Category Archives: Commentary

Thanks For Stopping By

Almost 2,500 people have visited since the “opening” earlier this month.  I hope you like what you see and will continue to check back on a regular basis.  In addition to the updates of stories covering the past decade, there will be more fresh content, including some analysis of the NBA Playoffs, features on OU Football heading into the fall, and more music commentary.

Along with full stories, I’ll start throwing in some daily comments on a topic of the day as well.  Baby steps.

Thanks to all who have discovered the blog and thanks to LandTheives (http://www.landthieves.com/board/ @LandThieves on Twitter), OU Hoops (http://ouhoops.com/forum/  @ouhoops on Twitter) and the Football Brainiacs (http://thefootballbrainiacs.com/ @TheFbBrainiacs) for publicizing my effort. Go to their sites, follow them on Twitter.

Let me know what you’d like to see and who else you would like to hear from.

 

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Redemption Road – The Revival of Eric Pope

When the cheering stops, many athletes find themselves at a crossroads in their life, unsure of how to approach the real world.  That was the case for former OU lineman, Eric Pope, a starter on the 1985 national championship team, who hit rock bottom before turning his life around and making a comeback more rewarding than anything he had experience on the football field.

Pope was a homegrown product, gaining All-State status at Seminole High School in the early 1980s.  Growing up a Sooner fan, there was little doubt he would cast his lot with Oklahoma.

“Watching the Selmon brothers play was something I enjoyed growing up and without a shadow of a doubt, I wanted to go to the University of Oklahoma,” said Pope. “When I came out, I was one of the top 100 players in America, blue chip, all-American.  It was between Nebraska and OU.  Texas asked me if they had a shot, and I told Fred Akers no.  He appreciated my honesty.”

He signed with OU and at 6-3, 285, became a mainstay on the offensive line.  Injured in his initial year, Pope redshirted and spent five years at Oklahoma, suffering through a couple of down years for the program before grabbing a starting spot on Barry Switzer’s squad that overcame a loss to Miami in the regular season on their way to a wishbone-fueled national title with a win in the Orange Bowl over Penn State.  Pope was a second-team all-Big Eight selection that season.

“It was pretty neat. Really an interesting time,” Pope said. “In ’83 we opted out of a bowl game.  We already had a game scheduled in Hawaii and instead of going to the Holiday Bowl, that trip became our bowl game. You know you’ve been to too many bowl games when you opt out of one.  Only year we didn’t go to a bowl when I was there.”

“There’s a statistic on that 85 national championship team that not too many people know, but we graduated 100 percent of our seniors.  Seven seniors, everybody got a degree.”

While in Norman, Pope was exposed to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes through its longtime leaders Chuck Bowman and John O’Dell. That relationship would help in his revival in later years.  But first, he would have to travel down a dark path that almost ruined his life.

Undrafted by the NFL, Pope still had dreams of making a team.  He was hopeful that a history of injuries wouldn’t derail his chances.

“I was one of those guys who was challenged with injuries before I even left OU,” said Pope. “I had five surgeries while I was there. But going to the league was something I wanted to do.”

Signing as a free agent with the then St. Louis Cardinals, Pope was excited about being a professional, but not as thrilled with his new digs.

“First year I arrived there it was a lot of fun,” Pope said.  The difficult part is that OU had just gone through a renovation with workout and training facilities and we probably had the best in the country.  OU’s facilities were much better than what the Cardinals had.”

Battling to become a member of his new team, Pope’s hopes were dashed by injuries early on.  He suffered another injury in pre-season and was released from the Taxi squad midway through the season. Still, he had shown enough to Cardinals coaches that he was invited back to camp the following year, only to break his hand in an early pre-season game. By the time he was healed, NFL players had gone on strike and since he had signed a contract and had been paid up front, he couldn’t return as one of the so-called “scab” players who filled in while the regulars were sitting out.

After two years, Pope called it quits, deciding not to try and hang on to the dream that so many players chase.

“I had a short career, it was difficult overcoming injuries.  It had nothing to do with my ability but rather my durability,” Pope said.  “A lot of guys don’t want to let go, but I knew it was time.  But I got to know a lot of great players during my time there. There were some really interesting characters on my team.  Pat Tilley was a strong Christian, O.J. Anderson was there before he got traded to the Giants, Neil Lomax was the quarterback, Roy Greene, great receiver and a four-time Pro Bowl selection. Good times a lot of fun.”

Without football in his life, though, Pope began wandering through his life without any direction.  He spent five years traveling around the country, on a downward spiral fueled by alcohol and drug abuse.  He tried going through 12-step programs and rehab centers several times, but nothing worked for him.  His epiphany came when he was arrested for possession.

“When I left pro ball in 1987, I had some nasty habits. Just got caught up in the wrong circle, the wrong group of people, and found myself using.  I remember my grandmother telling me “You run with dogs, you wind up with fleas”. That’s where I was. My life was really challenged,” Pope said.  “One day, I was getting ready to face a prison term because of alcohol and drugs. I told the Lord if he would deliver me that I would help deliver the message.  October 19, 1992 is the last time I had any alcohol or drugs.”

“At that point, that was a valley. When I got to that place in my life, everything and everybody was gone and my life was being threatened by the use of drugs,  I surrendered to what I knew was right and God came in and delivered me, set me free from drugs and alcohol.  Not long after that, I began to carry the Gospel to share that hope of recovery no matter what level of human life you had gone to.  I’m a living testimony that there’s nothing too hard for God.   That’s what I live by now and I work with my kids and tell them that dreams can come true.  Anything is possible in their lives.”

Thinking back to 1984 and his experiences with FCA on the OU campus, Pope reached out to his former mentors and began to put his life back together.  He began speaking to children on the evils of alcohol and drugs, and eventually became involved with the Abundant Life Family Worship Center in Oklahoma City, where he became an assistant pastor, director of the church’s men’s center and a member of the church Board of Trustees.

“I live life the way I played ball – as hard as I can to hold on to it,” said Pope. “I speak as often as I can to share that good news in high schools and colleges. I’ve done a lot of neat stuff in my life since that time, sharing my recovery.”

“When I look back on it sometimes, I say “Wow”.  Would I do it again?  Well I probably wouldn’t want to go down the road I went with alcohol and drug abuse, but I’d be afraid to miss anything for this relationship that I have right now with God. When you see me now, you see someone whose renewed and regenerated in his heart and mind.  My life is totally converted.  There’s no residue left behind.”

Standing by Pope’s side has been his wife, Floritta, also an evangelist working with single mothers and youth, who grew up in Holdenville and was Pope’s high school sweetheart.  They have four daughters, including Jhavonne, who was a sprinter at Texas Tech and OU.  Along with her sisters, Erica, Hannah and Rebekah, they form a singing group that performs at church functions.

“My four daughters have tremendous voices and are sharing them to praise God,” Pope said.  “I have been truly blessed in my life.”

Pope now spends his days working to provide hope and assistance to his community and warning youngsters about the danger of associating with the wrong crowd.  He’s not sure his status as a former OU player has that much of an impact on the groups he speaks to but it is part of his life, just as the dark days that led him to a spiritual revival.

“I played ball in ’85 and it was the Big Eight then.  Most of the kids I talk to now weren’t even born when I was playing ball,” said Pope.  “But I really enjoy working with them. I really think that’s what God is calling me to do.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Champions That Never Were – 1988 Oklahoma Sooners Basketball

When my wife-to-be asked me if there would be anything to conflict with an April 2, 1988 wedding date, I confidently said “No, because neither OU or OSU will be in the Final Four.”  After all, it hadn’t happened in 40 years and up until December, there was no indication it would happen that season.

In January,  I started sweating because OU went on a tear like no other – one that would eventually take them to the top of the college basketball rankings.

In late March, I had to sheepishly admit to my audience that I would not be going to Kansas City for the NCAA Championship because I was getting married that weekend.

Half of the invited guests couldn’t make it because they were at the semifinal game against Arizona.  And on Monday night, when Oklahoma and Kansas were meeting in the finals, it was 3 a.m. Tuesday in London, where I was standing by a hotel window straining to hear the game from Armed Forces Radio in Germany on my Sony Walkman.  Don’t worry, I had a set of headsets for my wife, too.

I did tape the game (yes, we had VCR’s back then) but I never watched it all the way through because it would have been too painful. There was no way the Sooners could lose – but they did – and that loss has haunted the program ever since.

Still, it was a magical season except for one 20 minute stretch. Let’s relive it with former Sooner coach Billy Tubbs.

SOONER-SPECTAC-247

When basketball practice started for the 1987-1988 team at the University of Oklahoma, no one outside the program was expecting the Sooners to do much. Despite the fact that they had gone to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen the previous year, OU was unranked to start the season.

Most of the national skepticism centered on the fact that the Sooners had lost three four year starters – Choo Kennedy, David Johnson and Tim McCallister – from the previous team. On campus, the feeling was different – at least for a couple of underclassmen who had contributed little the previous year. They walked into Coach Billy Tubbs office and made a bold prediction.

“Stacy King and Tony Martin, who weren’t starters the previous season came in during the summer and told me “Coach, we’re going to the Final Four because we can play defense the way you want us to play defense”, said Tubbs. “And it turns out that they were right. It was our defense that really put us over the top.”

It may sound funny mentioning defense and Tubbs’ teams in the same breath if you’re one of those people who only looked at the final scores during the era.  Oklahoma was known for their run and gun style that produced 20 games of 100+ points that season.  But it was the Sooners full court pressure that forced turnovers and provided easy baskets, allowing them to produce points in bunches.

Tubbs knew he had something special going after a ferocious practice early in the season at the old OU Field House. “It was only the sixth or seventh workout we had, but we had already identified our starting lineup” said Tubbs. “You usually don’t have it worked out that quick.  Most of the time, you’re experimenting with the lineup right up until conference starts in January.  But this group asserted themselves early.”

Forward Harvey Grant and guard Ricky Grace were the returning starters.  King began to blossom as an inside offensive thread after two mediocre seasons and he joined junior college transfer Mookie Blaylock and senior squad man Dave Sieger to round out the starting five.

Tony Martin and Harvey Grant get instruction from Coach Tubbs
Tony Martin and Harvey Grant get instruction from Coach Tubbs

“We didn’t go into the season ranked,” Tubbs said. ” We started off wearing everybody out. We made the rankings pretty quick.”

The Sooners ripped off 14 straight wins to start the season, including a 152-point outing against Centenary, 151 vs. Dayton and 144 on Oral Roberts.  After the Sooners routed Oklahoma State, 108-80, to open Big Eight play, Cowboys coach Leonard Hamilton proclaimed them a Final Four-type team.

That praise must have temporarily gone to the players heads, because they promptly laid a couple of eggs, losing to a mediocre LSU team in New Orleans and then dropping a conference game at Kansas State, scoring a season-low 62 points.

It would be their only two-game losing streak of the year and once they shook it off, OU ran off another dozen wins in a row. They followed the pair of losses with a 20-point road win at Colorado, prompting Buffs coach Tom Miller to say that the preceding losses had served to wake a sleeping giant.

The Sooners reaffirmed their national status with a thrilling three-point home win over a talented Pittsburgh team that featured rebounding demon Jerome Lane and talented forward Charles Smith. Then it was a string of league wins, including a pair over Kansas, and one final non-conference rout of New Mexico before the Sooners would lose another game, an overtime thriller at Missouri.

All along the way, for the most part it was an iron-man crew that the Sooners put on the court.   The starting five averaged over 35 minutes per game, with Terrence Mullins, Martin and Andre Wiley getting most of the remaining minutes.

“We probably had the best players in college basketball who never got to play,” said Tubbs. “Mullins, Martin and Wiley all made some important plays for us, and Mike Bell was an outstanding player.  Tyrone Jones could play as well.  But our starters were in such good shape that they never came out and they didn’t want to.”

Top among those was Sieger, a sleepy-looking honor student from California who didn’t seem to fit with the high-flying athletes that surrounded him.  But his looks were deceiving.  He usually drew the defensive assignment on the opponent’s best offensive player and he was in Marine Corps-type shape.

Dave Sieger was the unsung hero of the squad
Dave Sieger was the unsung hero of the squad

“Dave was really the glue that held that team together,” said Tubbs. “He didn’t say a lot, but he was a tremendous defender and he became very proficient in hitting the three point shot.  And he was in the best shape of any player I’ve ever had.  He could run the court all day.”

Blaylock was another player that let his on court work do the talking.  Shy and reclusive off the court, the Midland, TX Juco transfer was a silent assassin on the hardwood, leading the NCAA in steals with a quick pair of hands and a fearless defensive style.

Mookie Blaylock's steals ignited the OU offense
Mookie Blaylock’s steals ignited the OU offense

Following the late season road loss to Missouri, the Sooners breezed through the Big Eight Tournament, getting revenge over the Tigers in the semi-finals.  They opened NCAA Tournament play with four consecutive double-digit wins over UT-Chattanooga, Auburn, Louisville and Villanova, sending an Oklahoma team to the Final Four for the first time in almost 40 years and only the second time in school history.

Stacey King was a big reason the Sooners made the Final Four
Stacey King was a big reason the Sooners made the Final Four

In spite of all they had accomplished during the season and in the tournament, most so-called experts were picking fellow number one seed Arizona Wildcats to prevent OU from reaching the title game.  With Sean Elliot, Steve Kerr and Anthony Cook, Arizona had just eliminated number two seed North Carolina by 18 points.

But on this night, Oklahoma controlled Lute Olson’s team, grabbing a 12-point halftime lead and never trailing the rest of the way en route to an 86-78 win.  King, who had become the OU scoring star with a tournament leading average of 28.5 points and 9.8 rebounds a game, ran into foul trouble in the game, but Wiley came in to supply 11 points and four boards in relief.

What was to happen next prevented the Sooners fairy tale from having a happy ending.  Expecting to see Duke in the finals, OU instead got a Kansas team that had barely (and some say unfairly) made the NCAA field and then improbably made it all the way to the championship game.  The finals were in Kansas’ home away from home, Kansas City’s Kemper Arena, and it was the third time OU had faced the Jayhawks after taking a pair of eight point wins from them in the regular season.

Tubbs got a preview of what the Sooners could expect when they arrived in Kansas City for the Final Four earlier in the week.

“Of course, the first practice for all the teams in the Final Four is open to the public.  And there were 13,500 fans for our practice, 99 per cent of them Kansas fans, and they booed us when we ran out to start our workout,” said Tubbs.  “I’m sure that is the first time that a Final Four team has been booed at a practice, and it’s probably the only time it’s ever happened.”

Tubbs and the Sooners were not happy to see KU in Kansas City
Tubbs and the Sooners were not happy to see KU in Kansas City

With Jayhawks fans buying up the bulk of Kemper Arena tickets, the Sooners found themselves facing a hostile environment in reaching college basketball’s greatest stage.  The two teams put on what is still considered by many to be the greatest single half of basketball in NCAA championship history, battling to a 50-50 tie at the half.  Kansas grabbed the Cinderella slipper, stunning the Sooners, 83-79, to grab the title.

Danny Manning ended OU's championship dream
Danny Manning ended OU’s championship dream

Still, it was OU’s best season ever, a 35-4 record and their highest finish to date in the NCAA tournament.  In one poll listing the top 10 teams since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 participants, the 1987-88 OU team is included – the “oldest” team listed and one of only two to make the list that didn’t capture the championship.

All of the starters gained professional success in their post-Sooner careers. Four of the five were drafted by the NBA. King, Grant and Blaylock were first-round draft picks and all played a number of years in the league, Grace was picked in the third round by Utah but didn’t stick. Sieger decided not to attend any post season tryout camps and wasn’t drafted but he did tryout for the Olympic team but didn’t make it.

After winning three championship rings with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, King is a now broadcaster for the team, Grant spent 11 years in the league and became a college and NBA coach after his playing career ended. He currently has sons playing collegiately at Syracuse and Notre Dame.

Grace moved to Australia, where he was the top guard in the professional league there for many years and was named to the Australian Basketball Hall of Fame. He became an Australian citizen, played for their Olympic team, and is now the director for a sports academy that provides opportunities for indigenous communities in Western Australia.

Ricky Grace became a legend in Australia
Ricky Grace became a legend in Australia

Sieger opted not pursue pro basketball after the Olympic trials, instead going to graduate school, eventually attaining his PhD in Engineering.  He was a college professor for a number of years.

The saddest postscript belongs to Blaylock. After a 13-year NBA career in which he was named to the All-Defensive team twice, Blaylock settled in Atlanta, where he had spent the bulk of his playing days. In 2013, he was involved in a head-on crash that left him on life support for a time, and led to the death of the other driver.  Just last month, charges against Blaylock were upgraded to vehicular homicide in the first degree and he is currently out of jail on $250,000 bond.

Mookie Blaylock awaits his fate on felony charges
Mookie Blaylock awaits his fate on felony charges

As the years go by, it is harder and harder to impress on today’s college basketball fans just how dominant that Oklahoma team was and how shocking it was for them to lose.  It is unlikely that we will ever see a starting five in this state as talented as that squad.

Blake Griffin – Before He Was World Famous

The NBA Playoffs have just begun and Blake Griffin of the LA Clippers is being mentioned as one of the top three candidates for league MVP (of course we all know who’s number one).  Even though he is now public enemy #2 to OKC Thunder fans (how could I forget Patrick Beverley), there was a time when Blake Griffin was considered to be the savior of the Oklahoma Sooners basketball fortunes. Let’s go back to 2006, just before Blake’s senior season in high school and before anyone knew exactly how good he would turn out to be.

In high school, Blake Griffin had a chance to go against another future NBA player, Daniel Orton of McGuinness
In high school, Blake Griffin had a chance to go against another future NBA player, Daniel Orton of McGuinness

New Oklahoma basketball coach Jeff Capel was in need of some good news in early May, shortly after taking over the reins of the Sooner program. After all, in the month after his arrival, he had seen three top ranked recruits bolt from the program and had the NCAA ruling on his predecessor’s indiscretions looming over his head.

Then, Capel got the word that would suddenly change the mood of all Oklahoma basketball fans.  He received an early oral commitment from the top junior in the state and one of the top players in the nation – 6-9 power forward Blake Griffin from Oklahoma Christian Schools.

Griffin’s commitment immediately gave Capel’s regime credibility and with the commitment of 6-5 Cade Davis of Elk City following closely behind, it showed that the new coach was serious about protecting his home turf – something the OU basketball program had problems doing for the past few years.

For his part, the happy-go-lucky Griffin didn’t think much about the impact he had on making a statement for the new coach.  He was just excited about becoming a Sooner and about ending the recruiting process.

“I had planned on waiting and taking a few visits during September and just kind of wait it out a little bit, but I really felt like once I got to know coach Capel a lot better, I knew that OU was the place for me”,  said Griffin.  “I just kind of wanted to get it out of the way and play my senior year and not worry about it.  I just wanted to go out and have a fun summer.”

But the importance of the commitment was not lost on one current Sooner player – Blake’s older brother, Taylor, a 6-7 sophomore-to-be who will be counted on to emerge as a major factor on this year’s team.  He knew that Blake’s decision was a huge boost to Capel, as well as the entire OU program, and that it put the focus back on the future of Sooner basketball instead of on the recent unsettled past.

“I think it was all those things you said.  It was huge for Coach Capel”, Taylor said. “He had a lot of trouble with the recruits that were leaving and I think that was a big commitment right there. Blake was getting tired of all of this and he was ready to get it settled.  I was tired of hearing about all of the negative stuff.  It’s nice to get everything down and out of the way so he can look forward to his senior season and I can look forward to our season here.”

The commitment also will reunite the Griffin brothers, who teamed for two state championships at OCS while playing for their dad, Tommy, who is one of the most successful coaches in Oklahoma high school history, winning seven state titles at OKC Classen, OKC John Marshall and OCS.

Blake Griffin got to realize one dream when he was reunited with brother Taylor at OU
Blake Griffin got to realize one dream when he was reunited with brother Taylor at OU

The elder Griffin says the two sons are totally distinct personalities – Taylor is more quiet and laid back, while Blake is outspoken and more of a cut-up.  But on the basketball court, the younger Griffin is all business.

“He’s always had dreams and aspirations of doing well in whatever he’s doing and when he was younger, his favorite sport was whatever he was playing at the time” said Tommy Griffin.”  He played football and basketball when he started high school but after his ninth grade year, he decided he didn’t just want to come in and be that far behind in basketball.  But he loved football.”

“His abilities – it’s a God-gift.  He has the ability to do so many good things and he has done a lot of things for our team. I mean, when it’s tight, he’ll take the ball – he can handle the ball well.  The only thing we’re working on right now in terms of improving would be his outside shot, because that’s important to him.  And when I say outside, I’m talking about a three-pointer.  His sophomore year he shot 31 per cent.  This past year he shot right around 29 per cent.  But normally those shots were at the end of the game, because he’s never afraid to take a shot.”

“His potential level hasn’t been reached yet.  I think when he gets to college and he can focus on one thing and one thing only, instead of getting to play all the positions, he will really start to blossom.”

For his part, Taylor was in somewhat of an awkward position in Blake’s recruiting process.  Some people just assumed little brother would go to the same school as big brother, while many others thought that was exactly the reason Blake would not go to OU.  Taylor was there to offer advice only if it was requested.

“When he was first being recruited hard by all the schools because I’d gone through the process just two years earlier, I told him whenever you have questions, whenever you don’t know what to do or what to ask or what to talk about with a coach, just talk to me and I’ll tell you what I did or what I think the best situation”, Taylor said. “Early on we didn’t really talk about it a lot, like the whole recruiting process. But then, as it came down to I guess this past summer, we did.”

“You know, there was a point when Duke came calling and North Carolina, UConn, some of those schools, came into the picture, I wasn’t for sure what he was going to do, because those are some good schools.  But I kind of stood up and stayed out of the picture for the most part until the last few weeks or so before he committed.  I told him that I would love to play with him again, Coach Capel’s got a great thing started up and I just told him that OU is a good school to play at.  Also, it’s your home state which is a big plus, I think.”

In the end, that point won out over the marquee schools and ensured that the brothers would have a chance to play together again.  That prospect has Blake wishing he could come to OU right away, but he is also realistic about where he is in his development.

“It really does, it makes me want to get to college a little quicker”, Blake admitted. “But I know I have to wait another year and that’s good, because I need to take a little more time to mature.”

Some worry that Blake Griffin won’t be tested night in and night out by the competition at his high school level. OCS dropped from 3A to 2A last season, but the result remained the same as they won the state title for the third straight season, with Blake averaging 21 points and 14 rebounds per contest. While observes expect a 6-9, 230 player to dominate at that level, his father says he never worried that playing at a smaller school would hinder either of his sons.

“To be totally honest with you, I was never ever concerned with whether they played on a larger stage or a smaller stage.  I think basketball is basketball.  There are so many good talents on that lower level”, said Coach Griffin. “But I never worried about whether they were playing 5A or 6A because every summer they’re playing against some of the best in the nation in AAU ball.  So there’s a combination of everything involved there. As far as the class is concerned, I don’t think there’s that much of a difference.  You’re still going to run into some pretty good teams and pretty good individuals.”

Blake has drawn most of his attention the past two summers playing for Athletes First, an Oklahoma AAU team that also includes his fellow OU recruit Davis. It was during the tough summer competition against the top players in the nation that the younger Griffin realized he belonged at that level.

Griffin caught the attention of college recruiters while playing for Athletes First in AAU competition
Griffin caught the attention of college recruiters while playing for Athletes First in AAU competition

“There were two tournaments last summer that just kind of built a lot of confidence for me.  One was the tournament over Memorial Day and I went up against a couple of seven footers and players like Greg Monroe a couple of games in a row and felt like I did a decent job against them”, Blake said. ‘That just gave me some extra confidence and we made it to the final four of that tournament.  That kind of gave me a boost and also the Nike Peach Jam in Atlanta, I started playing a little bit better offensively.  That just kind of put me over the edge to where I felt like I could play with more of these guys.”

After a summer of banging against the nation’s elite high school players, Blake returns to OCS to play for his dad one last time.  And he has some definite goals for his senior season.

“Just coming out and having a great year and coming back and winning another state championship and then hopefully making the McDonald’s All American Team”, said Blake. “Definitely want to get a state championship first, but it’s been another big dream of mine to play in that game.”

And another dream has been to play in the NBA.  Now that he has made a college choice and is preparing for the next step, that dream is starting to come into focus.  For his father, the thought of have a son – or possibly two- play professionally – is not foremost in his thoughts right now.

“I hadn’t really thought about it.  The most important thing to me is that they get their education.  And if they can stay and get their four year education, everything else is just going to be a matter of adding something better to the pot”, said Tommy Griffin.  “I know Taylor definitely understands that he wants to get his degree and I think he still wants to be in medicine, he still wants to be an orthopedic surgeon.  I believe Blake has always had a dream of playing in the NBA. Taylor would love it, but Blake has a dream for it.”

First, Oklahoma fans would like to see him put his talents on display in Norman for a few years.  They’re hoping, along with Coach Capel, that the brothers’ reunion will bring the kind of prosperity to the Sooners program that it has to the family’s basketball fortunes.

Griffin electrified college crowds with his dunks
Griffin electrified college crowds with his dunks

In two seasons, Griffin turned the college basketball world on its ear, making tremendous improvement and bringing an explosive energy that hadn’t been seen in recent years. Oklahoma would make it to the Elite Eight in his sophomore year, before Griffin decided to turn pro.  He became the number one overall pick in the NBA draft, missed his first season due to injury, and then grabbed Rookie of the Year honors when he returned.  Now he has the Clippers in position to challenge for the NBA title and we wait for the next chapter of Blake Griffin’s story to be written. 

Blake-Griffin1

Hello and Goodbye – Greg Pruitt, The First Wishbone Star

Several years ago, I was commissioned to write profiles on a number of players for inclusion in a book on the 50 Greatest Players in Oklahoma Football History.  Here is the story on Greg Pruitt, the first great wishbone halfback.

The football fortunes of Greg Pruitt may have been determined by a phone call to his mother during his sophomore season at Oklahoma.

Pruitt had been a starting wide receiver at the beginning of the 1970 season, but when OU made the decision to change to the wishbone prior to the Texas game, he suddenly became a backup at running back, because there was now only one wide receiver on the field. Pruitt had worked hard to gain a first team spot as a receiver and the change had him thinking about leaving the Sooners – until he phoned home.

“My mother would usually rant and rave if you said something that didn’t make sense”, said Pruitt. “But when I told her I was thinking about transferring, she just calmly asked me if I had a pencil and paper.”

When Pruitt told her he did, she told him to write down a phone number. It was in the 713 area code, the area of Houston where Pruitt grew up.

“I asked her whose number it was and she told me it was my uncle,” remembers Pruitt. “She said ‘I didn’t raise any quitters and if you can’t stay with him, you’d better find someplace to go, because you can’t stay here when you come home’.”

Pruitt quickly decided to reconsider and remain at OU. Three weeks later, starting halfback Everett Marshall was injured against Iowa State, Pruitt took over his spot and never looked back, becoming a two-time All-American and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame in 1999.

Greg Pruitt became the first true star in the Oklahoma wishbone backfield
Greg Pruitt became the first true star in the Oklahoma wishbone backfield

With a sprinter’s speed and the ability to make tacklers miss, it was a wise decision to get the ball in Pruitt’s hands in the open field. And the wishbone offense accomplished that.

“What intrigued me about the wishbone is that if you wrote it down on a piece of paper, it looked easy to defend”, said Pruitt. “But the mistake people made is that if you take a quarterback, fullback and halfbacks that are running 4.4. and 4.5, the wishbone is very difficult to stop. Most people realized that too late.”

“What really made it work for running backs is that you really didn’t need a lot of carries to make a lot of yards. Even though we had what amounted to four runners in the game, it reduced the number of carries they needed because we were ripping off big gains once you broke the line of scrimmage. You don’t see many guys complain about how much they’re getting the ball if you’re able to make 125 to 150 yards a game.”

Early in the 1971 season, Pruitt gained notoriety for a t-shirt that he began sporting that said “Hello” on the front and “Goodbye” on the back. Flashy and fun loving, most people assumed Pruitt had come up with the idea himself as a way to taunt opponents. But he claims it was actually the young offensive coordinator, Barry Switzer, who originated the idea.

“Coach Switzer gave me the shirt the week prior to the USC game. On my way to the dorm, some reporters with cameras stopped me and took a picture of the shirt. I’m sure Switzer set that up,” laughed Pruitt. “In the locker room, he told the team about the shirt and said the story would be on the Trojans bulletin board the next day. He said it better be hello and goodbye on Saturday – and it was.”

The Sooners knocked off #1 ranked USC 33-20 in Norman, and after that, Pruitt wore the t-shirt under his shoulder pads from then on.

During the 1971 season, Pruitt rushed for 294 yards against Kansas State, still a school record. He finished with 1,665 yards that season, averaging an NCAA record 9.1 yards per carry and finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting, as Auburn quarterback Pat Sullivan won. Pruitt then got a measure of satisfaction as the Sooners beat Auburn, 40-22 in the Sugar Bowl.

In 1972, Pruitt seemed destined for another 1,000-yard season and a shot at the Heisman, but he was injured late in the year and finished with 938. Still, he finished second in the Heisman voting to Nebraska’s Johnny Rodgers and was named the Player of the Year by the Pigskin Club of Washington, D.C.

“Individually, what I accomplished as a player, I did it against the best teams in the best conference at the time and against teams that were ranked in the top five”, Pruitt said. “We had great talent and we were beating a lot of people badly, but we knew in big games we felt the pressure to perform. We knew we couldn’t just show up and win.”

Despite his collegiate acclaim, Pruitt wasn’t taken until the second round of the NFL draft by the Cleveland Browns. Ironically, he made the team as a kick returner – a job he was “fired” from at OU after he fumbled the first punt he attempted to return in a game against Texas. In fact, he made the Pro Bowl as a kick returner his first two seasons in the NFL before finally becoming the featured back in 1975.

Pruitt on his way to a big gain against the Los Angeles Rams
Pruitt on his way to a big gain against the Los Angeles Rams

For three straight seasons, Pruitt rushed for 1,000 yards and also served as a dangerous receiver out of the backfield. Two more Pro Bowl seasons came in 1976 and 1977, as he became one of the most popular players in Cleveland history. He eventually became a third-down pass catching specialist before being traded to the Raiders in 1982, reviving his career as a punt returner with another Pro Bowl season in 1983 and winning a Super Bowl championship before finishing his NFL career in 1984. In 12 seasons, he had amassed over 13,000 all-purpose yards.

“I think my style prolonged my career, because I never let people have good shots at me”, said Pruitt. “I didn’t have to take many hard hits. And the ability to adapt that he developed at OU also helped extend his value in the pros “I think at first, in college, and later in the pros, I just wanted the opportunity to handle the football. How I got it didn’t matter, whether it was running or catching a pass or running back kicks. “

Pruitt has returned to Ohio, running a residential construction firm that specializes in home inspections and repair for real estate transactions, and he keeps a close connection with the Cleveland franchise. He travels to road games with the Brown Backers organization, a fan club of the team, and he has participated in everything from salmon fishing to turkey hunting with them. For Pruitt, remembering fans’ loyalty is part of the obligation for a star athlete, even after retirement.

Greg Pruitt being honored by Cleveland fans
Greg Pruitt being honored by Cleveland fans

“I’ve always said I would have been anything without the fans”, said Pruitt. “I played in front of the greatest pro fans in the world in Cleveland and I played in front of the greatest college fans at OU. It made a difference in my career. I didn’t get to meet all of those people when I was playing, but now when I get to speak at the Brown Backers events, I truly enjoy it.”

Another thing Pruitt still enjoys is following the Sooners. His brother still lives in Choctaw and Pruitt attended two OU games last season. When Bob Stoops was hired to coach the Sooners, Pruitt drove from Houston to Norman to meet the new coach. And he immediately saw something familiar in the current Sooners leader.

“He is closest to what Barry (Switzer) could do. He has charisma, he can get players fired up, the fans love him and he can be a friend to the players but not get too close. I like him”, Pruitt said. “But I guess I refuse to believe I’ve gotten that old, because he doesn’t look old enough to be the coach.”

FIVE QUESTIONS WITH GREG PRUITT

What was your most memorable moment as a Sooner?

The first time I played against Texas in the Cotton Bowl in 1970.  One side red, one side orange, split right down the middle.  I still remember the preparation, the buildup, and the intense practices.  Our expectations were not high that first time, but even though it was overwhelming and intimidating, we were prepared.  Of course, the next two years had a much more satisfying experience, but the first time on that field was really electrifying.

What was the lowest point during your career as a Sooner?

Losing the 1971 Game of the Century to Nebraska.  Despite losing just one game all season, we lost at the wrong time.  It’s interesting that the game has become recognized as one of the greatest of all-time and every time I turn on ESPN Classic they’re playing it over and over.

Which former teammate means the most to you today?

Kenith Pope.  We were thrown together as roommates back then, and we have stayed in touch and remain good friends.  I talk to him quite a bit.   Really, there were a lot of great friends on those teams, but he is the one I’m closest to.

Who was the best teammate you played with as a Sooner?  What made him so good?

There were so many good ones, but offensively, it had to be Joe Washington.  He was just a freshman when I was a senior, but we were roommates on the road.  It was interesting to see the greatness in another player, how he prepared and performed.  He understood the game and paid attention to how the momentum of a game was going.

What attribute did you learn while playing at OU that made a difference in your life after leaving the university, whether it is as a pro athlete, in the business world, or just everyday living?

The difference in being good and great.  That you couldn’t just rely on natural ability.  You were taught a great work ethic that carries on to everything you do in life.

 

 

The Story of the REAL Dr. Death – A Man Who Lived Countless Lifetimes.

Steve Williams was one of the most amazing characters in OU sports and professional wrestling history. What you saw in the ring as Dr. Death was pretty much what you saw outside the ring with Steve Williams. In fact, at some point, Steve Williams basically ceased to exist and there was only Dr. Death.

His collegiate exploits were legendary and he may have been most well known in college for a wrestling match that he lost at Gallagher Iba arena in the Bedlam dual, helping make a name for an obscure 400-lb heavyweight named Mitch Shelton and almost tearing the roof off the building in the Cowboy fans’ post match celebration.

Williams turned pro as a wrestler while he was still playing football at OU, and became a revered and reviled figure around the world, especially in Japan. He battled throat cancer, helped current WWE star and former OU football player/wrestler Jake Hager (Jack Swagger) get started, and found God.

I spoke to Dr. Death about his trials and tribulations in 2008. Sadly, just a year later, the cancer returned and he died in a Denver hospital in December 2009.

Oklahoman J.R. Ross, pro wrestling announcer, with Steve "Dr. Death" Williams
Oklahoman J.R. Ross, pro wrestling announcer, with Steve “Dr. Death” Williams

He came to Oklahoma already in possession of one of the most colorful nicknames in the history of sports and he left with a fistful of championship rings.  But that was just the start of the story of the man they call “Dr. Death”. As a professional wrestler, former Sooner football player and wrestler Steve “Dr. Death” Williams has fought many opponents around the world and he has conquered just about all of them including the most deadly of them all – cancer.

Williams arrived at OU in 1979 from Lakewood, Colorado, where he was a highly recruited lineman and a champion wrestler.  He obtained his nickname after an incident in a high school wrestling match.

“I shattered my nose about a hundred times and they had to keep stopping the match, so the coach from another school gave me an old time hockey goalie mask and when I put that on, my coach yelled out “Dr. Death”,” said Williams. “Reporters from the newspaper picked it up. I wasn’t like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin (whose real name also happens to be Steve Williams) or the “The Rock” who got a nickname for being an entertainer; I got a nickname for being a tough guy on the mat.”

“I didn’t have to give Vince McMahon a big house because he made up the name.  I already had the name, I did all my bookings and I was my own agent, so it came out really well”

Dr. Death facing off with Sting in his WWE days
Dr. Death facing off with Sting in his WWE days

And that nickname gradually became the only name Williams knows.  Most of his fans probably don’t know his real name and even he doesn’t recognize it most of the time.

“It’s not Steve Williams.  When people say Steve, I don’t even hear that word anymore, it’s usually “Doc” or “Dr. Death” and I think they usually remember the name “Dr. Death”,” said Williams. “There are always some wanna be’s that came out of there like (Brian) Bosworth who wanted to be a Dr. Death.  I was already there and conquered the Sooner football field and I think they remember me as the tough guy who came in there and conquered amateur wrestling and football and the first guy who could become a professional wrestler when he’s had one more year of football left.  I don’t think anybody has ever accomplished that.”

At OU, he lettered four times in football for the Sooners as an offensive lineman, making all-Big Eight in his senior season.

Dr. Death was an all-Big Eight lineman for the Sooners
Dr. Death was an all-Big Eight lineman for the Sooners

But it was on the wrestling mat where he had the biggest impact, becoming only one of ten four time All-American’s in Oklahoma history and creating some legendary moments, especially during the Bedlam Duals.  Williams best national finish was a second place showing at the NCAA tournament in 1981.

Following his collegiate career, Williams tried his hand at football in the USFL, but wound up in professional wrestling, working for another former Sooner, Cowboy Bill Watts, in Mid South Wrestling, which later became the Universal Wrestling Federation.

“Dr. Death” captured the UWF World Heavyweight Title in 1986 and later held the National Wrestling Alliance World Tag Team Championship.

Legal troubles sidetracked his career in the late 1980s, but Dr. Death emerged as a marquee performer in Japan after being seen wrestling the legendary Antonio Inoki in a sold-out match in Texas.

“I was one of the all time culprits in Japan. Every time I went over for a tour, they put my head on a cartoon figure of Godzilla and they would say “Godzilla’s back” and it was kind of neat,” said Williams.  “I spent 18 years over there.  I guess you can call me half-Japanese.  I know how to speak it and eat it; I take my shoes off when I come through the door.  I eat with chopsticks.  I really enjoyed Japan.  It was a wonderful thing.”

“I wrestled Antonio Inoki, he was a senator over there.  In fact he was the one who got the Japanese prisoners out of Iraq.  I wrestled him in Dallas-Ft Worth in front of probably 40,000 people and I got a deal out of that.  It wasn’t a contract, it was a handshake.  That’s probably why I stayed in Japan, because every contract I had in the United States has been broken and over there, I had a handshake and my money was sitting in the bank every time I got there.”

Williams bounced back and forth between Japan and the U.S. for the next several years, and even wrestled in one of the first professional events in China.

Dr. Death, in his OU singlet, was a legendary figure in Japan
Dr. Death, in his OU singlet, was a legendary figure in Japan

Still a major attraction in his ‘40s, “Dr. Death” ran into the toughest opponent of his career in 2003 when he was diagnosed with throat cancer.  An operation was performed that affected his vocal chords and at the time, doctors gave him six months to live.  But Williams battled back and has been cancer-free for the last three years.

The incident had a profound effect on Williams’ life.  Always known as a wild man and a party animal from his days at OU through his professional wrestling career, “Dr. Death” has changed his ways and is now giving his testimony to groups around the country. With his life in order, Williams is now using his influence to talk to the next generation of wrestlers.  He will be giving the prayer at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes breakfast on the opening day of the NCAA Championships in St. Louis and he plans to continue talking about his recovery.

“We have an awesome God.  He is just so wonderful.  I had throat cancer and they gave me six months to live and as of today, man, I’m three years cancer-free,” said Williams. “I’m wrestling, I’m out in churches ministering.  I wrote a book “How Dr. Death Became Dr. Life” and I’m going around the world telling people about how awesome God is.  Everybody should get their life right with Him.”

“He gave me a second chance.  I do my testimony.  I tell a lot of people I used to do it my way because I was so big and awesome and I was on top of the hill and nobody could knock me down.  I did it like Ole’ Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra’s song. I did it my way.  In September ’03, I got knocked down to my knees from an opponent named cancer and I knew I couldn’t do it on my own.  I asked God into my life and now we’ve become a tag team.  He’s conquered cancer for me and now I’m gonna talk to the world telling them how awesome our God is.”

“Dr. Death” has lived in Louisiana for a number of years, but now he is making regular visits to Oklahoma through his association with a local company involved in wrestling, and he was recently honored by the OU wrestling team for his contribution to the Sooner program.

“It was kind of neat that I got to come and be honored by the team and the OU fans, and then come back and see Danny Hodge, Frankie DeAngelis, and some of the older guys, it was really neat,” said Williams. “I hadn’t seen a lot of wrestling matches lately and when I’ve been back in Oklahoma the last month and got to sit down and watch a dual, memories came back like the good old days. The fans that were there supporting it made me feel good and I kinda wish I was an assistant coach for them. I could help them out, you know?”

One thing Williams would like to see is increased support for wrestling in Oklahoma.  He is disappointed by the lack of fans at the Sooners matches.

“I never wrestled at the Field House.  We were filling them up so big, we always had them at the Lloyd Noble,” Williams said. “I feel sorry for Coach Jack.(Spates).  I think wrestling should still be on a pedestal.  A lot of people ought to come out and support OU. I went to the Ford Center and watched them wrestle and they beat Arizona State and I thought that was a great match.  There are some great wrestlers on that team that have the ability to be NCAA champions and all-Americans”

“I don’t think people realize what wrestling is all about. They don’t know the rules.  I think if somebody gets out there and explains the techniques and the point system,  people could understand it better. It’s like boxing and anything else. They like to see the big guys go at it. I don’t think people understand the sport and if they understood it better, I think they’d come out and watch.”

When it comes to his days at Oklahoma, Williams has nothing but fond memories of being a Sooner and is still close to his coaches in both football and wrestling.

“Being a football player that helped me with wrestling and wrestling helped me with football. What great coaches I played for – Barry Switzer and Stan Abel – you couldn’t have asked for anything better than that,” said Williams. “Those two guys were like fathers to me. They came to see me in the hospital when I was dying and couldn’t speak, and they spent six hours with me. And I realized that was a turnaround for me.  I speak to Barry a lot and Stan.”

“I think it was a blessing to go to Oklahoma and kids, if they ever get a chance, they ought to come to Oklahoma and play.  In fact, I have nine rings – three Orange Bowl, one Fiesta Bowl, one Sun Bowl, two Big Eight in wrestling, two Big Eight in football.  Those are my pride and joy.”

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Revisiting the Daniel Tabon story – Most Times Fairy Tales Don’t Come True

Eight years ago, Daniel Tabon was an incredibly gifted football prospect who had seemingly just fallen from the sky.  Not on any Rivals  or Scout Top 100 list or ESPN Future Stars outlook.  He literally came from nowhere and after signing day was touted as the next great linebacker prospect for the Oklahoma Sooners.

But fame and fortune – or even college gridiron success – never happened for Tabon.  In fact, he never set foot on the field for a game in Norman.  His nomadic past made it difficult for him to gain NCAA certification and he was scheduled to sit out his freshman year.  Soon, he was gone from Norman and today is still in the metro area doing oil field work, according to his former coaches .  Even though he didn’t find football success, Tabon appears to be making a life for himself and still maintains contacts made through his brief association with OU football.

When I visited with him back in 2006, I encountered an extremely articulate young man who had experienced one of the toughest childhoods you could ever imagine.  Here is the story of Daniel Tabon.

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The buzz about OU football signee Daniel Tabon started unusually late in the recruiting season.  It was tough to believe that the 6-3, 215 linebacker from Altus with a 4.48 40-yard dash somehow escaped the radar screens of all the gurus who have normally identified the top prospects by the time they first put on a varsity uniform. But when you hear the whole story about the future Sooner linebacker, it becomes clearer why it was so hard to find Daniel Tabon.

From the time he was six years old, Daniel Tabon has not had a permanent address.  One of 13 children, he has been in 35 foster homes and shelters in the past dozen years.  He has no idea where most of his family is and has little contact with the ones he does know.  Had it not been for a reunion with a foster family that had kept him for a time five years earlier, Daniel might not be where he is today.

“A couple of years back, I thought I wouldn’t even finish high school,” admits Tabon.  “I figured I would just be doing what I was doing out on the streets, but I opted out of that and decided to get something better.  I’m graduating from high school and have a college scholarship. I’ll be the first Tabon to graduate from high school and go to college.  That’s a pretty big thing.”

Tabon’s journeys took him through a number of schools and communities in western Oklahoma and through it all, the only constant in his life seemed to be football. While he may have been lost in the foster care system, he always stood out on the gridiron.

“I was at a 7th grade football game and there was this kid in the backfield that looked like a man playing with boys,” current Altus High School head coach Lyn Hepner remembered.  “They were running just a toss sweep and he would just take the ball and go 80 yards.  And I’m thinking ‘That guy will make a player’.”

Former Altus coach Kelly Cox was another person who noticed the lanky 7th grader on the opposing Lawton Tomlinson team blowing through his squad.  Little did he know that the youngster would soon have an even bigger impact on his life and vice-versa.

As fate would have it, Tabon was soon taken from the foster home where he was staying in Lawton and moved to Altus. And the home he wound up in was with Kelly and Nancy Cox.

“One of his teachers from Lawton called me just out of the blue that didn’t know me from Adam, before he came to live with us, and said ‘I hope you can find a place for this kid.  I think he’s pretty interested in football’,” said Cox.

You might think that’s where the fairy tale part of this story begins.  But this is real life. And when you’re dealing with the child welfare system, everything doesn’t always go smoothly.  It certainly didn’t in this case.  Within a year, the state was pulling Tabon away again.  It was a tough and confusing moment for both the Cox family and for Tabon.

“My wife, when he came and told us he was leaving, she was crying’, said Cox. “He was just a 13-year old boy, he had only been in Altus a short time.  It was tough on everybody.”

“It was 7th grade year and I though the Cox family had given up on me”,   Tabon remembered. “That kind of sucked”.

Tabon would reappear in Altus in his freshman year, playing safety on the football team and again living with the Cox family.  Once again, problems arose and once again Tabon continued his nomadic journey.  The only thing that kept him from getting permanently lost in the system seemed to be his football ability.

“I went to the same school from the time I was a first grader, so I don’t know what it must be like to even be the new kid in school, let alone moving around all the time.  I mean, how many distractions would there have to be?” wondered Hepner.  “But the thing he’s always had is a trait to adapt to any situation. I guess that’s kind of a survival skill.”

“With his athletic ability, you’d hear things about him.  I know he went to Mangum for a while and I think that week we looked in the paper and he’d scored a touchdown and recovered a fumble.  Then you hear he’s at (Lawton) Eisenhower and it wasn’t long before he was starting.  In fact, we saw some film on him there.  Every program he went to, he contributed and he had to do it in a hurry. He did a really good job and, obviously, was staying eligible because he was playing.”

But as he got older and his home life continued to be unstable, Tabon began to realize that his dream of being a Division I football player might be just that.  He knew that most players who are being recruited start to get noticed no later than their junior year and with his moving from school to school, he was convinced that might be his undoing.  That’s when the thoughts of quitting school and giving up his dream became more prevalent.

After starting four games during his junior year at Lawton Eisenhower, Tabon was at the crossroads of his young life.  That’s when the Cox family got involved again, securing the necessary paperwork to become foster parents and moving him back into their family.  Hepner, who was taking over the Altus High School program after 26 years as a teacher and assistant coach, sat down with Tabon to give him some advice.

“When he came back this summer, I told him it was obvious to me that the people who care the most about you are right here in Altus,” said Hepner.  “The Cox family, they are to be commended.”

Something else happened in the summer before his senior year that would set the stage for the events that led to Tabon’s college recruitment. He attended the University of Tulsa football camp and was clocked at 4.45 in the 40. Kelly Cox knew it wouldn’t be long before college coaches knew who Tabon was.

“That’s the ‘holy grail’ in college football.  It doesn’t matter if you’re 5-7, 165, if you can run that fast, people will be after you,” said Cox.  “And here is this guy, 6-3, 215.”

Tulsa managed to keep the news about Tabon away from other recruiters, hoping they could sneak him into the fold before other schools could find out about him.  Tabon, though, had other ideas.  He was intent on playing at a BCS conference school, so if Tulsa was his only offer, he was ready to go to junior college and develop his game, then hope that he could make the move to a big D-1 program after that.  As it turned out, he wouldn’t have to wait, thanks to some extra work by Hepner.

Altus was using Tabon all over the field in his senior season.  He played safety, where he was a fierce hitter, ran some halfback and was used as a punt returner.  But midway through the season, there were still no college coaches calling on Tabon, so his coach went to work.  Hepner took his new video editing system and compiled a highlight tape of his star player, which he sent to a team in the Big 12.

“I actually sent it to OSU first and they didn’t seem very interested, so I held the highlights for awhile thinking that, well, maybe there isn’t as much talent as I think there is or he’s not what colleges are looking for,” said Hepner. “So we kept compiling the highlights and later on in the year I said, well, I’m going to send it to OU.  They don’t have to take it if they don’t want to, but I’m going to send it.  So I sent it on a Thursday and on Monday, Coach Merv Johnson was calling me, so it had caught somebody’s eye up there and things kind of rolled from there.”

The eye he caught was that of OU defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who envisioned the lanky safety as a bulked up linebacker in the Sooners scheme.  It didn’t take long for OU to make a scholarship offer to Tabon.

“I was pretty excited. It was a dream of mine to play D-1 ball and to play at OU – it couldn’t get any better than this,” said Tabon.

By this time, Tabon suddenly was moving up the recruiting ranks.  He made the Oklahoma All-State team and was rated as the fifth best player in the state. It seemed too good to be true, and Cox and his wife tried to make sure that the young man who had seen so many disappointments in his life didn’t lose perspective of where he had been and the challenges that were still ahead.

“It’s truly a gift of God that he’s been given and we want him to make the most of it, but we just wanted him to be low-key and humble through everything,” said Cox.  “We were excited, but Daniel knows best that this could be a two-edged sword and things can suddenly go the other way.  We didn’t want him to get the big head. But that’s something we’ve talked about all the time with him – overcoming obstacles.  And here’s a light at the end of the tunnel”

Tabon quickly committed to OU and despite some late overtures by other schools, became one of the Sooners 2006 signees.  Hepner and Cox agree with OU coaches who think Tabon can put on about 25 pounds on his 6-3 frame without losing his speed and agility.

Cox has been coaching for 19 years and, ironically, had worked in the Lawton program long before Tabon came on the scene, working with players like perennial NFL Pro Bowl selection Will Shields, and former Sooners Martin Chase and Antonio Perkins.

“I know what college players are like and he can fit in at that level.  He won’t be out of his league,” said Cox.  “Daniel tries his best when he’s challenged.  I don’t doubt at all that he can rise to the challenge off the get go. I don’t think there can be anything as difficult as what he has faced the last nine years of his life.”

Tackling the odds of trying to become a major college football star may not seem anywhere near as daunting as what Tabon has faced just making it to this point, but he is not satisfied with his good fortune thus far.

“I plan on coming up to Norman in early June to get acclimated.  I want to work with Smitty (strength coach Jerry Schmidt) and get bigger,” Tabon said.  “I’d like to play right away this fall.  It’s the biggest goal, one of my short term goals.  I’m up at six every morning lifting and running.  I plan on making an impact as soon as I can.  I plan on being a starter, if not this year, as soon as possible.”

And even though Tabon says it’s doubtful that anybody in his biological family has any idea of the success he has had in his football career, he will have family in Altus that is pulling for him every step of the way.

“We’ve been with him thick and thin the last four or five years, not just with football, but with his life,” said Cox.  “He’s a part of our family. We didn’t consider ourselves foster parents, we’re his parents. My 13 and 15-year old kids call him brother and he calls them brother and sister.  My wife calls him son and he calls her Mom.  That’s family.”

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SCRATCHING ONE OFF THE “CATCH UP” LIST AND CHATTING WITH A MUSIC LEGEND

Geoff Muldaur autographs a CD for a fan
Geoff Muldaur autographs a CD for a fan

Tuesday night, I was able to scratch another item off what I refer to as the “catch up” list.  I detest the overused term “bucket list”.  To me, making up for lost opportunities is catching up and that’s what I did in seeing one of this country’s musical treasures, Geoff Muldaur, for the first time in the intimate setting of the Blue Door.

He isn’t a household name outside of music aficionados like me, but rather ‘famous by association’.  His sister is the actress Diana Muldaur, who still turns up on the odd “Murder She Wrote” rerun and played Dr. Pulaski on “Star Trek: The Next Generation”.  His ex-wife and ex-bandmate, Maria Muldaur, became an ‘80s FM radio darling with her big hit “Midnight at the Oasis” and the salacious cover of the Swallows “It Ain’t The Meat, It’s The Motion”. He was part of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band in the ‘60s and Paul Butterfield’s Better Days in the ‘70s.

After recording a couple of solo albums in the ‘80s, he ‘disappeared’ for 17 years, but was really hiding in plain sight.  While on a working sabbatical, Muldaur scored music for movies and TV, played on other people’s albums and joined the corporate world.  Returning in the late ‘90s, he began a path of helping audiences rediscover blues and jazz music from the depression era through his contemporary interpretations and he’s now combining his infrequent public appearances with creating arrangements for an orchestra in the Netherlands.  Refreshingly, at 70, Muldaur plays because he wants to and not because he has to.

Which brings us to his Blue Door show.  Through the years, Muldaur’s trips to Oklahoma City have been fraught with weather issues.  In 1999, he was scheduled on the evening the tornado struck Moore.  In 2008, he had to delay his Blue Door appearance for one night because an ice storm made it impossible for him to get out of the hotel parking lot.  But this time, he missed the freak April snow flurry by one day and followed the night of the blood moon with a flawless two-hour solo performance in front of a whopping crowd of 28 – which eclipsed his previous two climate hampered appearances.

Don’t feel bad for Geoff.  These were people who were really into his music, some coming all the way from the Far East, where as the saying goes he is ‘big in Japan’.  He was able to weave some time-tested stories on the background of songs from Sleepy John Estes, Blind Willie Johnson and Vera Hall, as well as late bandmate and tour partner Bobby Charles, into a pastiche of blues, folk and classical tunes. It was like a fireside chat with the curator of these musical genres. And even though he is more of an interpreter or arranger of ‘other folks music’, rather than a lyricist, one of the highlights of the show is his own composition “Got To Find Blind Lemon, (Parts 1 and 2)” about the search for Blind Lemon Jefferson’s grave in East Texas.  Enjoy it here from a performance a couple of years back.

Getting set to do some recording next month, Muldaur has also taken several Tennessee Williams poems and set them to traditional music with startling effect. It’s part of his continued reimagining and reengineering of musical forms that make what is old new again.

I surprised Muldaur during the introduction of his version of Blind Willie Johnson’s  “Trouble Will Soon Be Over” when he asked if anyone had ever heard of Philippe Wynne.  I answered in the affirmative and added that Wynne was the lead singer of the Spinners (Rubberband Man, Could It Be I’m Falling In Love, you know).  Astonished, he said I was the first person at any of his shows that had known who Wynne was.  That established my bona fides and allowed me to have a private discussion with him following the show.

It seemed to me that a great part of his show was spent educating audiences on the origin of many of the tunes he performed, sort of a college of musical knowledge.

“I don’t know if I’m trying to educate, maybe I’m a ham,” said Muldaur. “I like to talk about this stuff, I’ll tell you why.  It’s because I’m talking about worlds that don’t exist anymore.  And it was so yesterday for me.  All of a sudden it’s a whole other sack of potatoes, man. To tell any of these stories, it means so much to me.”

Muldaur and Kweskin kicked around the Northeast in the early 1960s, discovering old 78RPM records of the ‘20s and ‘30s blues men (and women) to learn their chops. Back then, about all you had were the John Lomax field recordings, and the American rediscovery of the later blues of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon, among others, was just beginning. You had to scour the record stores to find obscure recordings and felt like Columbus when you did.  This often caused people to miss entire genres of music while they were just learning the first one. While Muldaur was in the jug band and folk explosion, something else was happening in another part of the country.

“I didn’t even get around to Motown until it was almost over and then I fell in love with James Jamerson, Benny Benjamin and then I went berserk” Muldaur admitted. “ But I had to go through all the blues and all my jazz thing and then all of sudden, I said ‘wait a minute’.  The words didn’t do it for me, but man did these players do it, so I got into that. It’s just sort of endless and the whole gospel thing produced probably the greatest singers we ever had.”

Rather than complain about golden eras of music being smothered by the musical morass that confronts the public these days, Muldaur says to find the abundance of good  music being made today and embrace it, even though it will never replace the special talents that have come before.

“When I started playing country blues guitar, the young white guy in 1960-1961, we don’t think there were more than 120 guys in the United States that did that. That’s high,” Muldaur said.” Now there are 120,000 easy.  There’s this incredible proliferation of all styles, all techniques.”

“Let me give you an example. How many flat-pickers since Doc Watson came up, how many have played phenomenal, fast, flat picking?How many have whipped that guy?  Not one,” said Muldaur.  “There were these people and the thing that you can’t put your finger on, other than a few technical things, the genius and the magic of these people and you can’t repeat it. It becomes a classical exercise. Music is a very magical and mysterious thing.”

Another reason that Muldaur plays a handful of shows in the U.S. and Japan each year, along with special collaborations with The Kweskin Jug band and former Better Days partner guitarist Amos Garrett, is to remind the audience of the vast body of tremendous music that has been created during the past century.  And that, sadly, its creators have almost all passed.

“Everyone who invented all this music is gone.  I mean, B.B. King is what, 88? The last inventor of a blues style,” Muldaur said. “I’m not a curmudgeon about it, it’s just these things happen when they happen.  I was very lucky to catch the last third of the zeitgeist. So we caught a few of these guys. I wasn’t hanging out in Harlem in the Big Band era.  Right now, I’m steeped in classical music. That’s not going away, you’re never going to run out of that.”

He doesn’t decry the age of Spotify and Rdio, where people can stream millions of songs without purchasing them, to the detriment of music sales, but instead, he is happy that there is a new audience for many of these recordings and a new way to learn the history of what came before.

“We’re all lucky when we get to hear special music. And these days, we’re not in a golden age, but we have billions more notes being played on a daily basis, but you have to be discerning and keep an open mind,” said Muldaur. “You find this person and you say ‘oh my God, that person really has the real stuff right there’.  And you never know when it’s going to happen so you have to be open.”

There is a downside to the proliferation of music seemingly available  everywhere. Each day,  we’re bombarded by YouTube videos of eight-year old guitar shredders and pint-sized vocalists who are note and pitch perfect.  But often they just seem to be mimicking what they’ve heard and not really feeling the notes.  Something akin to soulless robots.  That is something that has also caught Muldaur’s attention.

“Everyone can go on the Internet now and get anything by anybody,” he says. “How come they don’t get the spirit of it when they play it? “

When his Oklahoma City show was announced, I was fearful that age might have stripped Muldaur of his vocal range and styling.  I even asked Blue Door owner Greg Johnson a few months back “what’s he sound like, what kind of shape is he in.” And when Muldaur arrived, I was pleasantly surprised to see that he looked like a marathon runner and much younger than his age.  Then when he started singing, it was obvious that he had lost nothing and might even sound purer than some of his old recordings.

He admits that 17 years of not grinding through one-nighters and club dates preserved his voice, something that those who continued with life on the road can’t say.

“It’s just a technical reality. I wasn’t out there beatin’ the boards for 17 years, so my voice held up.  I can still sing.  I’m not getting any younger, but I can sing,” said Muldaur. “That’s why I can’t make disparaging remarks about  people – and you probably know some of who I’m referring to – that are out there croaking, but I’m telling you, they got there because they put out for a lot of people over many years and I took a lot of time off.  I also spent a lot of time in the gym and hiking and bird watching.  Well, after those years with Butterfield I had to.”

And then he regaled me with a few stories of Bobby Charles, Reverend Ether (Ronnie Barron) and life on the road. Preserving the history and keeping the music  alive.  That’s important to Geoff Muldaur and it’s important to me. Thanks, Geoff.

 

 

 

 

 

Bill Self – Homegrown But Not Home Bound

Self Photo

I’ve known Bill Self since his high school days at Edmond Memorial, when as a sophomore, he almost brought the Bulldogs back against Yukon in the 1979 5A State Championship game.  What struck me about him then was his outgoing personality, unusual for most teenagers, and his thirst for knowledge about the game of basketball.

Self was back in his old stomping grounds last night to pick up the Wayman Tisdale Humanitarian Award at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. He reminded me of his personal connection to the late superstar, having played with Wonderful Wayman for two years on the Oklahoma Rams, the outstanding AAU team that was dominant nationally in the 1980s.

“First trip we took, we drove to Las Vegas, in a 12 or 15 passenger van and the air conditioner went out. It took us 27 hours and we were actually stranded on the highway part of the time,” Self said. “I remember sitting in the seat with (future OSU teammate) Joe Atkinson and Wayman behind me, they had no place to put their legs, so they put their legs over my shoulders and I’m thinking how many more hours? I was mad I took a shower that day.”

“I remember the first game I played with Wayman, he scored four points and had two rebounds and I had 27. And after the game, it was like a reception line with the college coaches, you had Tubbs, John Thompson, everybody and not one man spoke to me.  Every one of those coaches could not wait to say ‘Wayman, you were great today, you played great!’  And I thought, really?  And then the next game he had about 50 points so I understood why they were all lined up. But it was fun because he was so good.”

Self was a year ahead of Tisdale and the great Oklahoma class of 1982 that also produced NBA star Mark Price among others.  He was a good but not great player at Oklahoma State, and he was savvy enough to keep building the basketball connections that would take him to head coaching stints at ORU, Tulsa, Illinois and eventually Kansas, where he had spent time as an assistant to Larry Brown. He is now considered one of the top five coaches in the NCAA and has won several national coach of the year awards.

But picking up the Tisdale Humanitarian Award was something special for the Jayhawks coach and an honor that he was surprised to receive.

“First of all, they could have picked a lot of guys more deserving of a humanitarian award than me. But it does mean a lot, because first of all, happening in Oklahoma City and then having Wayman’s name on it,” said Self. “I was by no means in competition with him in anything, but I did play during the same era and I saw how he revolutionized basketball in our state. He more than anybody else. You could say Billy Tubbs and Nolan Richardson had a strong hand in doing that, but Wayman changed the whole climate of everything going on here. And to have a guy do it that was such a personality and maybe as good of an ambassador as anybody as our state has known, at least that I’m aware of, is very cool.”

Self and his wife Cindy, have been involved in numerous events that have raised money and awareness for many charities, making him a worthwhile selection for the award.  I can personally attest to his willingness to get involved. Several years ago, he stepped to help me in a fundraising effort for Operation Breakthrough in Kansas City, providing signed memorabilia and making a radio appearance to promote the cause.  Self has never forgotten his roots and still has many close friends in Oklahoma.

Still, he is firmly entrenched at Kansas, one of the storied programs of college basketball.  As much as Oklahoma State fans would love to dream that Self would give that up to return to his alma mater, that isn’t going to happen in the foreseeable future – and maybe not ever.

 

 

Granville Liggins – All-Time Sooner Great

He may not have realized it at the time, but Granville Liggins was a trailblazer for future athletes at Oklahoma. 

Although OU had welcomed a number of black players since Bud Wilkinson had desegregated the team by bringing in Prentice Gautt in 1956, Liggins became the first black player from OU to gain All-American status, paving the way for the host of African-American athletes who followed him. 

Being a black player in NCAA football in the mid-60s was much different than it is today.

“It was quite scary, actually.  In 1963 and 64, there were only three or four black players on the football team – and only about 100 black students out of about 18,000 on campus,” Liggins recalled.  “We didn’t have many experiences off-campus.  Today, as we speak, the black kids have a helluva lot more fun socializing and doing things away from school than we ever did. The only exciting things that happened to me at OU were on the football field. 

Racism was never a factor on the football field, but it was driven home for Liggins during the off-season in his hometown of Tulsa.

“On my summer job in 1966, I was working at a paper company and one day I went to lunch at a restaurant with some other guys who were white,” Liggins said.  “I was told by the manager of the restaurant that I couldn’t eat my lunch there.  As an 18 or 19-year-old kid, I was stunned.”

“And as I sat outside and ate, I wondered to myself  “if this was OU and Notre Dame playing on a Saturday in Norman, Oklahoma, would those same people who refused to let me eat in their restaurant be cheering for me?”  Of course they would.  It hurt, but I just moved on.”

It had always been Liggins’ dream to play at OU for Bud Wilkinson.  He grew up idolizing lineman Ed McQuarters, another Tulsa Washington grad who starred for the Sooners in the early ‘60s.  Liggins listened to the OU games on the radio and watched Wilkinson ‘move those little pieces around on the chalk board’ on the weekly Sooner Football television show.  He never got to play for Wilkinson, as the legendary coach resigned to run for the U.S. Senate shortly after Liggins had committed to the Sooners.

And even though he went on to be a two-time All-American for the Sooners in football, Liggins’ greatest moment in Oklahoma athletics may not have even occurred on the gridiron. 

Granville LigginsAs a junior, Liggins was pressed into service by the OU wrestling team, which was in desperate need of a heavyweight.  The 5-11, 212 lb. Liggins had been a star grappler in high school, but at this level, he often had to go against opponents that were 50 to 100 pounds heavier.

“The Big Eight Championships were in the old field house at OU, “ Liggins remembered.  “I wrestled some guy about 6-6 and 280 lbs.  And somehow I beat him.  Everybody went crazy and I was hoisted around the field house and everybody was chanting ‘Granny, Granny, Granny’.  It still sends tingles up my spine to think about it.”

Liggins went on to become an All-American in wrestling as well, losing in the NCAA Championships to future NFL star Curley Culp, a 300-pounder.

Despite his small stature, Liggins was a demon for the Sooners at middle guard, taking on larger opponents and outmaneuvering them with his speed and quickness.  That was a trademark of Sooner teams of that era.

“We had the lightest defensive line in college football.  I think we averaged about 210 lbs. across the front but the one thing about OU is that we were fast from sideline to sideline.  They couldn’t run around us.”

But many teams still tried, including old Sooner nemesis Notre Dame.  Liggins calls the meeting against the Fighting Irish in 1966 as the biggest game of his career.

“They had Terry Hanratty, Alan Page, and Nick Eddy and their offensive line averaged about 250,” Liggins said.  “For two or three quarters, they tried to run around the end, but finally (Notre Dame coach) Parseghian got wise and they go the bright idea to run right at us and just wore us out.”

The other Oklahoma game that stands out in Liggins mind was the 1968 Orange Bowl victory over Tennessee.  It was a bittersweet moment for the senior, as he suffered a knee in jury in the third quarter and had to miss the Hula Bowl All-Star game.

That might have affected his NFL draft status as well, as he only went in the 10th round to the Detroit Lions despite finishing fifth in the Heisman Trophy balloting.  Their offer was not enough to suit Liggins, but another one was.  It came from the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders and it would change his life.

“I didn’t know where the hell Canada was then.  All I knew is that it was up north”, laughed Liggins. “My size was an issue with the NFL, but in the CFL, the bigger field gave me a chance to use my speed.”

“I had a ten-year run in Canada, when most pro careers average five to five and a half years. The best thing that ever happened to me was coming to Canada.  It’s a great place to live. I was truly blessed.”

Liggins played on Calgary’s Grey Cup championship team in 1971, defeating the Toronto Argonauts.  Ironically, Liggins was traded to the Argos in 1973 and recently, he was named as one of top five greatest players in Toronto history.  Staying in Canada, Liggins still makes his home in Oakville, Ontario.

Even though he now considers himself a Canadian, after spending more than half of his life north of the border, Liggins holds fondness for Oklahoma and the Sooners.  His mother lives in Oklahoma City and he still wears his “O” Club ring and the Orange Bowl/Big 8 Championship watch he got after his senior year alongside his Grey Cup Championship ring.

Liggins said he almost fell on the floor when told that he had been selected as one of OU’s greatest players.

“I’m amazed that people in Oklahoma still remember my name.  That is very humbling”, admitted Liggins.  “My years at OU, that was a great ride.  Every year I pull for those guys, but I don’t have the opportunity to get back there very often.”

“I was just fortunate.  Very few people get to do what they want to do.  I wanted to play football at OU.  I wanted to be an All-American.  I wanted to play in the NFL, but wound up in the CFL, which was a blessing for me.  When I retired from football at 32, my life was complete.  Everything since then has been a bonus.”