… From Santa Rosa, California via Ft Scott Junior College, he didn’t walk so much as he “bounced” on his toes in that way that really fast speedsters do. Which Mel Gray was …. THE fastest football player I’ve ever seen, known, or been around… Mel and I had a delightful reunion on Tuesday at Firethorne Golf Club in Charlotte. BobLee shares some memories … plus the promised comments on “The Legend’s” political ad.
I was coming out of Carolina in June of ’69 and was offered a position on Dan Devine’s Missouri staff. North Carolina football back then was 2-4 Ws a season before 35,000-40,000 assorted alums, drunk frat boys and imported coeds from Salem, Meredith and “WC”. I guess the biggest difference between then and now is that it’s no longer necessary to import coeds for Saturday.
I accepted the position just two days after “a man named Armstrong walked on the moon”. Loading my Chevy Malibu with all my worldly possessions I hugged Mamma Swagger good by and headed west. I recall “something in my eye” until I was beyond Goldsboro. Look out world … here comes BobLee!
Missouri is 6-0 in 2006 with a fine season assured … causing Tiger faithful to “wake up the echoes” of past Mizzou great seasons … none more memorable than 1969.
Remember, this was 1969 and college sports was in a racial transformation. Outside of the South, black athletes were becoming commonplace and comprised 20-30% of most rosters. This was the case at Mizzou. It never occurred to me that “a new guy from North Carolina” might be viewed with a skeptical eye … I was.
Jumping ahead a bit, it was around the 2nd week of 2/days that big ol’ Larron Jackson aka “The Soldan Man” and I got into a deep discussion about “Julie and Doug” on Days Of Our Lives … we were both fans of the soap opera. Here was a 6’6” 260 black man from “urban” St Louis and “the new guy from North Carolina” joking and carrying on about the naughty shenanigans on a soap opera. Other players joined in and before we knew it we had 15-20 guys, black and white, all laughing and opining on our favorite soap opera bimbos. I guess that was the day I became, at least in part, a Missouri Tiger.
That 1969 Missouri team was “special”. We ended up 9-2 with a single regular loss at Folsom Field in Boulder and a 10-3 defeat in the Orange Bowl to a young Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions with a backfield of Lydell Mitchell and Franco Harris. We were ranked 6th in the final AP poll. The memories of that season were not in its destination in Miami but the season’s journey … seeing Mel Gray brought back those memories.
Every sports team is a combination of personalities. When a team achieves success those personalities blend into a stew of unforgettable memories … “that time that …” … “remember when …” … “I’ll never forget …”. Carolina “Junction Boys” had that from surviving Bill Dooley’s first Spring in Chapel Hill. We had that in Columbia, Missouri in 1969.
With football teams, it begins with the QB and Terry McMillan was straight out of a dime novel. From Coral Gables, Florida with a boyish grin and a coed-melting twinkle in his eye. Terry was born to be a QB. Like a Montana, a Brady, a Aikman … if you saw the Tigers get off the bus all dressed identically in our travel blazers and slacks, you just knew which one was “the quarterback”.
John “Nip” Weisenfels was the fireplug MLB from Websters Grove. “Nip” was the only “weighlifter” on the team “maybe” 5’9” with the shoulders of a blacksmith and the heart of a lion. “Nip” came in one day all excited about a new book he was reading by Mario Puzo … about “the mafia” … The Godfather. We nicknamed someone “Luca Brazi” but I don’t remember who.
Big Ol’ Larron was the biggest guy on the line at 260 (this was 1969 remember). He and Mike Carroll (from St Geniveve and married to the beautiful titan-haired “Mickey”) anchored the O-line with Bob Wilson at “maybe 210″ snapping center.
Tom Shryock was the efficient blocking TE with the sure hands when the opponents tried to double team Mel and John “The Jet” Henley. “Jet” was our Lance “Bambi” Alworth … skinny white kid who knew no fear. No “alligator arms” on Jet, no sirree.
Ron McBride from Fulton was the punishing FB. Always joking and in good humor, like so many unsung heroes on a successful football team, when Ron stepped on the field he was the workhorse opening holes for THE BEST running back I have ever seen in person in my life … JOE MOORE from Beaumont High School in urban St Louis..
They didn’t measure “body fat” back then. Joe Moore had “negative body fat”. He was “250 pounds of rocks in a 200 pound sack” of coiled ebony steel. Cannonball delts, cantaloupe pecs, sculptured hams for thighs and calves designed for speed. Of my three most vivid memories of that season, Joe was #1.
We went up to Ann Arbor to play Michigan in “The Big House”. They had a new coach named “Bo”. At 2-0 we had already given notice this was a special team … Missouri “showed” America that day. 103,000 in Maize and Blue and “Hail To The Victors” blaring in our ears. About midway the 2nd quarter with our ball on our 40 … 2nd and 6 … Terry barking signals, Wilson snaps, Ron McBride lead blocking through the 3 hole off Mike Carroll’s left hip. 22 men converge at midfield and #45 shot out of the middle of the scrum so quickly that you really weren’t sure what you were seeing. Ten yards beyond the line of scrimmage and there wasn’t a Wolverine within 5 yards of him … and that was as close as anyone got … 60 yards like Secretariat in the home stretch at Churchill Downs.
Joe Moore was a “thoroughbred stallion”. He hit “overdrive” and when he crossed the goal line there wasn’t anyone within twenty yards. We won 40-17. I believe that was Bo’s worst defeat EVER in “The Big House”.
That season, Joe had six 50+ TD gallops. Every one a picture of grace and raw power. His high-knee running style made each one especially crowd pleasing.
Coming back home we had Bob Devaney’s Cornhuskers coming in. Rich Glover, a young Johnny Rogers, Jerry Tagge, et al … the early days of Devaney’s juggernaut teams. Memory #2 …
Our ball on our 25 … 3rd and long … Terry drops back in the pocket … checks “Jet” Henley in the flat then “launches the bomb”. Most fans watch the ball so 65,000 in Missouri’s Memorial Stadium followed that parabolic flight. #21 from Santa Rosa California with 4.3 40 speed was flying down the left sideline with a full step on the Nebraska safety. Without the slightest hitch in his stride Mel Gray cradled it in on the 25… 56 yards from where Terry had launched it … and sprinted into the south end zone. Here Mel and I recall differently. I distinctly remember him doing a full flying somersault but he denies such showboating. Trust me … he somersaulted.
Like a Joe Moore gallop … McMillan to Gray for a 50+ yard bomb became the norm for us that year. Fans came to expect it … they weren’t disappointed.
Chuck Fairbanks brought his Sooners to Columbia with Heisman winner Steve Owens. 44-10 … Mizzou Wins Big!
Yeah, we stumbled in Boulder but ended the regular season in Lawrence. In that same stadium where Ol’Roy would break Tar Heel hearts 31 years later, we kicked Jayhawk butt 69-21. KU’s Pepper Rogers said he gave Coach Devine the “peace sign” … and Coach Devine gave him half of it back!!
On a rainy night in Miami, we finally had an offensive misfire. Nothing worked that night except a punt return by Jon Staggers that was 55 yards in the stats but the film showed Jon covered over 80 yards crisscrossing the Orange Bowl turf. As I stood on the sidelines at The Orange Bowl I recalled just 12 months earlier I had stood at mid-court in Madison Square Garden with the Tar Heels in the Holiday Festival. We were supposed to play UCLA in the finals but St Johns upset us. MSG and now “The Orange Bowl” … damn, BobLee, you’re quite a lucky fellow. Indeed.
9-2 and a Big Eight Co-Championship. I still have the ring. The Accutron Orange Bowl watch was stolen when we lived in Worcester.
The next season we were pre-season top ten with Joe as a top three Heisman nominee. But it wasn’t to be. An early season loss in Busch Stadium to Air Force was the portent of what was to come. Another visual I’ll never forget … in early October on a chilly overcast Saturday in Lincoln … #45 “The Stallion” of so many breakaway runs limps to the sidelines. I was the first to reach him and heard “it’s my shoulder”. Kindly “Doc” Baker (a dead ringer for Moonlight Graham) felt up under Joe’s pads and announced “it’s separated … he’s done”.
A side bar to that ’70 season … a JuCo arrived with a curious “rep” … that he had acted in porno flicks in Milwaukee. He stood 6’8” and 280, with a 32 inch waist and a “very” bad attitude. His name was John “The Tooz” Matuszak. He got tossed out of Mizzou the next Spring for nearbout killing a ROTC cadet who John thought was hitting on his date. Everything you ever heard about “the Tooz” was true. He died of waaay too much booz, drugs, and nasty wimmen about 15 years ago after a riotous career with the Raiders.
We limped in 5-6 and in early December I decided to leave intercollegiate athletics for grad school. The next day Dan Devine resigned to become Head Coach for the Green Bay Packers. I saw Coach Devine a dozen years later after he won a National Championship at Notre Dame. In the lobby of Kansas City’s Crown Center Hotel he said “you know BobLee, Mizzou never has recovered from you and I leaving, have they?” Whatever you say Coach.
If you recall my column on “the Boys of Post 9” … the projected future sports glory for those kids never happened. Fate and circumstance prevailed and, so, for those of us with the 1969 Missouri Tigers … that glorious season of special memories was as good as it ever got in our sports careers.
Nip is a Kansas City attorney … Terry is “in insurance” somewhere … Larron is a preacher in Mississippi. Mike Bennett’s a dentist in Cape Girardeau. Dennis Poppe is an NCAA executive. John “Tiger Paws” Brown was found dead in Las Vegas a few years ago, cause unknown. Joe Moore was drafted first round by “da Bears” but never recovered the magic and was out of football within three years. Asst coaches Hank Kuhlman and Vince Tobin have both been NFL Head Coaches. Coach Prentice Gautt died 2-3 years ago too … what a gentleman he was.
What about Mel Gray? Mel enjoyed an outstanding twelve year career in the NFL for the St Louis Cardinals catching Jim Hart’s long bombs.
As Mel and I were “laughing and remembering” yesterday at Firethorne Golf Club. Ben Davidson, Billy Joe Dupree and Wesley Walls walked up. At 66, Ben has some wild stories of his own about the Raiders.
As I was leaving Firethorne I called Kid who is, of course, at Mizzou right now. “I just spent an hour reminiscing about the glory days of Missouri football.”
“That’s nice Dad, I know you enjoy stuff like that.”
Kid knows her dad pretty well.
“The Tooz” played “a crazy football player” in what classic sports movie?
Rats … I got too carried away on the above to do justice to the deal about Dean’s political ad. I promise … next time.
When BobLee was at Mizzou, there was a young med student named Tim Taft... wonder whatever became of him ???
That last column about “Don’t Jump Yet” also “went platinum”. Remember just a week or so ago Dave Glenn and I were been crucified in a message board mosh pit. This time THE LOONIES LIKED ME! Pigs are flying to Hell to ice skate! Being lauded by loonies … Mamma Swagger would be so proud!
If you are going to Kenan on Saturday, remember to check out The Friday Center for excellent parking with plenty of room for tailgating and a hassle-free shuttle to Woollen Gym.
Regardless of who wins between State and Wake, it’s just going to turn up the heat on Franklin Street. Showdown in Hooville next Thursday … oh me, oh my!