Bring up the name Bobby Proctor to long time OU football fans and you’ll hear words like intense, gritty, fierce, intimidating, and motivating. Ask Bobby Proctor to describe himself and he would tell you he’s blessed.
From his playing days through his coaching career, Proctor experienced a series of life defining moments that he looks back on now with both fondness and wonder. Nothing came easy for the Arkansas native, but in the end he’s had an excellent ride.
The first twist of fate that started him on the road to a life in college football occurred when he had completed junior college in Texas and was ready to continue his playing career at Wyoming, hundreds of miles from anywhere he’d ever been, because they had called and offered him a chance to play.
“I was hitchhiking back from Galveston, TX and a couple picks me up and they asked me where I was going to school,” said Proctor. “When I said Wyoming, the lady told me they just let their coach go. So I get back to school and talked to our coach and he said (Bowden) Wyatt wasn’t fired, he’s going to Arkansas. I get a call about two weeks later and Wyatt said ‘do you want to come to Arkansas? I’ll give you a scholarship’.”
“All my life, I grew up in Arkansas, dreamed about going to Arkansas. Hell, I couldn’t wait to get there. It all works out in a pattern sometimes. But that was the biggest change that’s ever happened to anybody.”
Proctor stayed on at Arkansas and became a graduate assistant, working with the freshman team. One of his pupils there was none other than Barry Switzer.
“Go back longer with him than anyone else,” Switzer said. “When I was a freshman at the University of Arkansas, the first coach I reported to was Bobby Proctor. He was my freshman coach and I have had a relationship with him for 60 years.”
Before that relationship would become a working one, Proctor had to wander through the proverbial coaching desert, making stops at several beleaguered programs along the way. In the next 18 years he was an assistant at Tennessee (for Wyatt), Georgia, Mississippi State, and Vanderbilt – with a six week interruption to take a job at Memphis State before returning to Vanderbilt, where he was left jobless when the staff was removed in 1972. Just when it appeared that Proctor was headed to another downtrodden program, fate intervened again.
“I’ll never forget watching the Sugar Bowl (between Oklahoma and Penn State) and I told my wife ‘wouldn’t it be a great thrill to be able to go to Oklahoma and coach’,” Proctor said. “I was getting ready to go to North Carolina to visit for a job and (OU assistant) Billy Michaels called me and said ‘Switzer wants to talk to you’ and I said don’t hang up. In the meantime, Switzer called me and said ‘we need a secondary coach, you were recommended, so come out and visit’.”
Switzer had just taken over for Chuck Fairbanks and actually planned to offer the job to then-Nebraska assistant Warren Powers until the new Sooners head man found out his new team was going to be slapped with a major probation.
“I called Warren and told him not to come,” said Switzer. “I couldn’t let him walk into this situation. So then, I called Proctor and told him, we were fixing to go on probation, but you’ve got a job here coaching the secondary if you want it. We’ll be on probation for a couple of years. He said ‘I’ll be there in the morning. Coaching at Vanderbilt is like being on permanent probation’. I laughed about that for years. At that point and time, being at Vanderbilt really was like being on permanent probation.”
“I had never been on winning football teams very much. It was just a new life for me, it was a new life for my family,” said Proctor. “When I was inducted in the Hall of Fame in Arkansas, I told Switzer ‘Coach, you changed my whole life. You could have hired anybody in the country. My family and I thank you.’
“When I left Vanderbilt, I made a statement that going from Vanderbilt to Oklahoma is like going from hell to heaven,” Proctor said. “What I mean was at Vanderbilt we had five defensive backs that had to rotate. Going to Oklahoma, we had three deep. That makes it a lot easier to coach.”
Besides the step up in the caliber of athletes and competition, Proctor also encountered some else a coach of his upbringing wasn’t quite ready for. He soon realized that times were changing and he had to grudgingly change with them.
“At Vanderbilt, they couldn’t have long hair, mustaches, nothing. I was really strict,” said Proctor.” So I get to Oklahoma and some of ‘em got mustaches, some of ‘em got Afros and one day after practice I told my wife “I believe I’m gonna join them. I’m not gonna join the other side.” And Switzer kinda talked me into one time going with an Afro. It didn’t take me long to realize that just because a kid had a mustache, long hair or Afro, it didn’t mean they weren’t good young kids and good football players. “
Proctor prowled the sidelines with a ferocity that was ramped up even more during practices, which were open to the public and media during his coaching time. He struck fear in the hearts of first year players who would become his staunchest allies as they grew older.
“He was fair but tough,” said Switzer. “He was as tough on first teamers as he was on third teamers. He ate everybody out.”
One of the players that drew Proctor’s wrath was future NFL defensive back Darrol Ray.
“First game, freshman year, pregame, hour and 20 minutes before kickoff, we’re out just to do a light warm-up. It’s about a hundred degrees so it doesn’t take much to get started. I notice that there’s probably 10-15 thousand fans but they’re closer to where we are working out,” Ray said. “We’re just going through the line, helmet and shoulder pads, I get my chance and dig in, kind of run into a guy, and then the wind changes. I looked up and this guy is running at me, grabs my facemask and says ‘you’ll never play here!’ He’s gripped my helmet with both of his hands and he’s shaking it back and forth, so I flipped it off and let him have it. And he says ‘get out there and hit somebody’. I’m thinking holy cow, what happened, we don’t even have our pads in yet.”
“So I go to the end of the line and Jerry Anderson comes up to me and says ‘don’t worry about it rookie, he picks on one every year. You’ll be alright’. As I look in the stands, there’s people dying laughing because Bobby Proctor has picked out his new whipping boy for the year and I happen to be him. That’s the fall of 1976.”
After being shell shocked that day, Ray began to understand the method of Proctor’s madness.
“I notice the first game of my junior year, I was team captain, and he got somebody by the face mask and I notice some of the same old crowd was there that had been laughing at me two years earlier and they’re laughing at the new guy and I’m the one that has to go up and calm him. There’s the full circle on Bobby Proctor.”
Now, 35 years later, Ray laughs about a photo with Proctor hanging on the wall of his Lindsey Street barbecue restaurant that bears the caption “You’ll Never Play, Ray.”
Proctor also became famous for a phrase that both he and Switzer would both shout at the top of their lungs when a defensive player had a chance to intercept a pass. You could hear “Oskie” over the noise of the crowd and see Proctor jumping up and down, imploring his team to turn things around. Just where did that phrase originate?
“General (Bob) Neyland (legendary Tennessee coach) made up ‘Oskie’,” Proctor said. He was a great guy. When I was at Tennessee, he would come out and sit all day. He would say ‘Oskie wow wow’. Go from defense to offense. When I was at Arkansas, we would call it Oskie, but when I went to Tennessee, I realized where it came from.
After 19 years at OU and 37 years as a college football assistant, Proctor was unceremoniously dumped by Gary Gibbs in what led to legal action and a bitter split. One year from having tenure at OU, Proctor eventually received a legal settlement after suing the school and hard feelings persisted for a time. But his longtime friend Switzer helped him realize that once again, the sudden change of direction would turn out to be beneficial.
“When Gibbs fired me, Switzer told me ‘You will learn how to live. You’re gonna be home Thanksgiving. You have a chance to be with your kids’,” Proctor said. “I didn’t realize what it meant. But after a year or so, I did. You can’t coach the rest of your life. I’m still close to him (Switzer). He invites me to most of the things they have. I’m still a part of it. It’s really been enjoyable. I learned to get out and enjoy myself.”
These days, Proctor keeps a home in Norman but spends a great deal of time in his trailer at Soldier Creek on Lake Texoma, fishing until his heart’s content.
“They call it the redneck trailer because the deck’s worth more than the trailer,” said Proctor. “I get to come down here and stay and my son, Scooter, has a trailer down here and we fish a lot together and with the other two boys. One night we caught nearly a hundred stripers, the four of us. Scooter got one that weighed 22 pounds and I got one 19 pounds. I have a boat, we go out some. I used to sit down here in the spring and out of 30 days, I’ll spend 20 days and fish then go back home. I really enjoy it. We’ve met lots of good people down here.”
When he looks back at the twists and turns his life took during his football career, Proctor still can’t help but shake his head in amazement.
“Sometimes, I think I’d like to sit down and write a book about all the places I’ve been and all the things I’ve done. It’s unbelievable how you end up,” Proctor said. “It was a great run. I always look back and say we won’t take a back seat to anybody. We had three national championships- played for six and won three. I hope Coach Stoops gets the same thing, because he’s a great guy, he’s done a great job.”
“All the kids and grandkids are all right here. I’ll be 85 in November. Switzer called me and said, ‘Doctor, we’re in overtime’. I said maybe it’ll last, like Arkansas had five overtimes one year. It’s a good life, good people. I can’t wait for football season to start. “
(Content updated from original story in Sept. 2014 issue of Sooner Spectator magazine)
It’s highly unlikely that the 2014 Oklahoma Sooner football will make it to the National Championship Playoff, let along qualify as one of the greatest teams in OU history. But since this is the 40th anniversary of the 1974 national title squad, I thought it would be fun to go back and revisit which teams should be on the top five list of all-time greatest in history.
For the purpose of this discussion, you have to narrow the field and even trying to do that will start a few chat room arguments. First of all, we’ll limit the choices to undefeated teams, and that in itself will start a fight with devotees of the 1985 squad, which won the National Championship, but lost in the regular season to Miami. The key word in this analysis is TEAM and that means performing on a high level for every game of the season. If you want to talk about the most talented squads in history, that may be another story.
We’ll start with the 1949 team, which went 11-0 and posted five shutouts, including a 35-0 rout of LSU in the Sugar Bowl. Despite a dominating year in which they outscored opponents 399-88, OU wound up second in the national polls, behind Notre Dame. Looking back, that snub seems amazing, given the fact that the unblemished season extended OU’s winning string to 21, a string that would be extended to 31 games with a 10-0 regular season in 1950, only to be snapped in the Sugar Bowl by Kentucky. Ironically, the Sooners did win the national title that season, as voting was done prior to the bowls.
The 1949 team featured Darrel Royal at quarterback in the split-T and the introduction of the Oklahoma 5-2 defense that became the standard for all levels of football in years to come. The closest anyone came to the Sooners that season was a six-point decision in the Red River Shootout over Texas. Bud Wilkinson’s squad also took a seven-point win over Orange Bowl bound Santa Clara, but after that, no one came within 20 points of OU. Besides Royal, Leon Heath, George Thomas, Stan West, Wade Walker and Jim Owens were named All-American and Wilkinson was named the National Football Coaches Association Coach of the Year.
Any of Wilkinson’s mid-50s undefeated teams could be included in the comparison, but the 1956 squad makes the list for their sheer dominance over opponents. They blasted their first three challengers 147-0 and went on to post six shutouts in 10 games. Included in the carnage were a 47-0 win over Texas, a 40-0 pasting of a Notre Dame team that would end the record 47 straight win streak the following year, and a season ending 53-0 thumping of Oklahoma A&M.
Mercifully for the rest of the teams in the nation, the Sooners did not play in a bowl game, but were declared National Champions after outscoring the opposition 463-51. Future NFL stars Tommy McDonald and Jerry Tubbs captured the Maxwell and Camp Trophies, as the top offensive and defensive players in the country, and they were joined on the All-American teams by Bill Krisher and Ed Gray.
Likewise, their predecessors in 1955 belong here for extending the streak to 30 games and being the only one of the three teams in the mid-50s to play in a bowl game. Like the team the following year, they allowed less than six points per game. Bo Bolinger and McDonald were All-Americans and the Sooners got revenge on the guy who left OU after one year to make way for Wilkinson, Jim Tatum. Tatum’s Maryland team was proclaimed by some as the ‘greatest team of the era’ but they soon found out who the real boss was.
The 1974 undefeated Associated Press National Championship team can certainly lay claim as being the best in Sooner history. Racking up staggering rushing numbers with Joe Washington leading the way, Barry Switzer’s first national title team was a dominant force that few outside of Oklahoma saw due to probation that banned the Sooners from television broadcasts. Only Texas was able to play OU within a touchdown and three times the offense posted more than 60 points in a game. Eight Sooners made All-American, led by future NFL Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon and brother Dewey. Other stars on the team included Washington, Tinker Owens, Rod Shoate, Randy Hughes and Kyle Davis, all of whom would go on to have lengthy NFL careers.
Fast forwarding to 2000, that team takes a slot in the top five for their amazing precision on the march to a national crown. Not regarded as a national contender in the preseason, Bob Stoops second OU team quickly opened eyes in the early season. Like this year’s squad, they were extremely dominant through the first eight games, including a 63-14 destruction of Texas that was similar to last month’s humiliation of the Longhorns. There were close calls at Texas A&M and Oklahoma State, as coaches tried to disguise the shoulder injury to quarterback Josh Heupel, who gamely fought through the pain and another narrow win over Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship game.
The climax to the first OU national title in 15 years was a breathtaking defensive performance in the Orange Bowl in a 13-2 win over Florida State. The Sooners shut down Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke and finished with a school-best 13-0 record. Heupel finished as the Heisman runner-up, while winning the Walter Camp trophy and Associated Press Player of the Year honors. Linebacker Rocky Calmus and kick returner J.T. Thatcher also made All-American teams, and bubbling under the radar was future superstar Roy Williams, who should have made the national honors squads.
Now that we have the lineup, it’s time to rank the contenders.
Number Five -2000
There are probably several OU teams that were not included on the list that have an argument to be ranked ahead of Stoops’ title team. But this team deserves a spot on the list for coming out of nowhere to will themselves to the National Championship. Heupel revolutionized OU’s offense and the defense has to rank among the top five all-time as well. It helped that no starters were lost to injury all year, an ingredient vital to almost all national title teams.
Number Four – 1955
The second of three straight national title teams gets this slot for the way they finished the regular season – four straight shutouts while outscoring their opponents 166-0 during that stretch, and for continuing on to a bowl game and knocking off number three Maryland, 20-6. That was something their 1956 counterparts didn’t get to do because of an archaic rule that a school couldn’t go to a bowl in consecutive years. Tell that to all the 6-5 teams of today.
Number Three – 1949
It’s probably a bias against post-World War II football, given the number of older veterans who returned to the collegiate ranks and a bias against the quality of football being played at the time that puts this squad lower on the list. Without television and videotape, it’s hard to compare the players of the time with those of today. This team holds its place in OU history as the one that really cemented OU’s national reputation in the Wilkinson era.
Number Two – 1956
The competition gets tough here. In the middle of college football’s longest winning streak, there can be plenty of support for this team as the best all-time. It’s close, but a nod goes to more modern times over the golden age. I can only hope that Tommy McDonald doesn’t get wind of this.
Number One – 1974
So many stars, so much success. Even though Steve Davis would be number five in talent among quarterbacks on the top teams, he ran the show well on a team with unbelievable ability. Half of the players on this team made All-Big Eight and almost the same number had outstanding pro careers. Even with a 14-0 season, this year’s squad would be hard pressed to topple Little Joe, the Selmons, Tinker Owens and Billy Brooks, Rod Shoate, Randy Hughes and all the great talent from Barry Switzer’s ultimate squad.
Another year of announcements for the College Football Hall of Fame has come and gone. And once again, Brian Bosworth has been snubbed.
Whatever you think of The Boz and his acting career, his pro football career, his reported PED use and whatever other careers he has pursued, one fact remains. Brian Bosworth was a helluva college football player.
From 1984-1986, Bosworth amassed 395 tackles, 169 unassisted, 27 for losses. He is the only collegian to ever win the Butkus Award twice, was a two-time consensus All-American and set the school record for tackles in a game with 22 against Miami when they meant something.
But his college career ended in infamy, first getting suspended for the Orange Bowl after testing positive for banned substances and then embarrassing his team and coach by wearing a T-Shirt that said the NCAA stood for National Communists Against Athletes.
And for that, he is snubbed by the college hall in favor of people likeJoe Hamilton (Georgia Tech quarterback 1996-99) who I don’t remember at all, John Sciarra (UCLA quarterback 1972-75), Leonard Smith (McNeese State cornerback 1979-82) and Wesley Walls(Ole Miss tight end 1985-88).
Thirty years have passed since Bosworth’s “transgressions”. A pair of foolish incidents involving a 20-year old shouldn’t wipe out a career of excellence. Time to get over it, college football. The Boz-and Brian Bosworth-belong in your hall of fame.
May 15 marks the fifth anniversary of the death of one of the greatest human beings to ever walk the earth. We lost Wayman Tisdale far too early at the age of 44, but his spirit and love for life stays with us today.
I first met Wayman when he was an awkward teenager at Booker T. Washington High School, yet to develop all the gifts he had been granted. What a pleasure it was to be able to have a front row seat as he developed into one of the best basketball players in the history of college basketball and as he became one of the greatest ambassadors the state of Oklahoma could have. His musical talents, which actually were far more developed in his youth than his basketball skills, also became a primary part of his professional life.
Although he didn’t have the type of NBA success he may have wanted, Wayman took another road and became a well-respected and much loved jazz musician, working with some of the top performers in the industry. His smile remained as broad as the ocean and his handshake as strong as his love for his family, his state and his music.
The last time I had a chance to visit in depth with Wayman came just a year before his passing. He had survived cancer’s first attack and had not yet seen the relapse that was to come. As always, his spirit was infectious and his grace was immeasurable.
There haven’t been too many bumps in the road for Oklahoma basketball all-time scoring leader Wayman Tisdale. Since he was a freshman in high school, Tisdale has traveled a fairy tale path – from prep superstar at Tulsa Washington to three-time All-American at Oklahoma, the Olympic team, a decade long pro career and into a post-retirement career as a top-selling jazz musician.
But this past spring, Tisdale experienced one of the few setbacks in his life. Last may, he fell down a flight of stairs in his home and while doctors were doing X-Rays to determine the damage to his knee, they found a cancerous cyst in his fibula. Following removal of the cyst, Tisdale had to cancel his music tour and start chemotherapy to treat the cancer. Once again, it appears Wonderful Wayman has come out on top.
“Everything is great. I’m pretty much done with the treatments and back out on the road,” said Tisdale. “So I’m feeling great and everything is pretty much behind us. I had to curtail my touring most of the summer but I was able to go back out this winter.”
Tisdale just completed a Christmas Jazz Cruise in January to Aruba and Curacao and his latest CD, Way Up, debuted at #1 and spent 30 weeks in the top 10 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz charts.
He still has the infectious smile, the outgoing personality and the easy going nature that made him a fan favorite in Norman while he was becoming the most decorated player in Sooner history and helping to build a budding dynasty for coach Billy Tubbs. Tisdale was the first player to be named first team All-American as a freshman, sophomore and junior and he holds virtually all of the Oklahoma scoring records.
“It was a long shot when I first went there. I had a lot of people trying to tell me not to go to Oklahoma, but that didn’t matter to me,” Tisdale said. “What mattered is that I was going to get to play as a freshman and pretty much get the program handed over to me and you just can’t find that anywhere else.”
It was instant stardom for Tisdale, who averaged 24.5 points as a freshman and 25.6 for his three year career. He led the Sooners within a game of the Final Four on two occasions and built the foundation for Tubbs’ teams that would later on make it to the NCAA championship game. And he was the leading rebounder for the 1984 U.S. Olympic Gold Medal basketball team coached by Bob Knight.
From there, Tisdale became the number two overall pick in the NBA draft behind Patrick Ewing and went on to a 12 year career with the Indiana Pacers, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns that saw him average over 15 points a game and score almost 13,000 points. In the latter stages of his career, Tisdale released his first musical effort, Power Forward, and showed his teammates and the world that he was serious about a career in jazz after basketball.
He had played the bass in his father’s Tulsa church as a youngster, but when he began to grow and basketball became his calling, Tisdale put music on the back burner. He still played from time to time, with many people considering it a hobby or a novelty. However, Tisdale was just as serious about music as he was about basketball.
“Ninth grade, I started sort of excelling in basketball and had to put the bass down then. Never really put it down completely,” said Tisdale. “I just never really did practice as hard on the bass until maybe my eighth or ninth year in the league, I really got serious about it.”
“I got harassed a lot by (my teammates), you know. But I knew what I wanted to do, I was focused and didn’t let a lot of people deter me in what I wanted to do. Sometimes I went overboard because I was spending so much time doing it, but other than that, it was all out of the love.”
The big lefthander released two CDs that were critically acclaimed before he decided to retire after the 1997 season. Now, Tisdale was making the transition from basketball star that happened to play music to full-time musician. How was he perceived in his new world?
“Pretty much from day one, they really embraced me on the music side,” said Tisdale. “I guess my sound is so different and so new that it kind of took off right away when they heard my playing. It just been a blessing to come from one world into another and be pretty much successful, so I don’t take that for granted at all.”
“I always wanted to do it and always aspired to do it, and I knew what kind of work it was going to take after being successful at basketball, knew that I was going to have to work just as hard or harder to make it in music, so why can’t I? That was the theory I used and it just came about.”
“It took lots of discipline. I listened a lot, too. I listened to a lot of advice. I bumped my head a lot of times, too, but even though I bumped my head I still took the advice and kind of just went from there and things just started to fall in place after a while. There’s no substitute for hard work and that’s what I’ve been taught and done the whole time.”
Tisdale has released seven solo albums to date. In 2002, he was inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame and received the Legacy Tribute Award. He was also nominated by the NAACP as “Outstanding Jazz Artist” for its 2004 Image Awards.
He has also kept a connection to his home state, commuting from his farm home near Tulsa to his business interests in Los Angeles. Tisdale and his wife, Regina, have four children and his Tulsa home includes a stocked pond so he can indulge in another passion – fishing – while helping in the garden and horseback riding with his son. Outside of the home, Tisdale regularly takes Tae Bo with Billy Blanks, calling it his new addiction and the best workout since playing in the NBA.
“We’re back home and enjoying the farm life and I’m traveling probably more now than ever,” noted Tisdale. “Things are just moving right along.”
For a couple of years, Tisdale returned to OU to do color commentary on Sooner basketball television broadcasts, but his music success forced him to give up that job. He still takes a keen interest in the program.
“My schedule is just really busy, pretty much all year round now, so I wasn’t able to do it. I really enjoyed doing that. I loved that,” said Tisdale. “The program is kind of rebuilding now and it’s getting to where it needs to be. It still has a long way to go, but it’s a good start and they’ve got some good foundation to do it with.”
A big part of that foundation is freshman center Blake Griffin, who some are touting as the second coming of Tisdale. Even though Tisdale was the first OU player to have his number retired, he agreed to allow his number 23 to be reinstated so that Griffin could wear it this year. Griffin is off to a great start, but still has a long way to go to reach the numbers that Tisdale compiled, even though Tisdale hopes the 6-10 youngster can reach those heights.
“I’d rather that he be better than me. I know that he’s gonna be a great player and I’m going to be wishing him all the best”, said Tisdale. “We need to get him to average about 10 or 15 more as a freshman. But he’ll be alright.”
And while Tisdale is doing just fine in his latest career, he still would like to stay involved in the sport that gave him a chance to reach a national audience and he took the opportunity to lobby for yet another job.
“You know, I’m interested if the Sonics come to Oklahoma City, I’m definitely interested in working in some capacity”, Tisdale said. “Not as a coach or anything but front office work. Community relations. I think I’d be good at that. My face would look good on that.”
It’s hard to believe that it has been 25 years since the smiling youngster from Tulsa showed up on OU campus and put Sooner basketball on the map. Tisdale plans to keep moving and putting a smile on the face of everyone he touches. As far as he’s concerned, that’s just part of the plan.
“I think everybody’s life is orchestrated. We’ve just got to follow the blueprint”, said Tisdale. “I feel that I’ve been dealt a pretty great blueprint and it’s just been a blur for me. It hasn’t stopped going since before I got to OU.”
Sadly, there would be no storybook ending to Wayman’s story. Shortly after this interview, the cancer returned with a ferocity that required the amputation of his leg. Still, Wayman battled back through rehabilitation, but the signs were there that this was a battle he would not win. Eventually, he succumbed to the disease.
His memory lives on with the Wayman Tisdale Award, given to the top NCAA freshman each year. And his wife Regina battles on, still cherishing her husband’s memory and struggling to deal with such an enormous void. We share her memories and we, too, still can’t believe that he’s gone.
The football recruiting trail is littered with the bones of prospects who never reached their potential, but you always like to go back and look at the ones that seemingly rose from obscurity to make it big.
Former Sooner and current Cincinnati Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham is one of those. Blessed with size and speed, Gresham rose from a dirt poor background to become one of the top receivers in the game.
But in late 2005, Gresham was just a tall basketball star that was starting to become a major football recruit without much fanfare. It all started with a video, in the days before the Internet had taken over recruiting and it culminated with OU getting a major star. And when I spoke with him, he was not used to all the attention that was starting to come his way. Let’s take a look back at the emergence of Ardmore’s Jermaine Gresham.
For a town of just under 24,000 residents, Ardmore has turned out its fair share of major college football prospects. And most of them have been skill position athletes. But none have possessed the overall God given talents of the latest recruit on the national radar, Jermaine Gresham.
At a shade over 6-6 and currently weighing 232 pounds, Gresham has recruiters ready to beat a path to the Carter County town this fall. In high school, he has played wide receiver and even some defensive back, but college coaches project him as a tight end in the mold of Tony Gonzalez, Jeremy Shockey or Kellen Winslow, Jr. Like Gonzalez, Gresham excels in basketball, having scored 39 points in the opening round of the 5A State Tournament this season. He averaged over 20 points and 10 rebounds a game this year, leading his team to a runner-up finish. Even though he is good enough to play basketball at the D-1 level, Gresham says he plans to play football.
Interestingly enough, Gresham has caught the attention of every major college football program in the country without going through one of the standard rituals that put most recruits on the map. The soft-spoken star has never attended any school’s summer camp and doesn’t plan to do it this summer, either. Instead he will work at the high school and re-take several classes to try and improve his overall grade point, hoping to reduce the score he needs on the ACT test. He took the college entrance exam for the first time in April.
Rivals.com, one of many recruiting sites that engulf the Internet, fueled his nationwide discovery. They posted video of Gresham in action and later traveled to Ardmore to see him in person, and they have now ranked him in their top 100 prospects for 2006. They currently list 10 schools in the running for his services, including Oklahoma.
Traditionally, OU has had a tough time with the nationally touted recruits from Ardmore. In the late 80s, Rafael Denson was a highly sought running back who chose Oklahoma State over Oklahoma, and in the 90s, wide receiver Taj Johnson left the Sooner State to sign with Miami, later transferring to San Diego State. The Sooners may have their work cut out for with Gresham, too, who says he is “wide open” in the recruiting process and will probably not commit to any school in the fall. He did ask his coach to take him to an OU spring scrimmage, possibly a good sign for the Sooners.
Gresham claims to have no allegiances to any team, saying he’s just a fan of the game. Hundreds of letters have been pouring in to his mailbox, and his high school coach, Mike Loyd, says a number of scholarship offers have already arrived. OU and OSU, along with LSU, Texas, Nebraska, Missouri and Iowa State have made that step, while schools like Notre Dame, Miami, Ohio State and Michigan are also hot on the trail.
One school that Gresham was looking forward to hearing from was National Champion USC.
“It’s kind of surprised me that I haven’t heard anything from them. Everybody else has stepped in”, said Gresham.
Several days later, the first correspondence from the Trojans arrived.
This is heady stuff for a 16-year old whose coach thought he was just a basketball player when he arrived at Tigers’ workouts a few years back. Gresham changed that perception with 27 catches his sophomore year, and 56 more last season. Those who have seen him in person or on tape marvel at his grace and agility. And he has decent speed for his size, running a 4.6 in the 40-yard dash.
Gresham is also modest in evaluating his own talents.
“I’m not fast, but I’ve got pretty good hands. Kind of like a T.O. (Terrell Owens)”, says Gresham, in a non-boastful manner. “But I watch everybody and try to pick up things I can use.”
What is frightening is that Loyd believes Gresham has only scratched the surface of his ultimate ability. Loyd should know a little about what it takes to make it as a big-time college football player. He played quarterback professionally for six seasons and coached junior college powerhouse Northeastern Oklahoma A&M from 1990-1995, leading the Norsemen to the 1991 National Championship. There, he produced a number of receivers who went on to star in the major college ranks and NFL, among them former University of Tulsa star Chris Penn.
Loyd says Gresham at this stage is ahead of any receiver he ever coached at NEO.
“Jermaine is athletically better than all those guys. His upside is incredible,” said Loyd. “He’s just now started working in the weight room and he’s starting to enjoy that. He’s strong in the bench and squat and I guarantee he can play at 245 pounds next year, easily. I can’t think of a receiver I’ve ever had with more potential.”
“Number one, he’s a good guy. He works hard, is fun to coach and fun to be around.
He has a chance for a bright future. He’s wide open. I’ll sit down and talk to him about the process. He’s just 16 years old and all of this can be overwhelming. I don’t know if he knows how special he is.”
To make sure that Gresham is prepared for the onslaught of recruiting advances that will intensify as the year develops, Loyd frequently sits down with his star player to map out a strategy for the recruiting process. He also brought in a couple of former OU stars to talk to Gresham about what to expect as schools try to entice him to join their programs.
Former Sooner tight end and recent Denver Broncos signee Stephen Alexander, heading into his ninth NFL season, recently traveled to Ardmore to give Gresham an idea of what the process is like and what schools will expect of him at the D-1 level. Alexander also talked to the youngster about getting his academics in order and about what kind of attitude college coaches would be expecting. The Chickasha native was accompanied by another former Sooner teammate, J.R. Conrad, who is now a coach with the Oklahoma City Yard Dawgz of the Arena II football league.
All of the attention is apparently having an impact on the young receiver. Gresham has started to become more serious in his workouts and is starting to build his body in a way that will meet college coaches’ expectations for the move to tight end. Loyd says Gresham reminds him of a bigger Ryan Humphrey, the former Tulsa Washington two-sport star who was a top tight end recruit by many colleges but chose instead to play basketball and is now in the NBA.
“Jermaine is like Ryan in that he is not a skinny basketball type guy out there. He’s a football player that also plays basketball”, noted Loyd. ”He has big legs and broad shoulders. He’s going to get much bigger.”
Gresham has always been a marked man on the gridiron, drawing double and sometimes triple coverage. Despite that, his coach plans to get him the football as much as he can this fall, especially on the short routes, where Gresham can use his size and agility to make yards after the catch. On the hitch pattern, Loyd says you can expect Gresham to run over his share of cornerbacks, too. He has averaged over 12 yards per reception on that particular pattern during his career.
Opposing teams won’t be the only ones zeroing in on Gresham this fall. The nation’s top programs will be vying for an opportunity to have him make one of his five official visits to their campus, but so far, he isn’t giving any hints as to how his top five list will shake out.
“I’m not going to commit early. I’ll take all my visits and weigh my options”, said Gresham. I’m just living my life.”
He made that visit to USC and to Miami, but eventually settled on OU, where his Mom could see him play. After a slow start his freshman year, he exploded with more than 100 catches and 25 touchdowns in his next two seasons.
The injury bug, which had continue to follow him to college, prevented him from playing his final season and he elected to turn pro, becoming the 21st overall selection in the 2010 draft. He signed a contract worth $15.85 million dollars, making those hardscrabble days growing up in south central Oklahoma a thing of the past.
His pro career has flourished, despite more injuries, as he joined fellow Sooner Keith Jackson and another Hall of Famer, Mike Ditka, as the only tight ends to catch 50 or more passes in their first three NFL seasons. After back-to-back Pro Bowl selections, Gresham saw his workload diminish in 2013 as he split time with rookie Tyler Eifert, but at 6-6 and 261 pounds, he remains one of the most feared targets in the league.
Of all the stories in Sooner running back history that begin “If only he had stayed healthy…” the saga of Mike Gaddis’ career is one that is still talked about by OU fans today. And in terms of the game of life, it’s one that has a happy ending.
Coming out of Midwest City’s Carl Albert High School in 1987, Gaddis was one of the most highly recruited runners in the nation. At 6-0, 217, he was the prototypical tailback, having rushed for over 3,700 yards and 53 touchdowns in his prep career. Gaddis grew up as an OU fan and the Sooners had the inside track except for one thing – they ran the wishbone. So Gaddis jockeyed between his feelings for Oklahoma and the chance to be the next great tailback at USC.
“Bobby Proctor was my recruiter and he used to come pick me up when I was down there for track meets and bringing me over to watch spring practice and give me the grand tour. Made me feel like I was really a big man,” said Gaddis. “But even though I was an OU fan, I really wanted to play tailback. I didn’t want to be a halfback, so USC was in the picture and it really came down to those two schools and the difference was coaching.”
“USC had just hired Larry Smith from Arizona, brand new coach, I didn’t know who he was. Everything was the same except for the coaches for me. Obviously, Switzer had been there forever and I signed with OU. And I never looked back after that.”
But Gaddis’ OU career almost ended before it began. Tiring in early fall workouts, doctors soon discovered what was characterized as a “blood disorder” after running a series of tests. In reality, Gaddis’ was experiencing kidney problems, even though the coaches and doctors didn’t tell him the whole story.
“They talked to my mother about it and my mother kind of kept me out of it. Because at that time, to me, I felt perfect. I didn’t feel any problem. I felt normal,” Gaddis said. “Said they wanted to redshirt me, which I was upset about. I thought I could play that year. So I sat out that fall.”
The real story of Gaddis’ illness also wasn’t made known to the public. Rumors began circulating among the media and fans that Gaddis was just out of shape and not ready to play and that the health issue was a smokescreen to take the heat off of such a highly recruited player. Many doubted Gaddis would ever contribute at OU. It took a while before he proved them wrong.
Cleared to play in 1988, Gaddis started slowly before breaking into the lineup midway through the season. He had his official coming out party in the annual Bedlam Game in Stillwater, matching OSU Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders stride for stride as the Sooners took a 31-28 victory. Gaddis ran for 213 yards that day, Sanders 215.
Mike Gaddis had his best days against Oklahoma State“That was a special game because, number one, I was in a car wreck that week and I didn’t know if I was going to be able to play. So driving up there on the team bus, they still hadn’t really cleared me to play,” said Gaddis.. “We get there and I’m feeling pretty good and the juices are flowing, so there’s no way I’m not playing. And the option game was just incredible that day.”
It was to be the first of three great games Gaddis would have against the Cowboys, a team that he wanted to punish each time he went on the field.
“Being from Oklahoma, you know what that game’s about and a lot of those kids you play against in high school, so there’s a lot of trash talking throughout the year and lot of trash talking for me with the coaches,” Gaddis said. “It was personal. Because I remember how hard they recruited me and then when I ruled them out, they said I couldn’t play. So I took it personal. I always got up for that game.”
Despite the flashes of brilliance, there were times Gaddis had to come out of the game for a breather, something he thought was normal, but something that was actually a product of his condition. He found that he couldn’t be the kind of workhorse back that some expected him to be.
“And I didn’t really understand back then and didn’t think about it much. But I could only carry the ball probably 20-25 times. Anything over that, I just couldn’t do it. Physically, I was just done,” said Gaddis. “And it would take me a day or two days to recover. Everybody else was going out Saturday night, but not me. I’m going home and I’m crashing. ‘Cause I’m exhausted. I’m in bed all Saturday night, Sunday I drag myself out to go to the meetings, but I’m exhausted until Monday. But that was normal for me, so I didn’t think anything of it.”
Coaches and fans were excited about Gaddis finally reaching his potential after the sensational finish to the 1988 season, but things were about to be turned upside down in the off season. Switzer was forced to step down and the Sooners were suddenly on NCAA probation that kept them off of television. Several players exited in the aftermath and the start of the 1989 season was in turmoil. Following a 6-3 loss at Arizona, it was up to Gaddis to start turning things around.
He ran for more than a hundred yards against Kansas in a conference opening victory, then destroyed Oklahoma State with a 274-yard performance, the fourth-best in Sooner history. Up next was Texas and Gaddis was ready to start thinking about his Heisman Trophy chances as the Sooners prepared for the annual Red River rivalry. Sports Illustrated had written a story about him being the best back that no one had seen because OU was banned from television, and he was geared up to make his mark against the Longhorns.
Gaddis had more than 130 yards at halftime but what started out as potentially one of the best running days by any Sooner against the Longhorns turned into a nightmare early in the second half.
“I take a pitch around the left and I’m getting ready to go 80. I mean it just opens up and that’s going to put me over 200 yards for the game, I’m going to have a 1,000 yards for the season by the end of the game, and I’m thinking, I’m getting ready to win this trophy, that’s why I came here to win a championship and win the Heisman. I’m Billy Sims. That’s who I grew up wanting to be,” said Gaddis. “And then boom, just like that – I put my foot in the ground, my knee gives out, next thing I know I’m rolling on the ground looking up at the sky wondering what in the heck just happened to me.”
Gaddis’ Heisman dreams were dashed on the Cotton Bowl turf“And even then, when they took me to the sideline, I just felt like it was a sprain. So I’m like, tape the sucker up and let me get back in there. Obviously, there like no way, we’re going to wait to see what’s going on. It was an ACL tear. I had two guys I grew up watching. Billy was my main man and then there was Marcus Dupree, so in my mind, Dupree blows his knee out and he’s pretty much done. I’m thinking I’m pretty much done.”
His season ended with 829 yards on just 110 carries – a 7.5 per carry average – in just less than six games. Gaddis had watched his Heisman dreams evaporate and even though he began rehabilitating, he doubted in his own mind if he could ever come close to being the back he had been. He could not even return to the field for a year and a half, and as the 1991 season arrived, he was listed as the fourth team tailback. That might have been the last we heard of Mike Gaddis if not for some comments made by head coach Gary Gibbs.
“I think he said something like we can’t count on Gaddis, something like that. And he sparked me to want to come back, so I busted my butt that summer, me and Coach (Pete) Martinelli, strength and conditioning coach,” said Gaddis. “What motivates me is when people say you can’t do it. If I don’t want to play, that’s my decision. But you aren’t going to tell me I can’t play. I go to coach Gibbs the day of the article and I’m told him ‘I’m getting ready to prove you wrong because I’m going to come back. I’m going to make you play me.’”
Gaddis rebounded in his final season to torture the Pokes againStill third-team when the season started, Gaddis finally got his last chance when the two backs ahead of him were injured in the conference opener at Iowa State. He came off the bench to rush for over 100 yards and would up regaining his starting spot down the stretch. Gaddis reeled off a 217 yard performance against Missouri and tore up his old favorite, Oklahoma State, with his third 200 yard game against them., running for 203 yards on a career-high 35 carries. He finished the year with more than 1,300 yards and 17 touchdowns, turning down a chance for a medical hardship year to go to the NFL.
A sixth-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings, Gaddis once again saw misfortune strike when he blew out his other knee after securing a spot on the team. He tried to come back with other NFL teams, but concerns about his kidneys rather than his knees made teams leery of giving him a shot. It was about the same time that the possibility of kidney failure started to become reality.
“I always believe everything works out for the best and I never second guess. When I was 18 at OU, they told me that when I was 25, I would probably need a transplant,” said Gaddis. “When I was 27 is when I started feeling the effects. The high blood pressure for no reason and headaches, so I started seeing a kidney specialist and about five years later, it was time to get it done.”
After testing all four of Gaddis’ brothers for a match, doctors selected his brother Brent as the ideal candidate to donate a kidney. Brent, who had been a basketball player at Southern Nazarene University, spent 10 months in psychological and physical evaluation, while Mike was on dialysis, before the two went to Baylor Medical Center in Dallas for the transplant operation.
“It’s a blessing every year with my brother’s kidney in me. I haven’t had any rejection. My body has accepted it”, said Gaddis. “Obviously, I’m on tons of medication so my body won’t reject it. Because I take so many immune suppressants, I have to be real careful around people who are sick. Even when my kids get sick, I have to be careful and worry about infection. Fortunately, I haven’t had any problems and this kidney could last me the rest of my life.”
Gaddis with his family a few years ago, shortly after his kidney transplant“Looking back, you don’t really know how bad you are feeling, because that’s normal to you. When you know is after I had the transplant. Then I knew how bad I felt all my life. I never knew you could feel this good.”
Gaddis settled back in Oklahoma City, where he has operated an insurance agency for more than 15 years. He has been married to his high school sweetheart, Andrea, for 20 years and they have two boys, Lunden and Roman . Gaddis keeps close tabs on the Sooner program and is especially happy for two of his old teammates who are now on college coaches.
“Ol’ Cale (Gundy) does a heckuva job with those running backs. I never thought he would be good running back coach”, Gaddis said. “But the ball doesn’t touch the ground, they run hard, they’re physical, I told him he couldn’t coach me, because I was fumbling all over the place. I had that ball out there like a loaf of bread. I grew up watching the wishbone.”
“Chris Wilson (now at USC), I played with him. Those guys are doing a good job. I never saw either one of them as coaches, but who does when you’re playing. It’s a good way to stay around the game, you’ve got to be patient, they’re in there breaking down tape and getting their guys ready, and then having to listen to the “experts” on the radio second guess every move. It’s a tough job. They’ve served their time and put in their dues and I think they’re putting in some serious hours. I get to go home every day.”
For Gaddis, the thought of what might have been is something that he’s learned to live with through the years. Despite the injuries and illness, he still managed to carve out a spot among the top ten all-time rushers at OU in what amount to about a season and a half worth of action.
“Just growing up an Oklahoma fan and then having an opportunity to go play at that school that you grew up worshipping and listening to on the radio every Saturday before every game was on TV,” said Gaddis. “It was my lifelong dream to go there, but not just go there but actually be able to be a good player there. My only regret was, there is no way I could know how my career might have turned out. I thought I could have gotten a couple of Heismans, honestly. When I look back, I never really started a full season.
“I’m pretty proud about that and maybe one day, my kids will really believe I played there.”
As the world of golf searched for the next Tiger Woods, it focused its high beams on former OU golfer Anthony Kim. At 22, he won $1.5 million dollars in 2007, his first full year on the tour and finished sixth on the money list with $4.5 million while winning two PGA events is his second season. He was a member of winning U.S. teams in the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup and seemed to be on the doorstep of greatness. All before the age of 25.
But Anthony Kim resembled Tiger Woods in another area. He liked to party. His benders were stuff of legend and caused many to wonder if Kim cared enough to be the best. For a time, he seemed to shift gears, making motions that he was going to get serious about his game. Nobody wanted to lose the fun side of Kim, but almost everybody wanted him to succeed.
2010 seemed to be his year. A playoff victory in the Shell Houston Open was followed by a third place finish at the Masters. Kim joined Woods, Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia and Adam Scott as the only players in the past 30 to win three PGA events years before their 25th birthday.
Then came the injuries. He had his 2010 season cut short after just 14 events. In 2011, he came back but had just two top ten finishes, his lowest full season total. Then, in 2012, he tore his left Achilles tendon after making the cut in just two of 10 events. Kim has not played in a PGA event since.
This week, his agent said that Kim is not even playing golf recreationally, and even though friends say he’s assured them he is working on a return, it sounds like AK may be done at the age of 28. Here’s a profile I did on him in his first year on the tour, which reads somewhat like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Anthony Kim exploded onto the collegiate scene at Oklahoma as the NCAA Freshman of the Year in 2004 and was a member of the victorious U.S. Walker Cup team in 2005. Despite that, Kim was somewhat of an enigma in Norman, attaining All-American status three straight years, while at the same time often finding himself in the doghouse of Coach Jim Reagan. Following his junior season, he decided to part ways with the Sooner program and turn professional.
Just like he did in college, Kim made an immediate splash on the PGA Tour, using a sponsor exemption to play in the Valero Texas Open and finishing second in his debut.
After qualifying for full time status in the winter, Kim became the youngest rookie on tour at age 22, and won over a million dollars in his first season.
Still, Kim’s flamboyant style garners almost as much publicity as his talent. He can be seen wearing a large belt buckle he picked up at an Oklahoma mall with the initials AK, sometimes wearing his hat backwards and sporting brightly colored attire.
As he told a reporter at the World Golf Championship’s Bridgestone Open, he takes his fashion inspiration from his roots.
“I’ve got a little European, a little basketball, a little everything”, said Kim. “I grew up playing a lot of post and listening to rap and R&B. I had to bring the belt buckle from Oklahoma. I’m trying to be a little bit different and be myself out there.”
His background, as you might imagine, is not typical. An Asian-American, Kim moved away from his parents while he was still in high school. They remained in Northridge, CA, to run the family’s oriental herb business, while Anthony was set up in a house in LaQuinta, where he could attend school and work on his golf game through a membership at PGA West’s four private courses.
Don’t get the idea that Kim is a country club kid, though. He is more in tune with the streets and showed that by hooking up with a public course professional as his mentor and friend.
Kevin Scheller is a pro at Woodley Lakes G.C. in Van Nuys, California who Kim looks to for swing advice. The two became friends first and developed a working relationship later. But Scheller knew from the time he met Kim that the youngster was going to be something special.
“Absolutely”, said Scheller. “He displayed a level of talent that was unusual. It was far and above normal. Every once in a while you come across a kid who is above and beyond the rest of his peers, even people that are older. In the beginning when I knew him, I didn’t help him. We were just friends. Then over the years, we just happened to hang out and I happened to be an instructor and he would be practicing in California and he would say ‘Hey, would you mind taking a look’. I would tell him what I thought and he valued my opinion and it’s nothing more than that.”
“You would have to have him say the word coach out of his mouth, because I just don’t do that. I always considered him a friend first, and I do that for very specific reasons, because it’s not about me. It’s about him. He’s the player. I happen to help him occasionally when things don’t go right. When he’s a little confused and doesn’t think he can figure it out himself. And that goes back to the teenager living on his own in Palm Springs. He can take care of himself and he prides himself in that.”
At Oklahoma, Kim also butted heads with Coach Reagan, but in spite of what many think, the two are still on good terms and Kim stays in contact with his college coach. Although he is now based in Dallas, Kim also returns to Norman from time to time, visiting friends and old haunts around the OU campus.
One of the things that sometimes exasperated his coach was Kim’s insistence on spending as much time on the basketball court as he did on the practice tee. In fact, Kim missed several tournaments during his sophomore year at OU after spraining an ankle while playing hoops. At 5’10, 160, Kim envisioned himself as having a shot at being an NBA or NFL player during his younger days, but finally realized that golf was his future.
Still, he loves basketball, and even though many people told him to focus on golf and forget other sports, Scheller wasn’t one of them.
“I never told him that. I told him to find as many outlets as he could possibly have. He gets that from everybody else and his inner circle is pretty small,” said Scheller. “He is a very good judge of character and he understands people that want things from him and he understands people that want what’s best for him. And he only associates with people who want what’s best for him.”
“The only thing I’m concerned with is just him being the best player he thinks he can be. A lot of people give him a hard time for not practicing. They think he should practice more than he does, but you know, some guys can bang balls for 10 hours and some guys just need to hit balls for 30 minutes and then go do something else and let their brain go to another place. He just happens to be one of those kids who just can’t really practice a lot because it doesn’t do him any good. He burns out quickly.”
Another friendship he developed through his OU days is his bond with former Sooner golfer and British Open champ Todd Hamilton. The two met when Hamilton returned to Norman for an alumni event. Hamilton, a quiet and reserved personality, is the polar opposite of Kim, which may be the reason they get along so well, according to Scheller.
“Both obviously have respect for each other’s game. Todd obviously respects Anthony’s talent and I think Todd in some respects gets a kick out of Anthony”, said Scheller. “He’s a young kid, he’s brash, he’s not afraid to say what he wants to say and I think Todd kind of gets a kick out of that. I don’t really pretend to know their relationship, but I’ve been around them. I’ve walked practice rounds when they’ve played together and they just seem to enjoy each other’s company.”
Interestingly, Hamilton, who struggled after being named PGA Tour Rookie of The Year at age 38, even recommended his caddie to Kim. Ron Levin had been on Hamilton’s bag for the 2004 British Open win and is now toting the clubs for Kim.
After a torrid start, with his four top 10 finishes coming by May, Kim has leveled off, still posting respectable scores, but finding inconsistency in his rounds. That has given rise to comments about his dedication to the game and has given detractors a chance to comment that Kim is more about style than he is substance. Still, his friend and swing coach Scheller believes that in the end, Kim’s talent will rise above any of the negativity.
“He is a breath of fresh air if people are willing to accept him as a breath of fresh air. The people that have been waiting for someone like him are going to be excited and”, said Scheller. “The people who just want to judge his personality, and his belt buckle and his hat on backwards and wearing two different colored shoes, they’re going to judge him and say ‘what a punk’. I see it as a breath of fresh air. I don’t see how you can discourage personality – when it’s sincere. That’s just who he is and he’s not afraid to be who he is.”
“Hopefully, he won’t be labeled as a player who hasn’t lived up to his expectations or his potential. You never want to be that guy. And frankly, that’s in his control. I can’t do anything about that. What you write about him can’t do anything about that. He either puts up the results or he doesn’t.”
Kim himself expects to be number one in the world someday, something that he would even say in front of Tiger Woods. That’s just the way he is. Only time will tell if he’s the next Tiger or the next John Daly.
Seven years later, it seems like a little of both, as Woods has faced many of the same lifestyle and injury demons that sidelined Kim. And Daly, well, he’s found his special place in golf, even if it is not on the top of the leader board. Let’s hope we haven’t heard the last of Anthony Kim, although the odds are not in his favor at this point.
Spend five minutes with Tommy McDonald and you almost expect the 79-year old Sooner legend to buckle his chin strap and jump back onto Owen Field, ready to score another touchdown.
The years have done nothing to diminish McDonald’s enthusiasm about life and about his days with the greatest teams of the Bud Wilkinson era at Oklahoma. McDonald grew up in New Mexico, but says he’s an Oklahoma boy at heart.
“It was a great four years of my life from 1953 to 1956. I mean, I never lost a college football game. Only 17 of us can ever say that,” said McDonald, referring to his teammates who went through their careers during the Sooners NCAA record 47-game win streak. “I can still hear Boomer Sooner and that stadium- I had never seen a stadium that full. The Oklahoma fans were marvelous. I can’t say enough about them. They always tried to make you feel at home.”
As a 5’9, 147 lb. halfback growing up in a the tiny town of Roy, NM, McDonald never dreamed of playing in front of thousands of fans. But when his family moved to Albuquerque and McDonald became the focus of Highland High Schools single-wing offense, his fortunes began to change. Where would have McDonald’s life have taken him if he had stayed in Roy?
“My little rear end would have been on a tractor planting wheat,” joked McDonald.
Instead he wound up being All-State in football, basketball and track, but was still largely ignored by major football schools until Oklahoma basketball coach Bruce Drake spotted him in an all-star game and recommended that Wilkinson give McDonald a look. Meeting Wilkinson was all it took for McDonald to choose the Sooners.
“Bud just overwhelmed you with his personality,” said McDonald. “As soon as I met him, something clicked that said ‘you’d better go here’. He was just so far ahead of everybody else at that time.”
McDonald credits Wilkinson’s innovative Split-T offense, a great coaching staff and an abundance of talent for Oklahoma’s magnificent performance during his three varsity years. But the dominance of those Sooner teams created problems for players when it came time for post-season awards. Rarely did starters play more than half the game, as Wilkinson often platooned his first and second teams in alternate quarters.
Still, McDonald was able to garner the prestigious Maxwell Award and The Sporting News Player of the Year and finished third in the Heisman following his senior season despite getting only 110 carries during the season.
Midway through that 1956, OU had just rolled to a 40-0 win over Notre Dame and had outscored their first five opponents 223-12, recording four shutouts. But in their sixth game at Colorado, in front of a national television audience, the Sooners found themselves trailing the Buffaloes 19-6 at halftime. That’s when the most memorable moment of McDonald’s career took place.
“Coach Wilkinson came into the locker room and told us ‘You don’t deserve to wear that jersey today. You’re letting that jersey that jersey down’,” remembered McDonald. “He went on to talk about all the players that had built the program and how we were letting them down as well. I don’t think they had to open the door after he got through. We just about ran through the wall trying to get back on the field and Colorado couldn’t do a thing in the second half. We scored 21 straight points and wound up winning 27-19.”
Capping his collegiate career by grabbing MVP honors at the North-South All-Star game, Mc Donald caught the eye of the Philadelphia Eagles, who picked him in the third round of the NFL draft. At the time, pro football hadn’t yet taken over the nation’s interest, and McDonald did have his teaching degree from OU to fall back on. Even though the $12,000 the Eagles offered him doesn’t sound like much now, it beat the $2,200 a year he could have earned in the classroom.
Early in his rookie year, McDonald was lost in the shuffle at running back and was primarily a kickoff and punt returner. But an injury at wide receiver prompted Eagles coaches to give McDonald a look at wide receiver, and in a game against Washington, he scored two touchdowns. He went on to have a Hall of Fame career, played on the 1960 Philadelphia NFL championship team and spent 12 years in the league with the Eagles, Rams, Falcons, Cowboys and Browns. In 1962, he was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated as having football’s best hands.
In 1998, he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, becoming only the second Sooner player to receive the honor, following Lee Roy Selmon’s induction just a few years earlier. His appearance in Canton was memorable, as he stole the show by chest-bumping fellow inductees, and made an unforgettable speech.
“God Almighty, I feel good!” shouted McDonald, football’s smallest but definitely loudest Hall of Famer.
He cracked jokes about his wife and tossed his 25-pound bronze bust around like a football. He talked to his father and Ray Nitschke, whose ghosts he claimed were standing on stage with him.
McDonald trumped that by pulling a radio out of his briefcase and dancing to disco music on the hallowed steps of the hall, live on national television.
Following his pro career, McDonald returned to the Philadelphia area, where his Tommy McDonald Enterprises supplied portraits to Heisman Trophy and Miss America winners, among others.
“I can’t praise God enough for letting me be in the right place at the right time,” McDonald said. “He kept me healthy. I never got hurt in high school or college and missed only three games in the pros. And I can’t say enough about the people of Oklahoma. They are awesome”
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.”
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.
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.
“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 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.