 and they said he could run with the backs. He was the most intensely recruited high school lineman in Mississippi and it was assumed that he could not be handled by any one man.
When Coach Slade had finished his press conference on the many skills of Buck McKinney, he turned again to me and said.
“Larch, you may be able to hold your own against Browner, but we are going to have to get you some help with McKinney. I want you to shift to the outside and play nose-up on the Terrell kid. John Tong will move over on Browner’s nose and the two of you will have to neutralize McKinney. I doubt that this Terrell guy will cause you much of a problem and you can concentrate on helping Tong with Browner and McKinney. Capiche?”
“I got it Coach; John and we’lll take care of them.”
The meeting moved on to how we planned to stop their passing game which only involved us linemen in the hope that we could put a little pressure on their tailback and not give him all day to throw. The single wing was primarily a running formation and pass plays generally took a while to develop and were usually nothing more than an attempt to keep our defensive backs honest. If we could get at the passer, all the better, but in the meantime somebody needed to knock down a couple of pulling guards, a blocking back and a fullback. Penetration was the key to taming the single wing.
The team meeting finally broke up about a quarter to five and we were free to attend the pep rally that would soon be starting. Benny and I walked over to the Girls’ gym, took off our shoes and joined the rest of the team gathering at center court. You might ask why we removed our shoes? There was a very good answer to that question. We did it to save our ass.
The girls’ gym was owned and operated by Coach Margaret “Peggy” Woods, the Cumberland girls’ basketball coach. Coach Woods had won a stack of DVC championships and multiple State titles and treated her domain with the same attitude Attila displayed toward Hunsville. To say she was protective really didn’t do her justice. Nobody walked on Peggy Woods’ shiny gym floor in street shoes, or at least you only did it once, I mean nobody, not even W.J. Parks, the Superintendent of Schools, would do it twice.
The band began to play the Cumberland fight song and the bleachers were full of singing and cheering students. It was amazing what winning a couple of games could do for school spirit. During our three- year-run of losing we may have had a couple of hundred students and parents at a pep rally. Today the gym was totally packed with people standing along the edges of the court in their socks. Many were alums and knew the wrath of Peggy Woods.
The band played, the cheerleaders cheered and the coaches and captains made totally inane speeches about our loyalty and devotion to old Cumberland High. The rally broke up with the band playing the Cumberland High alma mater and it was clear that not ten people knew the score, let alone the lyrics.
The students and parents left to go home and get ready to drive to Indian Springs for the 8:00 kickoff. The band and cheerleaders headed to their buses and the team meandered back to the locker room.
John Tong caught me at my locker and sat down on the bench. John was one of the third generation Chinese Americans whose ancestors had come to the Delta with the railroad in the 1880’s. John’s grandfather had done manual labor on the railroad, his father owned a small grocery store in the Negro section of town and John would go to Mississippi State and become a CPA. Three generations to the American Dream. He looked at me and said,
“What do you think about the game plan?”
“Hell, John, you know that all the planning goes out the window when the whistle blows. Can you and I handle Browner and McKinney? Probably not, a lot depends on just how good this Terrell kid is. If I can handle him and give you some help with the other two, we might just make it work.”
“Well, you certainly sounded confident in the meeting.”
“I hope you didn’t buy that load of crap, it was just ‘coach talk’.”
“’Coach talk’, what in the hell is that?”
“John, when an intellectual giant like Coach Slade asks you a question, it is purely rhetorical. He knows the response he wants and if you don’t feed it to him, he’ll eat your ass out. I’d rather get chewed out if we can’t get the job done rather than listen to it beforehand. Who knows? Terrell might be a complete chicken and we can manhandle the other two.”
“So, you think we can maybe handle it?”
“I don’t really know, let’s just fake it, ‘till we make it.”
“Thanks,” John said, as he walked away, “I can’t say that I feel any better, but I guess we’ll know soon enough.”
If this were a home game, we’d be in the school cafeteria eating our pregame carbo stuff. But since this was going to be played in Indianola we would get our uniforms on, sans shoulder pads, and get on the team bus. Sack meals would be passed out and we would eat them on the way.
I was getting my ankles taped by one of the managers when I watched an unfolding drama just across the room. Buddy Clements was sitting in front of his locker looking completely baffled. Buddy played defensive end, the single wing suicide position. He feared no man or beast; he was a little shaky around girls, but that was another story.
Tonight he was dealing with something that completely bum-fuzzled him; math. He was holding his white game jersey trying to decide how to put it on. Finally he turned to the manager taping my feet and said,
“Carter, how in the hell do I get this damn jersey on?”
“Gee, Buddy, I think I would start by sticking my head and arms through those holes.”
“Don’t give me any shit, I got that part, I just need to know which side goes in front.”
“Okay,” Carter sighed, “Put the small number in front and the big number in back.”
“I already told you not to give me any shit. Both of the numbers are the same, 86.”
Carpenter, looked at Buddy with complete disdain and said,
“Goddamn, Clements, are you retarded?”
Since Carter and I had been friends since grammar school, I thought this might be a good place to step in and help. If I could defuse the situation it might just save Carter’s ass.
“Hell, Buddy, I have the same problem myself. Here’s a little trick I learned. Look in the neck hole and find the tag. Just remember the tag goes in back. Carter is a bit out of his element seeing that he has never put on a football jersey.”
“Yeah, thanks, the little turd could have told me that.”
“He’ll know next time.” I said and signaled Carter to keep his mouth shut.
Having solved his jersey problem, Buddy left to go to the bus. I turned to Carter, who was putting the finishing touches on my tape job and said,
“Tommy, one day you are going to let your alligator mouth overload your hummingbird ass and I’m not going to be there to save you. Buddy Clements may well be a little retarded, hell, he may be as dumb as a bucket of pig spit, but that doesn’t mean that you have to point it out.”
“You don’t think I could take Clements?”
“Carter, I don’t think you could take his little sister.”
“I might like to try his little sister on for size; maybe we could set up a wrestling match.”
“I just hope you remain alive until football season is over, you tape a mean ankle.”
“You’re welcome, you little twit.”
I grabbed my shoulder pads and helmet and boarded the bus for Indian Springs. I slipped into the seat Benny was saving for me and flopped down holding my gear.
“Let me stick that stuff under our seat,” Benny said. “You look like a thunder storm. What’s up?”
“I had to pull Carter’s foot out of his mouth again. He was giving Clements a ration of crap and was walking mighty close to the line.”
“You ever think about just letting him try to handle stuff by himself?”
“Yeah, all the time, but I don’t want to see him killed. Besides, he kinda depends on me.”
“It’s nice to be needed, isn’t it?”
“It has its moments. I guess you and I need to decide how we’re going to play this genius defense that Slade has come up with.”
Benny would be playing inside linebacker just behind Tong and me and would be primarily responsible for stuffing up the running game. We always worked out a system that allowed Benny to cover an open hole if either John or I stunted.
“How y’all gonna play it tonight?” Benny asked.
“Won’t really know till we get going, but if I can handle Terrell, then you and John can pretty much play it straight with the other two.”
“Think you can handle him?”
“I don’t see why not; I’ve never met a guy I couldn’t handle one-on-one.”
“Then we’ll be in good shape. They won’t be able to run in the middle.”
The managers came down the bus aisle passing out sack lunches. I took mine and looked inside. A tuna fish sandwich and a bag of chips looked back at me.
“Ugh, tuna fish before a football game, gimme a break.”
“Well, it’s your fault, aren’t you some kinda Catholic? It is Friday, you know.”
“Benny, you know damn well I’m an Episcopalian.”
“Pretty much the same difference, isn’t it?”
I knew Benny well enough to know when he was screwing with me and decided not to return the ball.
“What did you get? I might be willing to trade.”
“I got ham and there is no possibility of a trade.”
“Hey,” I shouted, “anybody want to trade for my tuna sandwich?”
I was shouted down with about forty sarcastic comments about my sandwich and I decided to eat the damn thing and hope I didn’t see it coming up later. The bus made the 33- mile trip to Indian Springs while we were eating our sandwiches and we soon pulled into the brightly lit home of the Indian Springs Indians.
Since most of the little high schools in the DVC did not have visitors’ locker rooms, we used our bus as our home away from home. We finished dressing, putting on our pads and game jerseys, then filed off the bus and jogged to the far end zone to have our pregame obligatory pep talk. This frustrated some of the more gung-ho guys since there were no lockers to bang their heads on. The goal post would have to do.
From our vantage point in the end zone we had a perfect view of an October harvest moon just peaking its nose over the horizon. The evening promised to be perfect for a football game, pleasantly cool with clear skies and a light breeze. The stands began to fill and the Indianola band was on the field with a pre- game show. Cumberland and Indian Springs were about the same size and since it was only 33 miles separating them we had almost as many fans as they did. There just wasn’t a hell of a lot to do on Friday night.
When the band completed its show, the Indian Springs Indians came racing onto the field, led by their cheerleaders and pep squad. The band played their fight song and the home crowd cheered. I noticed Benny paying close attention to the cheerleaders and pep squad.
“Well, Bowman, I’m glad you’ve got your mind narrowly focused on the upcoming game.”
“Yeah, I’ve been paying close attention to their personnel, seems to be a bumper crop this year.”
“Prenatal care and good nutrition has done wonders for teenage girls.”
Coach Wiley’s whistle blew and we all gathered around him. He briefly went over the game plan and quickly began his little pregame inspirational. Rig Wiley didn’t hold with oratorical rhetoric and he was no great public speaker. He had seen far too much war to have any illusions about what motivated men.
He believed in loyalty and responsibility- first to the guy next to you, never let him down. Secondly, to the team who depended on you to tote your assigned load. Past that, screw ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out.
He pointed out that football required only two things of you. First to defeat and destroy the guy in front of you, take him completely out of the mix. Secondly, to be there at the end, stronger, faster and more determined than your opponent. He and the coaches would provide the conditioning that would allow you to do this; the will was up to you.
Finally he pointed out that a high school football game lasted only 48 minutes. If all things were equal and offense and defense played the same amount of time this was only 24 minutes. If it took 20 seconds to call a play, get lined up and go through the snap cadence, and the play itself took a max of ten seconds to be completed, then you only played football for about 8 minutes a game. If there was anyone who didn’t feel that he could go full speed for 8 minutes, raise his hand and get the hell out of here.
We jumped to our feet and charged on to our end of the field to go through our pregame warm-up drill. I’ll have to admit that every time I heard Coach Wiley give that little talk it made me want to deliver my end of the bargain. Tonight I knew that John Tong and I had the task of neutralizing two of the best high school lineman in the State of Mississippi. I had every intention of screwing their evening completely up. Browner and McKinney didn’t have any idea what was coming.
The two teams lined up for the opening kickoff. Indian Springs had won the coin toss and had chosen to kick to us and go on defense. I am forced to admit that I was never on a kickoff team, neither kicking nor receiving. I was just too damn slow. I was fairly quick within a three yard area, but way too slow to operate in the open field. I watched as the kick sailed down to our fifteen yard line and Mickey brought it back to the twenty-two.
We ran three running plays that netted a total of four yards and T.C. punted it away. Indian Springs had the ball first and ten at their own thirty-three yard line. They came out in their over shifted single wing and I moved head-up on Marvin Terrell, the outside guard. The following eight minutes, if that is indeed how long you actually play football, provided me with a life changing experience. It is amazing that a mere eight minutes can seem like several days.
The Indian Springs tailback called the snap cadence and Browner snapped the ball. I was prepared to receive McKinney’s charge on my left and play off Terrell to my right. McKinney disappeared and I felt myself being carried completely out of the play and watched helplessly as the Indian Springs fullback sailed through the hole I was supposed to be defending for an eight-yard gain.
I had no idea what had happened. Apparently McKinney had pulled behind Terrell and blocked down on our tackle and somehow I had been swept out of the way. I had not felt any impact from Terrell, it was as if he simply ushered me away. Talk about confused, I was totally baffled.
On the next play McKinney hit me high and Terrell hit me low and once again I saw the fullback zoom by untouched. First-and-ten from the Indian Springs forty-eight. On the next play the tailback hit Loveland with a fifty-yard touchdown pass and our defense was off the field. I jogged to the sidelines and sat down beside John tong.
“Well, that really went well.” he said.
“I have no idea exactly what happened. One minute I was in position and the next I was nowhere near the play.”
“Do you think maybe you got blocked?”
“Well, I got that part, I just don’t know how.”
“The word ‘completely’ comes to mind.”
“Well, I can guarantee you that won’t happen again.”
But it did, not only on the next series, but all night long. I totally ignored McKinney and Browner and let Tong deal with them. Marvin Terrell became the sole focus of my attention. I tried every trick and technique that I knew to defeat his block. Nothing worked. You can’t hit what you can’t catch.
I have tried over the years to describe what playing head-up on Terrell was like and it defies every football cliché that I know. This was not the only Friday night I got handled by an offensive lineman. The difference was that in the other cases I could explain exactly how it happened. They were either bigger, quicker or stronger and in some cases all three. They would hit you like a run-away Mack truck and bulldoze you out of the play.
Terrell was different. True, he was quicker and stronger and I know that played a part, but the only way to describe him is to say that he was ‘elegant’. He exploded in your face like a hand grenade and simply placed you where he wanted you to be. His upper body strength was impressive, but his ability to drive his legs and scoop you up was even more impressive. It was as if I was playing against a ghost or a whiff of smoke. I cannot remember but a couple of plays that I had any part in tackling someone, and then only because I was McKinney’s responsibility, not Terrell’s.
Usually, when you are getting your butt handed to you the game seems intermediately long. This one flew by. By the middle of the fourth quarter Terrell was giving me hands-on coaching advice. He suggested that I try to keep my initial charge lower and not let him into my body mass. He felt that I needed to work on my upper body strength and try to keep my legs churning after contact. I listened to what he said, but to tell you the truth, none of his advice made much difference. He just had his way with me all night.
When the game ended we had actually played one of our best games all year. They beat us 14-7, which surprised everyone including Coach Wiley. When the whistle ending the game blew, I walked across the field, found Terrell and said,
“Believe it or not, I enjoyed playing against you. You’re far and away the best football lineman I have ever been up against. Tonight was a real learning experience.”
Terrell looked at me and said,
“Thanks, I appreciate the compliment. Keep on learning. You can be a good player yourself.”
We shook hands and I said,
“Thanks for the coaching clinic; I learned just how much I don’t know. Good luck for the rest of the season, hope you guys win it all.”
I walked back to our end zone and met my Dad on the way.
“Tommy,” he said, “I’m surprised your uniform shows any dirt or grass stains.”
“I take it you have some fatherly advice you’re about to share.”
“No advice, just an observation. The next time you want to go to a football game as a spectator, buy a ticket and sit in the stands. That little guy beat your ass all over this field.”
“That he did,” I admitted, “he was something else. We can go over my mistakes later; I got to get on the bus now.”
“I’ll be surprised if they let you on the bus, they oughta make you walk back to Cumberland.”
“Thanks again, Dad, I’ll see you at home.”
He walked off shaking his head. I took off my shoulder pads and put my jersey back on and got on the bus. I found my seat next to Benny and sat down.
“Good game,” he said.
“Yeah,” I replied, “I’ll probably be on the “B” team next week after they review the game film.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I just got my ass waxed; that’s the worst game I ever played.”
“I played right behind you and I didn’t think you looked all that bad.”
“That’s because Marvin Terrell led me around like I had a ring in my damn nose.”
“Well, you and Tong kept Browner and McKinney from being much of a factor.”
“John gets all of the credit for that. All I did was provide Terrell with an evening of mild amusement. Like I told my Dad, tonight was a complete learning experience.”
“Really, what did you learn?”
“If Marvin Terrell represents a typical college prospect, then I better let go of the notion of ever playing on the next level.”
Indian Springs went on to win 1955 Delta Valley Conference Championship. Mississippi State beat out a dozen other schools and signed Buck McKinney. He never made a difference at State. Ole Miss was the only school willing to take a chance on Marvin Terrell.
He started at guard for three years and was All SEC and a consensus All American his senior year. He played four years for the Dallas Texans in the old American Football League. Marvin Terrell proved to be the real deal.