Friday, October 26, 2012

Bradshaw to Liberto: 82 yards, TD, 0:13

Ken Liberto headed for the end zone
 (NSU's Dick Concilio chasing him).
      A recent Sports Illustrated article on top-10 lists ranked The Immaculate Reception as the No. 1 play in NFL history.
       Maybe. But it wasn't Terry Bradshaw's greatest pass. Not even close. It was a lucky, freaky play.
       Bradshaw's greatest pass didn't happen in the NFL. It happened at Louisiana Tech. It was a play that anyone who saw it, and still has their memory, won't forget.
        Bradshaw to Ken Liberto, 82 yards, 25 seconds remaining when it started and 13 when it finished, the State Fair Game of 1968, State Fair Stadium in Shreveport.
        Louisiana Tech went from certain defeat, down 39-35, to one miraculous 42-39 victory over the longtime arch-rival, Northwestern State. It was so stunning, so unbelievable.
       Bradshaw threw 251 touchdown passes in the NFL, including 30 in the playoffs and nine in Super Bowls (five against the Cowboys). He quarterbacked four Super Bowl championship teams. The Immaculate Reception, in the 1972 playoffs, was the Steelers' first-ever playoff victory in the franchise's 40th season.
         No NFL TD he ever threw -- except maybe the Immaculate one -- was more dramatic than the pass to Liberto.
          It was the greatest play I've seen. But I'm prejudiced. The connection was two guys who I'd gone to school with  -- junior high, high school, college -- for almost a decade. The receiver was one of my very best friends for 50 years, my ride to school for most of six years.
 ---
This artist's conception of the State Fair Game scene and
the Bradshaw-to-Liberto pass was done by Cora Lou
 Robinson of Minden (who gave permission for its use here).
       It happened every October, first the Texas State Fair and the Texas-Oklahoma game at the Cotton Bowl and a couple of weeks later, the Louisiana State Fair and the Louisiana Tech-Northwestern State game.
       This would have been the week in Shreveport. The Louisiana State Fair just opened. Thus the timing of this blog.
       It was always the Game of the Year for us, the one game each team badly wanted to win. The neutral site -- because both schools were about 70 miles from Shreveport -- played into it.
      It didn't have major implications like Texas-OU or annual neutral-site games such as Florida-Georgia, Auburn-Alabama or Army-Navy, but it was our neighborhood rivalry, our bragging-rights game, an extra day off from school for the winner.
       Tech and NSU were so alike. Each had enrollments of, say, 7,000 to 10,000 in the 1960s; each drew heavily from North Louisiana cities and from all over the state and into East Texas; each  produced many of our teachers; each had its academic strengths -- NSU known for its nursing school, Tech for engineering ... and journalism (might not be true, but sounds good to me).
       For the kids from Shreveport, coming back to town for this game was special, to come back to the stadium where most of our high school games had been played. We knew a lot of the Northwestern kids; they knew a lot of Tech kids.
        And then there was the State Fair setting -- the crowded midway, the rides, the exhibits, the IMCA races at the racetrack, the corny dogs and cotton candy, assorted other foods, the smells (yuk, the barns with all the animals right next to the football stadium), the horrendous traffic and parking situation, the extra charge (or ticket) just to get into the Fairgrounds.
         Each school chose a State Fair court of coeds; from the late 1950s to whenever, each school had a fireworks art display to light up near an end zone before the game began. At some point, they came up with a flag called "The Rag" that went to the winning school.
         Tech-NSU was the State Fair Game 48 times, from 1937 through 1987 -- except for the World War II years (1943-45) when the teams played on one campus or the other. It was a rivalry, but mostly a one-sided one ... Tech had a 34-12-2 edge. Starting with that 1968 victory, Tech was 17-2-1 until the State Fair Game became history after the '87 season.
          Tech went strictly Division I; Northwestern stayed in Division II. Tech simply outgrew the rivalry. They've played once since, a 38-28 Tech win in Ruston in 1994.
          But going into the 1968 game, Northwestern had the edge -- a two-game winning streak in the rivalry. Its undefeated 1966 team, one of the Demons' greatest ever, beat us (Tech) 28-7; in 1967, NSU won 7-0 in a pretty dull game.
---
          Tech's 1968 team was 2-2 coming to Shreveport on Oct. 19. We had won at Mississippi State to open the season; beating an SEC school was a big deal. But we had lost consecutively to McNeese State and Southwestern Louisiana (we were 0-4 against both in my years at Tech). We didn't know what kind of team we had.
          We didn't know about our blond-haired quarterback with the big right arm. He showed flashes of greatness, then woeful inconsistency. We knew we had some great receivers -- Bradshaw's and our high school buddy, Tommy Spinks, and the tight end from Minden, Larry Brewer, and my man Liberto, on his way to Tech's first 1,000-yard receiving season.
           Both Ken and Spinks were three- or four-sport athletes in high school. Spinks was always one of the most popular, friendliest kids in school. Bradshaw was what he is now, just a crazy, upbeat guy; always loose and kidding around. Ken was reserved in public, easy-going. But among friends, he was very funny, master of the one-liners. All of them were confident they could help win football games.                      
          Liberto used to tell me and our mutual friend Jon Pat Stephenson -- yet another terrific all-around athlete out of Woodlawn -- that his dream was to just once win a football game by catching a long pass in the final seconds.
---
        By halftime, Northwestern was well on its way to a third consecutive win against Tech (that had happened only once before). After we took a 7-0 lead, the Demons scored on a safety, then ran the ensuing kickoff back for a touchdown. At the half, it was 19-7 ... another disaster brewing for the Bulldogs.
         The quarterbacks, Bradshaw (2 of 12) and NSU's Don Guidry (3 of 14), were awful in the first half. In the second half, both offenses were unstoppable.
          Tech had 404 yards total offense in the second half, 523 for the game. NSU totaled 373 yards. It wound up as the wildest State Fair Game ever, the highest-scoring one ever. These days a 42-39 game is commonplace; in 1968, it was mind-boggling.
          Tech scored the first two touchdowns of the second half to take a 21-19 lead. NSU took back the lead, then Tech did, then NSU did again. So that made five lead changes.
           So the Demons had a 39-35 lead, with the ball, in the final minute. One first down would clinch their victory. And here's where Tech got a series of breaks.
            -- Break No. 1: On a third-down run for an apparent first down, an NSU back was called for an aiding-the-runner penalty.
             After another play, the Demons had to punt. Butch Daniel fair-caught the ball at the Tech 18 (I can see it in my mind because I watched that film a hundred times.) The clock showed 0:25. The NSU fans were chanting the all-too-familiar, "We wrecked Tech! We wrecked Tech!"
           Butch Williams, from Minden, was playing right offensive tackle for Tech. "I remember standing on the sideline with Jesse [Carrigan] easing toward the dressing room when they punted," he said. "... I will never forget telling Jesse, 'Oh, well, I guess we have to go back out there."
           -- Break No. 2: Northwestern's defense was only in a partial prevent defense. Who knows why? Its safeties and cornerbacks were too close to Tech's receivers when they easily could have given up some short passes.
            Liberto was lined up wide right. He ran past the cornerback in front of him and Bradshaw, the pocket having formed perfect in front of him, stepped up between right guard and tackle, and let fly with one of his typical whip-like, high passes. It was right on target ... some 45 yards in the air.
             -- Break No. 3: Northwestern safety Kenny Hrapmann, who had intercepted a pass earlier in the game, also broke to where Liberto was sprinting. But Hrapmann went for the ball ... and missed!
              Liberto, right in front of the Northwestern bench on the west (home) side of the stadium, was in full stride just behind the two Demons near the NSU 40. As I remember, he pinned the ball to his chest, more than catching it in his hands ... and took off. He was in the clear.
              Ken didn't have sprinter's speed, but he was plenty fast. No one was going to catch him.
One guy had a chance.
              -- Break No. 4: The player chasing Liberto was a linebacker, Dick Concilio. He had an angle, and he made a desperate dive at about the Demons' 20 to try to tackle Ken. All he got was one shoe. Liberto went into the end zone wearing one shoe. How funny.
              Bedlam on the Tech side of the stadium (although many Tech fans -- thinking this was a loss -- had left, headed for the Fair or trying to beat the traffic). Pandemonium. Sheer joy. Unbelievable elation. On the NSU side, sickness, shock. Disbelief.
               In the press box, my calm reaction was to jump on the counter and on top of the stats book and sheets where I was keeping the game statistics. Jumping up and down on those stats I cared for so dearly. Paul Manasseh, in his one year as Tech's sports information director before moving to LSU for a long stay, suggested I get down and act more professionally. Right.
               So I got down and pummeled O.K. "Buddy" Davis, fellow Tech journalism major and already sports editor of the Ruston Daily Leader (and he still is). And Buddy pummeled me.
               Then I wrote this sweet line on my now-smugged scoring summary: LT--Liberto, 82 pass from Bradshaw (Golmon kick), 0:13.
              When Liberto spotted Jon Pat Stephenson near the Tech dressing room after the game ended, he screamed, "I told you ... I told you," and then they hugged.
               The next day, as usual, I rode back to Ruston with Liberto. We were both still just so elated; we never had a more fun ride than that one.                          
               A year after the play, Liberto told a Shreveport sportswriter, "I was expecting them to be in a prevent defense. I thought everybody in the ballpark knew what we were going to do. But they were in their regular defense. When I saw that, I figured we had a 50-50 chance of completing the pass. It sure made my job easier."                                    
             "It taught me a very important lesson that I used many times in my future coaching life and even dealing with children as a principal and superintendent," Butch Williams said. "NEVER GIVE UP."
             Jesse Carrigan was at left tackle on the play and remembers that, "They didn't have much of a rush; they were in a prevent ... and I pretty much watched Kenny go 'deep,' and [guard Glenn] Murphy and I served as cheerleaders when we saw him catch it."
---
          That pass, that game, I believe, turned Bradshaw's career for good. From that point, he was on his way to being the NFL's No. 1 draft pick by the Steelers a year later.
          Liberto, after the '68 season, was drafted by the Steelers; Spinks (who wound up with most of Tech's single-season and career receiving records) and Brewer were drafted, too, a year later. But only Terry made it in the NFL.
           That win turned the Tech program around, too. The '68 team won its last seven games in dominant fashion, didn't really come close to losing, and Tech won its next 11 games overall.
---
          Concilio -- the Demon with the last chance -- and I became friends; his coaching career in Bossier Parish paralleled my sportswriting career in Shreveport-Bossier. In the mid-1980s, we didn't live far from each other in South Bossier; in 1985, when he was head coach at Bossier High, he wrote a "Coach's Corner" column for us at the Shreveport Journal. I edited it, but not a great deal; it was his voice, and it was well-done.
         (And I never mentioned his attempted tackle on Liberto. Yeah, you believe that.)
         Liberto and his family settled in Houston. The last time we visited, he looked good; the colon cancer he had been battling was dormant, and he was recovered from a severe heart attack. Spent an afternoon at his house and we laughed and reminisced. He was still a funny man, still the master of one-liners.
          (Sadly, the colon cancer led to his death in November 2010).
          On that day in Houston, he said when people learned that he had played wide receiver at Louisiana Tech and Terry Bradshaw had been his quarterback, they would ask, "How many passes did you catch?"
           Ken's answer: "One."
           One for 82 yards, with 13 seconds remaining. It has been 44 years since No. 44 scored that one glorious touchdown.   

18 comments:

  1. Mary Margaret RichardOctober 26, 2012 at 10:39 AM

    I was there, but nobody can tell it like you, Nico.

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  2. From James Gibson, Houston (NSU graduate): I see absolutely no redeeming social value in your bringing this up. Neither would Kenny Hrapmann.

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  3. From Pesky Hill, Shreveport (NSU graduate): Thanks for reminding all of us Demons how glorious that night was for Tech fans. I was a freshman at Panola Junior College (played baseball) but I had come over to Shreveport for the game. If you were neutral, it was an awesome game. But, I don’t remember many people there being neutral. I didn’t become a Demon until the next year but I will never forget that game. Kenny Hrapmann will always be remembered for that one play. He had a younger brother, Bobby, that was a very good shortstop for NSU’s baseball team.

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  4. From Mike Harper, Minden: Was the only Tech/Demon game I ever attended. Liberto caught the pass right in front of where I was sitting, and what I remember was there was about 3 yards between
    Liberto and the guy chasing him and the gap never varied all the way to the end zone. ... Thanks for the memories.

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  5. Nico, so well written. It always brings a tear to my eye when I remember Kenny...he was so funny about the "one" pass thing...and thanks for the ink mentioning me...us linemen always like that...it is so rare.

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  6. From Bruce McMellon, Vestavia Hills, Ala.: Special thanks for this one, Nico. I didn’t get my voice back for a week!


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  7. From Bud Dean: As I remember it, and I stayed for the entire game, we were on the west side that game. It was the most amazing play I have witnessed (I also saw LSU’s 1958 goalline stand against Ole Miss, and Bert Jones to Brad Davis in 1972, among others).... Great article.


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  8. From Jim Pruett: Fun to remember that one... I subscribe to your "Bradshaw's best pass" theory; it did happen in State Fair Stadium. Wonder what Bradshaw thinks? Really, only those of us who experienced State Fair weekend could possibly understand why Tech-Northwestern and that annual game was a big deal to us. No TV. No significant hype outside the Shreveport area. Just a big game that happened every year ... for a time. Thanks, Nico. Enjoyed it.

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  9. From Beverly C. Porche: I was in the stands on the Northwestern side; I will always remember seeing that pass. Thanks, Nico, for this great memory.

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  10. From Herman Garner: Nicely done, as always. I was there that night. Incredible play.
    From Rick Harrelson: That was a great night.

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  11. From Harlan Alexander: Enjoyed the game and knew my 'bride' was a keeper when she let me hang her Cora Lou Robinson print in my office!

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  12. From Robert Steckel: Remember it well, reading it in the papers in Lafayette. That Southwestern victory against Tech that year (28-24) gave USL fans something to hang onto over the years in an otherwise lopsided series favoring Tech: We could say we beat Bradshaw *once*. (If I remember right he took some really hard licks and had to leave the game two or three times. All were delivered, cleanly, by a DB named Dwight Sevin, a very tough hombre from New Roads.) The next year Terry barely broke a sweat and they beat hell out of us in Ruston.

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  13. From Jack Thigpen, Ruston: Jack Thigpen, Ruston: Great blog on “The Pass and Catch.” I was in the Army stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., at that time, but my future wife was at the game with her dad and has told me all about it on several occasions. One interesting bit of information that I learned in your blog was about Dick Concilio. I coached at Parkway 1979–81 and Dick was on the football staff at Parkway. I really liked Dick and we got along great. I did not know that Dick played in that game, much less had the last shot at Terry. I wish I had known then; I would have liked to have heard his recollection of that play and game. Another member of the football staff and my assistant was Kenny Kruithof, who would become the superintendent of Bossier Parish Schools. He also played football at Northwestern but not sure if he played in that game.
    What a shame that we do not have the State Fair Game any longer. As a youngster I would always go with my parents to the Fair and game. During high school a lot of the guys and girls would ride a school bus to the Fair and the game. It was really a big deal. Several buses would leave the high school parking lot early Saturday morning and return after the game. All the guys would try to pair up with a girl during the day and them sit by them on the way back home -- cuddling in the dark of the bus. A lot of boy and girl friends were made on those buses. The younger generation of students do not know what they are missing not having the rivalries' like we had then.

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  14. From Stan Tiner: One of my greatest memories of Louisiana Tech athletics history. The "Bomber"was phenomenal.

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  15. From Butch Williams: Thanks Nico,the linemen are not mentiond very often and it really brings back a lot of great memories.It is sad however that Ken Liberto,Tommy Spinks,and Larry Brewer(Terry's primary receivers)have all passed away. They were not only great football players but also outstanding individuals.

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  16. From Dick Concilio: Great job on the '68 State Fair Game story. At least Ken recognized that we were in the wrong defense. My zone was 15 yards deep, but everybody and their grandmother knew that Bradshaw was going deep. We were in a zone coverage with five short and two deep safeties. Should have had a couple of safeties hanging on the goalpost. Oh, well, a nightmare I've had to live with for some 44 years thanks to you and others.

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  17. From Glenn Theis: Nico, thanks for the great memories. Because Tech was the host for this game and because of being in the FCA, I got to give the invocation for that game. I had a blind date for that game who never smiled. Friends who sat with us said the only time they saw her smile was while I went to the press box to give the invocation. We stayed to the very end and got to see that fantastic play! When we left to walk to my car, we passed lots of people already in their cars in line to leave the parking lot. It was so much fun describing in detail about the great play they had missed and how the game ended. There were a lot of people who thought I was making it up. My date still never smiled. But I sure did!!! Thanks again for the memories.

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  18. From Jim McLain: Good piece on the State Fair miracle. That's a play I'll never forget. ... What an arm Bradshaw had. With just a flick of his wrist he could throw it farther than most QBs who took a full windup. What an experience it was to be able to watch Bradshaw and Ferguson back-to-back at Woodlawn. It was indeed freaky to have two QBs that good follow one another.

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