Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Opening-game jitters ... and memories

       The opening game of the football season -- and I'm talking mostly high school and college -- can be a scary experience for teams and fans. I learned that a long, long time ago.
       Even if you anticipate have a very good team, or a great team, they don't just hand you victories automatically. This is why they play the games.
       At the risk of jinxing the LSU Tigers, they have lost one season-opening game in the previous 18 seasons -- 26-8 at Virginia Tech in 2002.
       But talk about some close escapes, the Tigers have had a whole string of them through the years. We'll get to that in a moment.
       Saturday night's opener with Wisconsin in Houston figures to be another close one, especially if you look at the preseason Associated Press poll, with LSU ranked No. 13 and Wisconsin No. 14.
        My other college favorite, Louisiana Tech, frankly can only hope for a close game. There might not be a bigger underdog on the opening weekend than the Bulldogs, who will visit No. 4 Oklahoma. The Sooners and their fans think they can win the national championship, and why not after last season's Sugar Bowl domination of mighty Alabama.
       For Tech, this task is not an unusual one. Few schools nationally, if any, have played more challenging season openers over the past 15 years. Here's a partial list of the teams Tech has faced, just in openers: at Tennessee, at Nebraska twice, at No. 1 Florida State, Oklahoma State (in Shreveport), No. 2 Miami (in Shreveport), at No. 10 Florida and at Auburn.
        Challenging, agreed?
        Yes, most of those are "money" games -- Tech being given a tidy sum to play them, but that's the life of a mid-major program. Other opening-game opponents for the Bulldogs included Houston (twice), North Carolina State, SMU, Mississippi State, Southern Miss and even the historic first-ever meeting with Grambling (4 miles from Tech) in Shreveport in 2010.
         And sometimes it pays off in a victory -- against Oklahoma State (39-36) in 2002 -- or an impressive showing on national TV, a 30-23 loss at Nebraska in 1998 in which Shreveport's Troy Edwards put on a receiving show unequalled in Division I history at the time (21 catches, 405 yards) and led to his winning the Fred Biletnikoff Award as college football's top receiver and being a first-round draft pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
          Good memories (OK, I had to look up the facts). But I have a bunch of opening-game memories. So let's turn on the nostalgia machine.
          Remember these are my memories, so it's a lot of Woodlawn High and Louisiana Tech and LSU and the Dallas Cowboys, and from my journalism career. Bear with me.
This is not a quarterback pose, but this
guy was the winning QB in the first
 game of my high school days, but --
unfortunately -- not for my team. Three
years later he was a QB for my college's
team; I was the statistician.
         Here's where I learned not to take season openers for granted -- my sophomore year at Woodlawn (1962), my first game as a team manager. We played North Caddo at State Fair Stadium, and we should have won. We didn't.
          We were going to have a darned good team; many of the players were back from the year before when Woodlawn -- surprisingly, in its second year -- won the district championship ("The Team Named Desire"). North Caddo, meanwhile, had only a so-so program.
           But that late September night, it rained -- hard. And after we drove a long way for a touchdown on our first possession, we never scored again. We lost four fumbles, a botched punt try was blocked and rolled out of the end zone to give North Caddo a safety, and we completed three passes all night.
          On the first play of the second half, we fumbled the ball away at our 13-yard line. North Caddo soon scored the winning TD, on a 5-yard run by its quarterback, Phil Robertson. You might have heard of him.
           We would lose only one other game in a 9-2 season, a tough 10-0 game with arch-rival Byrd, which would go on to play in the state championship game. North Caddo had no business beating us.
            But that was a lesson for our team -- and for me. Do not assume victory.
            It wasn't much easier the next season opener, at North Caddo. But we worked hard for a 13-0 victory. The best quarterback in that game was not their guy, Mr. Robertson; it was our guy, Trey Prather. Trey was an All-State QB a year later; the future Duck Commander, no matter what you might read in his bio, was not ever All-State. But he was All-North Caddo.
            In my senior year, our opener against North Caddo was a 47-0 breeze; Gerald Burnett ran 70-something yards for a touchdown on our first play from scrimmage. But the next year, in Terry Bradshaw's first start as Woodlawn quarterback, the team won 59-0 at North Caddo. Woodlawn went on to the state championship game; North Caddo, I think, did not win a game.
            The best opener in Woodlawn's glorious football decade of the 1960s, though, was in 1968 against a big, strong LaGrange team in Lake Charles. LaGrange jumped ahead 21-6 in the middle of the second quarter. Then Joe Ferguson started hitting passes like he could do, and the 34-21 comeback victory was the first of a 14-0 state-championship season.
          Phil Robertson was one of the QBs in the first football game of my high school days, and he was one of the QBs in the first football game of my college days -- at Louisiana Tech, in September 1965.
           He played in that game, as a second-stringer to Billy Laird for our Tech team, which at that point was playing its most significant opener perhaps since Coach Joe Aillet's second and third years of his 26-year tenure at Tech, 1940 and 1941, when his teams opened at LSU.   
           The game at Rice had a "big time" feel in Rice's then-magnificent 70,000-seat stadium, which within a decade would be host for a Super Bowl. OK, so only an estimated 22,000 showed for our game with Rice, which had as legendary a coach (Jess Neely) as Coach Aillet was at Tech.
            Again, it rained, significantly, and while Tech was a decided underdog, our team played well. But we were a passing team, and the rain hurt us more than Rice. We lost 14-0, but felt we could've won in better conditions. Truth is, Rice had an awful season -- 2-8 -- and, funny thing, its only victory was against then-mighty Texas, two years removed from a national championship.
             One of Rice's touchdowns was due to a punt return by Chuck Latourette, who went on to play five years in the NFL with the St. Louis Cardinals.                  
             The game meant a lot to me -- my first as the Tech statistician/student sports information assistant.
              But the most memorable opener of my Tech days was in 1968, a trip I didn't make and a game I didn't see -- a 20-13 victory at Mississippi State when our junior quarterback was sensational, as he would be often in the next two seasons. Yes, Terry Bradshaw. And that victory felt big-time, too -- Tech's first against an SEC school since Coach Aillet's 1946 team had upset Ole Miss (whose QB was Rebels legend/future NFL star Charlie Conerly).
               (Next: My LSU opening-game memories)


  1. From Cayce Hand (Woodlawn All-State DE, 1968): Yes, Joe and company lit up the skies and wore their DBs out the second half (vs. LaGrange). Glad I never had to play against Joe and his great receivers in a game. I had to cover them at practice and it was frustrating, to say the least.

  2. From Raleigh Whitehead: I remember going to that North Caddo game (1962) and the Rice game (1965). My freshman year at Tech, I roomed with Johnny Prudhomme, who I think also played quarterback at North Caddo. I got to know about a half dozen of those former NC players and even roomed with another one at Tech. They were mostly "known" for drinking Wild Turkey whiskey and then throwing up all over everything. What a bunch of misfits.
    I went to the Rice game with a carload of Woodlawn folks in an old station wagon driven by David McCallum's older brother. I didn't tell my mom that I was going or she would have probably shamed me into not going. We all pitched in for gas and got back to Ruston just before dawn. Those were the days when my body could take being up all night and sleep all day!

  3. From Chuck Baker: You made one mistake. This sentence: "Then Joe Ferguson started hitting passes like he could do" should have read, "Then Joe Ferguson started hitting passes like ONLY he could do."