Oct 28, 2019
Carolina’s Junction Boys – REVISITED
Saturday at the UNC-Duke Game in Kenan Jr Memorial Stadium, a contingent of the 1967-68 Carolina’s Junction Boys were honored with an on-field introduction. There are still 50 or so of them “above ground” but only the dozen shown in the picture were able to make the hastily arranged ceremony.
Those shown above (left to right) are Gayle Bomar (QB) – Tom Dempsey (FB) – Tom “Bear” Renedo (DT) – David Riggs (RB) – Battle Wall (DT) – Brent Milgrom (LB) – Doug David (WR) – Ron Lowry (DB) – John Lacy Harris (DB) – Mark Mazza (FB) – Luther Cochrane (LB) – Haywood Cochrane (RB).
I first told their story to the World back in 2004 and repeated it last April at a Reunion in Chapel Hill attended by over 40 former players and wives. Yes, it is “a Carolina Football story”; BUT it is much more. It is a “coming of age during a rite of passage” story.
It is a story of young men (18-19-20) with dreams of “going off to college” and “playing college football” before cheering crowds. Of earning glory for their families, their hometowns, and, yes for themselves. … and then having those dreams short-circuited by circumstances beyond their control.
It should be noted that this was 1967-68. None of these boys had NFL dreams. They knew “football” was simply a means to an end of a “college education”… but they expected it to be a four-year experience. For many of them The Spring of 1967 would end that dream. This is Their Story… the telling takes more than a few words…
Carolina’s Junction Boys
… a story of young men facing circumstances
and adjusting their lives to “deal with it”.
This is not really a story of Carolina Football. A scenario not specific to athletics or to Chapel Hill. As this story was played out in Chapel Hill the late 60s, other young men were living out life/death circumstances in Viet Nam. There is no parallel intended to the two scenarios.
Hardcore Tar Heel-ophiles love to gather ‘round a wheel of baked brie & a nice cabernet and recount signature events in Carolina’s long sports history. ..Choo Choo vs Georgia … Georgetown ’82 … “The Impossible Comeback” vs Duke … McCauley’s last game in Kenan … Dean’s effigy hanging outside Woollen … Kearns jumping against Wilt … memorable moments all. …. much less heralded are the ALMOST forgotten ”survivors” of a signature event in UNC and ACC history –
NOTE: The term “Junction Boys” is taken from a book and ESPN movie several years ago about Paul “Bear” Bryant’s first team at Texas A&M in 1954. Bryant inherited a rag tag collection of boys … took them to a West Texas hellhole (Junction Texas) and made’em beat the crap outta each other for 10 days. From the survivors of that experience he remade Aggie Football. Those boys became “football players” and Paul “Bear” Bryant became a legend.
WARNING: There may be 1-2 inaccuracies in the following account. It is a “BobLee was There” True Story; but giving an accurate account of The Spring of 1967 is like describing last month’s migraine. The combo of 37 years gone by and simply blotting out unpleasantness has buried some facts under impenetrable cobwebs.
The names you will read are not “famous” with a few exceptions. They are hardly synonymous with great Tar Heel victories. These players and coaches were “ships that passed” on individual voyages of circumstance. Boys living their dream of playing college football … men on their coaching career path.
It would be hyperbole to claim lives and history were inexorably changed that Spring. Every dramatic life experience leaves its mark on those that endure it.
Tom “Bear” Renedo and Neilsen Rogers were teammates at Coral Gables High in South Florida. “Gables” was a premier high school program in the country “back then”. Bear and Neil prepped for a year at Hargraves Military then entered UNC in the Fall of 1965, recruited by Jim Hickey’s staff. Hickey’s Tar Heels had defeated The Air Force Academy in the 1963 Gator Bowl and the future looked bright. Chris Hanburger and Ken Willard were the future NFL stars that had just completed fine careers when Bear and Neil reported to Ehringhaus in August of 1965.
If you REALLY follow UNC Football maybe you recall a few of their classmates … Gayle Bomar (Peru IN) and Battle Wall (Wadesboro NC). Gayle held a few QB records for some years and Battle had a football name you never forget. The Canadian Connection began that year … Dick Wesolowski and Mark Mazza.
There were the standard North Carolina and Virginia collection of home boys … John Lacy Harris – Roxboro, Louis Newton – Rockingham, Tommy Dempsey – Clinton. Chip Bradley – Asheville, Billy Federal and Mike Richey – Charlotte, Billy Warren – Rocky Mount, Virginians Cramer Boswell, Peter Davis, Ron Lowry, Billy Dodson; Pennsylvanians Terry Rowe, Tom Buskey and Curtis Wynn … one kid from West Virginia – Mike Smith who would one day be named National Offensive Lineman of The Week … but not before “that Spring of 1967”.
From Jim Hickey’s last recruiting were kids still freshmen in 1967… looking at 31/2 years of uncertainty they had NOT “signed on for”. Names like Mike Working, Ed Chalupka, Kenny Price, Tom Cantrell, Bob Hanna, Saulis Zemaitis, David Jackson … and several dozen others. My apologizes for any omissions.
Carolina Football in the mid 60s… Kenan Stadium was as beautiful then as now less 10,000 seats, a state-of-the-art press box and “football complex”. Those pines a bit less “lofty”. The stuccoed “Alamo” in the open end was the epicenter (with NO charging stations!). Games were popular and student attendance was a given.
Carolina had a dearth of coeds back then so game dates were imported from UNC-G, Meredith, Peace, Salem, etc. Fans got drunk and had a good time. Any disappointment at the game could be forgotten at the frat parties that night. The Isley Brothers and Doug Clark’s Hot Nuts were always winners. In those days the black performers were restricted to entertaining in Frat house basements not on Kenan’s greensward.
Also “back then” Major Y’s Marching Tar Heels played “Zigga Zoomba” a lot and fans loved it. It was a terrific song to stimulate fan enthusiasm. The current band does not play it … they should. Zackie Murphy was the Coed Goddess. Carmichael Auditorium opened in 1965.
With Bomar at QB and Wesolowski’s running, that ’65 Frosh team was a perfect 5-0. Danny Talbot’s fine UNC career was finishing and it looked like Bomar’s bunch would be the nucleus of a new winning era for Tar Heel Football.
Jim Hickey’s staff was a collection of “gentlemen coaches” typical of the ACC staffs of that period. The aforementioned Bear Bryant and his SEC co-horts were dominating college football along with Ara Parseghian’s Notre Damers and Duffy Daugherty’s Michigan State Spartans led by Bubba Smith.
Around Chapel Hill there were no illusions of competing “on a national level” in football. There was the occasional big upset win but “no neck linemen” and “colored boys who could run like the wind” were not a part of Carolina Football back then.
Several of Coach Hickey’s staff actually taught academic courses and were familiar faces around campus. This was a different era! Emmett Cheek, Bob Thalman, Vito Raggazo, Chris Carpenter, Fred Muellar, George Boutselis … Big Ernie Williamson ran The Rams Club and was “the recruiter”. Ernie kept a box of 3×5 index cards in a box on his desk. As he would hear about a kid he would put the info on a card and try to follow up when his Rams Club travels had him in their area.
Winning was important back then. Winning is ALWAYS important whenever athletes compete.
Participating in an intense athletic competition is not an especially pleasant experience at the time. Winning justifies the pain and agony that is involved. Football is especially brutal. A football locker room after a heartbreaking loss is NOT a happy place. I have been in quite a few, I know.
Duke’s Football program was about to enter a multi-decade doldrums period. Bill Murray was retiring and a succession of whozits would follow in his wake. NC State was at a similar point. Earle Edwards had not found “the next Roman Gabriel” or Dick Christy. He did have a barrel-chested squeaky voiced LB wearing “white shoes” but Wolfpack football was hardly knocking on the door of “big time football. Beating Warren McVea in the Astrodome did not inspire a “Hoosiers” movie.
Wake Forest’s had a running back named Brian Piccolo who actually did inspire a movie. Frank Howard was spitting out tobacco juice and homilies in Death Valley.
In the Fall of ’66 there was a running back up in Garden City LI named Don, a linebacker in Silver Spring MD named John, and a QB playing “Chip Hilton” down in Ayden named Paul … but they were just high school boys dreaming about playing college football. In Chapel Hill some young men who had had similar dreams were dealing with very few “thrills of victories” and consistent “agonies of defeat”.
In November of 1966, Jim Hickey called a team meeting in the lower locker room at Kenan Field House. There had been rumors for some time. Yes, rumors about coaches actually existed prior to the Internet … go figure! Coach Hickey announced his resignation. He would go on to sell real estate in Sanford. Fred Muellar would tabulate high school football related deaths. George Boutselis would die within a few years. Bob Thalman ended up at VMI. Emmett Cheek became a full-time instructor in UNC’s Physical Education department. But what about “Carolina’s Junction Boys”?
… Renedo and Rogers and Bomar and Wall and Bradley and Weso and Mazza and Newton and Wynn and Davis and Warren and Mike Smith who would one day be named National Lineman of The Week but not before the Spring of 1967
For The Carolina Junction Boys, at the midpoint of their college football careers, everything changed that day in the lower locker room in Kenan Field House when Coach Hickey resigned.
Notre Dame Assistant John Ray headed a short list for “Carolina’s next Football Coach”. To my knowledge Steve Spurrier (who had just won the Heisman Trophy at Florida that year) did NOT have “his people” contact UNC Athletics Director Chuck Erickson to discuss the position. NOTE: Governors Club did not exist in 1967 ergo no mythical “lot” was offered.
“Between the hedges” down in Athens GA, Head Coach Vince Dooley hung up his telephone and walked down the hall to his little brother’s office.
“Hey Billy, I just got a phone call. You ever been to Chapel Hill, North Carolina?” …
Bill Dooley formally arrived in Chapel Hill in January of 1967. ..He posted announcements around Ehringhaus of a team meeting at 1:00 PM in a 2nd floor classroom in Woollen Gym. ..He underlined 1:00 PM. ..At 12:59 PM he had a team manager lock the door. Fully half the team had not arrived. ..Bill Dooley had inherited a team that was not dedicated to football. ..He would change that.
In retrospect, the new head football coach at Carolina, in his early 30s, was probably as nervous and uncertain about the future as the players he inherited. He learned about winning football from men like Darryl Royal and his older brother Vince. ..He also knew that Carolina Football in 1967 was a long way from “winning football”. 4-6 in ’65 and 2-8 in ’66. He needed “good players” and what he had inherited was three classes of boys who had come to Carolina for a variety of reasons with “playing Football” not necessarily at the top of their list.
Every football coaching staff is a combination of stereotypes. Recall those army movies of the 50s where each platoon had the Irish kid, the Italian from Brooklyn, the farm boy from Iowa, and a Mama’s boy. Bill Dooley’s staff in 1967 did not have a Mama’s boy but it did have a collection of “unique” personalities … Haley, Collins, Hickman, Collins, Carmody, Vickers, Spooner, DeMelfi and holdovers Fred Mueller and Sandy Kinney. In short order these “new guys” assembled in Chapel Hill like Yul Brenner gathering the Magnificent Seven. They had SEC Football in their blood.
Lee Haley was “Papa” … a lovable huggy bear of a man who was Def Coordinator. Billy Hickman was the Defensive Backfield Coach … a genuinely nice man of slight build and abundantly positive nature. I mention Billy Hickman along with Lee Haley because … all the rest of the bunch were certifiable “psychos”.
The exception was Defensive Line Coach Jim Carmody who was of a species and mental condition still unclassified … much darker than “psycho”. Vic Spooner was the only one who could communicate with Carmody … and hardly anyone else could talk to Spooner. In most groups Jim Vickers would have been considered eccentric. With Carmody and Spooner on board, Vickers was “mainstream”. Bobby Collins was, on his best days, simply an odd duck.
The plan that Spring of 1967 was not brain surgery. Coach Dooley’s motives were clear to everyone from the returning lettermen to the freshmen walk-ons. He needed to free up scholarships to recruit “his type of players”. That meant he needed to cull the herd of as many of the soft “fraternity party boys” as he could. This strategy – “Culling the Herd” – was not original with Bill Dooley in 1967 and is still common in college coaching transitions in 2004. Today it’s called “the waiver wire”.
No one ever talked about it, but “The Junction Boys” from the ’65 Frosh and the ’64 Frosh classes had to have known that turning around Carolina Football was not a 1-2 year operation.
What began in the spring of ’67 would not begin to bear fruit for 3-4 years; when they would be gone.
Even more consigned to a inexorable fate were the boys of the ’64 Frosh class … Dave Riggs, Lou Pukal, Tim Karrs, Charlie Carr, Ev Cowan, Mike Horvat, and their buddies … one and done, or perhaps none and done if they chose.
Whatever the NCAA rules were at that time about off-season conditioning drills, Bill Dooley had a special set of rules used by SEC schools. Dooley’s rules did not include Chemistry Labs, make-up tests, or much of anything not directly involved with sweating, running, bleeding, pain, and developing negative opinions towards him and his staff of demented concentration camp guards masquerading as assistant coaches (except for Haley and Hickman, of course).
Football is a stratified game of assigned roles. In basketball the “short guys” will be a guard and the “tall guy” will be center and the rest will be “forwards”. In baseball a tall guy might play first base and a squatty guy might catch but otherwise size and personality are not much of a factor.
The various positions roles in football are as much psychological as physical. If one has a headhunting linebacker mindset one can grow into the appropriate size. If you have “leadership skills” you might gravitate to be a QB. Offensive and Defensive linemen look very similar in size but Offensive linemen tend to be more intellectually. Defensive linemen tend to be “meaner” and rather antisocial. ( Tom “Bear” Renedo was a Defensive lineman but quite an affable fellow). I mention these intellectual and psychological differences because that spring Bill Dooley totally ignored them. Which brings us to The Mat Room.
The same lower locker room where Jim Hickey had resigned in November 1966 was, in February 1967, converted into The Mat Room. The floor was covered wall to wall with old beat-up worn out gymnastic mats. These were dirty old “horsehair” mats; pound them and dirt and dust puffed out. The thermostat for the room was set on “sauna”. Now imagine a scene from Fight Club or Lion Heart. Have you ever witnessed an Ultimate Fighting match?
The players were herded into the Mat Room after 45-60 minutes of intense outside running and agility drills under the constant shrieking of Carmody and company. With players lining the walls forming the boundaries of a human cockfight pit … that is essentially what happened. Pairs of players were called out to “go at” each other. The rule was simple if unorthodox, if you pinned your opponent you were allowed to rejoin the “spectators”. If you were pinned, another gridiron gladiator was called out to pummel you again.
Oh, did we mention that the players were worked into a hysterical frenzy adding audio to the video of the heat and dust and edge of sanity atmosphere. … no deference was given to position. QBs fought Defensive Tackles … Kickers fought Linebackers … et al … and the “referees” were the coaches screaming obscenities and demeaning the manhood of one and all.
It was not gallant. It was not noble. It was not brave knights in shining armor jousting for the pleasure of maids in waiting. It was 80 boys in ill fitting gray sweatsuits, who had lived and played together for 2 and 3 years, being compelled to beat the crap out of each other in a survival of the fittest … designed to persuade one or both to quit the team. Friends, roommates, even a pair of twin brothers (Haywood and Luther … The Cochrans) were pitted against each other. It only lasted 4-6 weeks, shorter for some.
Time and bandwidth does not permit me to go further into the physical and psychological challenges faced that spring by The Junction Boys. It achieved its purpose. To be honest … what happened that spring was happening every six weeks at Parris Island.
It was “Boot Camp” designed to “break you or make you”.
Green Berets and SEALS might consider it a picnic. But it was not what these college boys had “enlisted” to do. These were not “Dooley’s Boys” although some would evolve into that category over time.
Note: A very similar “cull the herd” plan was affected at Florida State in the early 70s under then Head Coach Larry Jones. And at Kentucky under Charlie Bradshaw. A chicken wire enclosed “pit” was their “mat room”. The NCAA officially frowns on such practices. An NCAA “frown” … oh me, oh my!!!
The Official Spring Practice was simply an extension of The Mat Room except the combatants were in full football gear. Morris Mason and his staff were clearing out lockers on a daily basis. The coaches’ offices were on the 2nd floor and reached via a set of outside stairs. It became a daily occurrence of boys ascending those stairs to voluntarily end their collegiate football careers. It was usually a short conversation. I recall an odd element that speaks to the circumstance.
NOTE: Plans to Butch-up Kenan Stadium will mean the demolition of Kenan Fieldhouse (aka “The Alamo”). Such are the casualties of progress. This column may be all that remains of what took place there long ago.
Usually in sports “quitters” are scorned and ostracized. Not that spring. Yes, they had to relocate from the athlete wing of Ehringhaus. Yours truly was the “zookeeper” for what passed as “the jock dorm”.
Everyone connected with “that Spring” understood it was not so much about “how tough you are” … it was “How important is Football in your Life”.
That answer does not define a man’s courage. It defines his priorities.
Most of those “student-athletes” had been attracted to Carolina for the whole Carolina experience … academic, social, and athletic. It was clear that Football was now expected to be their “Carolina Experience”.
The boys that endured, or chose to endure, that spring bonded in a fashion that only such a common hardship can create. Not to equate “football” with combat but it was as close to combat as most of these boys would ever experience. It was not the USS Indianapolis sunk by a Japanese torpedo at the end of WWII. Several 1,000 sailors went into the water … only several 100s were eventually rescued from the sharks and the sea.
No one died in The Mat Room in 1967. THAT would not happen until 1972!
The Bill Dooley Era at Carolina was ultimately as successful in victories and bowl games as any in the school’s history. Over those 11 years Bill Dooley’s concept of college football and The Carolina Experience, as touted by campus academics and Franklin Street habitués, never quite got in synch. They did all enjoy those Saturday victories though … indeed they did.
We need a Hoosiers or Miracle On Ice ending with The Junction Boys celebrating a bowl victory in their final game. Hollywood did not write this script. That first Dooley team (1967) went 2-8, the same as Hickey’s last year. That Frosh class of 1965 who chose to survive “that spring” concluded their college careers with a 3-8 season in 1968. They did beat Duke each of those two years.
Carolina’s Junction Boys never got a ring or a bowl watch.
In the Fall of 1967 the first of “Dooley’s Boys” arrived on campus including a quiet raw-boned kid from Garden City NY. He had a sly smile and the powerful shoulders of a blacksmith. He was assigned #23 … he became an All-America. In 1968 the second class arrived including a Maryland kid named Bunting, a happy go lucky kid named Miller from Ayden and other kids named Ray, Packard, Hoolahan, Richardson, Jolley, Webster, Cowell, Hyman, and Grissom.
A QB/Morehead from North Wilkesboro was also among’em … kid named Swofford. Victories and bowl jewelry were plentiful for these Tar Heels and for their successors over the final nine years of “The Dooley Era” of Carolina Football.
Bomar, Battle and Bradley all made it through that spring as did Renedo and Rogers. Bomar and Mike Smith were co-captains in 1968. Many of the others mentioned earlier did too … many chose not to. I’ve managed to keep up with some in both circumstances. Many are regular BobLeeSays readers.
This is not a story of Carolina Football. It is a story of young men facing circumstances and adjusting their lives to “deal with it”.
A scenario not specific to athletics. No lawsuits were filed. No harassment charges were brought. The ACLU did not get involved. No candlelight vigils were held. Some boyhood dreams of gridiron glory died that spring of 1967; but characters were molded, although that was not the original intent.
It was not a matter of Courage
… it was a matter of Priorities
Carolina’s Junction Boys are now men in their early 70s. To my knowledge none have won Medals of Honor or discovered cures for bad diseases. They have endured, and even enjoyed, careers in various professions and marriages with various spouses.
Gayle Bomar’s son, David, played for Carl Torbush and was a hero in a thrilling win over State. They all seem to have maintained a strong bond to Carolina Football despite “no rings or watches”.
If you run into one of’em at an Alumni gathering or while peeing at the trough at Kenan, tell them you read about’em in BobLee’s story. They will appreciate it, and so will I.
The story of “The Junction Boys of 1967” and The Carolina Experience is a living story. It did not begin in 1967 nor did it end in 1969 when these particular student athletes graduated.
How intercollegiate athletics and especially how “football” fits into “The Carolina Experience” is an on-going debate. We will surely re-visit the issue in future commentaries.