Friday, September 11, 2015

A little football player for the ages

Jesuit's Tony Papa: Unstoppable high-school running back
(photo from
       Tony Papa was a legendary football player, even when he was in elementary school.
       He was the kind of player you could root for, a little, compact guy with powerful legs who could run like heck. Few could keep up with him; those who did found him difficult to tackle. He was obviously a good athlete, from early on, and his determination made him something special.
       Before he even played a high school game and went on to play college football, he was a star.
       He was the star of Shreveport's recreational grade-school football leagues in the late 1950s and early 1960s -- the ones with weight limits (75 pounds, 90, 105, 120, etc.)
       He was a huge star in high school, too, a two-time All-State running back for Shreveport Jesuit, good enough in 1965 to be recruited by LSU and North Louisiana state schools and by Texas A&M, which is where he went as a freshman.
       A little guy -- only 5-foot-6 and 165 pounds in high school, five pounds heavier when he was a college junior. But a little guy with dynamite.
       And there he was Wednesday morning in Arlington, Texas, one of the pallbearers at the funeral of his high school coach, C.O. Brocato.
       I don't mean to slight any of the other pallbearers, but for me, it was  sentimental -- despite the occasion -- to see Tony Papa again. It's been decades. I certainly remember the sensational athlete, and the personable, friendly young man.
       He's not young anymore, of course. He's 67 now, a father of three and grandfather of seven, married for 45 years to the beautiful Carla -- and, yeah, he has less hair and some of it is even gray, and he's had heart bypass surgery.
       But he still looks young to me; he lacks the wrinkles many of us have; and, well, I'm thinking he could still run for 100 yards in a game, or 200, if someone would block for him.
       He's at his playing weight, too -- 172 ... but "my legs are shot." Football is a distant memory, but a great one.
       Making "greatest" selections is subjective, but if you list the "greatest" Jesuit players or the "greatest" running backs in North Louisiana of that era, Tony Papa is at or near the top of those lists.
       He is in two Halls of Fame for his football career -- at Loyola College Prep (the former St. John's and Jesuit) and at Northwestern State University, where he played two seasons after transferring from Texas A&M after a year.
       Also without slighting all the very talented football players Coach Brocato had at the school on Jordan Street from 1958 to 1968, I think they would agree that Tony Papa was the magic name when you talk 1960s Jesuit football.      
       I didn't need a reminder to recall Tony's career, but saw one on the obituary for Coach Brocato published in Shreveport -- a Shreveport Journal story from the 1964 season opener in which Jesuit upset Bossier 26-7 and the players gave Coach a victory ride on their shoulders.  The subhead, above the story headline: "Tony Papa gains 204 yards."
       It was his junior season, his breakout game. But his emergence wasn't a surprise. We all knew who Tony Papa was. Question was, could he do in high school -- because he was so little -- what he had done in kids' football?
Tony Papa: sixth-grade phenom
       Another reminder: Looking for photos to go with this piece, I went to the Internet and then to Jerry Byrd's book, Football Country, from 1981. On the back, there is a collage of players and coaches, and one of the photos is of a very young Tony running the ball.
       The caption for that photo: Tony Papa (14), running for 250 yards in 10 carries in 1959 sixth grade championship game, later broke city high school rushing record.
        You read that correctly: 250 yards in 10 carries.
        The Journal, in those days, had stories on SPAR (recreation) football. The Shreveport Times didn't, but SPAR athletics director Marvin "Hoot" Gibson -- a memorable character for us 1950s-60s kids -- wrote about Tony often in his "Recreation Ramblings" column in the Sunday Times sports sections.
        My joke: Tony was Peter Papa's son, and Hoot's adopted son.
        Tony the kid was only warming up playing on varsity as a Jesuit sophomore (1963 football season), but that Bossier game in 1964 was an answer to how good he could be in high school.
        The next week he ran for 244 yards. Then 133, 157, 183 and 137; he had at least 20 carries each game, 30 one game. Jesuit was 5-0-1 (a 6-6 tie with West Monroe) heading to defending Class AA state champion Minden in Week 7.
        It was a rival game and not long after kickoff, Papa was watching a long punt return after he had fielded the kick and handed off the ball on a criss-cross maneuver. He was far away, trailing the play, when out of nowhere a Minden player hit him low, wiped out his left knee, wrecked it -- and his season.
        Tony's knee needed surgery. He was on his way to a super season (1,058 yards rushing in six games (7.2 yards per carry, 176.3 yards per game). Done.
        The Minden game was a 20-20 tie. After Tony had surgery, Jesuit didn't win again -- losing by 3, and by 2, and playing a third tie that season to finish the regular season. A team that was a probable district champion was an also-ran.
         And because the Jesuit faithful felt the play in Minden was a cheap, "dirty" hit, the Flyers-Tide rivalry went from intense to off-the-charts.
        The knee rehab was difficult, but with his coach's encouragement ("he visited with me every day," Tony recalled) and that of his teammates, Papa was better than ever in 1965, his senior season, and with a much stronger supporting cast.
        It was one of Jesuit's best teams ever. Papa wasn't as productive as before, but still set the city rushing record (1,274 yards, 8.3 per carry). Plus, he was a standout defensive back.
        That Flyers team lost only once -- 6-0 late in the regular season to a Fair Park team that made the Class AAA state semifinals. But the Flyers' state championship hopes in Class AA ended with a semifinal "loss" -- on first downs (15-13), the tiebreaker then -- after a 19-19 tie at Morgan City.
        Papa was recruited by LSU ("a great thrill, everyone wanted to play for LSU," he recalled) and in fact, signed the Southeastern Conference letter-of-intent with the Tigers about the same time Terry Bradshaw did. (No national letter-of-intent then; players could sign with various conferences).
        Neither Papa nor Bradshaw wound up at LSU.
        An official visit to LSU, and the players' attitude about their coaching staff, caused concern and, besides, Jesuit quarterback Gary Kaposta was heading for Texas A&M and badgering Tony to join him there. 
        Gene Stallings was the Aggies' coach and Papa thought he was a compelling speaker -- and recruiter.
         "He said, 'LSU has got a lot of Tony Papas,' " Tony said, imitating Stallings' slow drawl. " 'We ain't got any Tony Papas.' "
         But soon A&M did, and he played for the freshman team in 1966 (freshmen didn't play varsity ball in Division I then).
         However, by the spring of 1967, A&M wasn't what he wanted. He wanted to transfer closer to home and contacted George Doherty, the assistant coach from Louisiana Tech who had recruited him in his Jesuit days. But Doherty had just been passed over for the Tech head coaching job after Joe Aillet retired, and was headed to Northwestern State as an assistant.
          He told Papa that and offered him a scholarship to NSU. After a day's deliberation, Tony accepted.
          But he didn't, couldn't, tell his father. He finished the semester at A&M, came home for the summer, and on the day he was to leave for fall football finally mustered the courage to tell his father he was going to Natchitoches, not College Station. Peter Papa wasn't happy, insisted he go back to A&M, but Tony -- an obedient son -- this time told his father -- shakily -- that he was going to make his own decision. And did so.
          Peter Papa eventually became a Demons' fan.
          After sitting out the 1967 season as a transfer, Tony was in the NSU backfield in 1968 and 1969. He wasn't the impact player he had been in high school, but good enough for Hall of Fame honors there.
          And so he played against Louisiana Tech in those seasons, and here is a story that Tech fans will appreciate.
          The 1968 State Fair Game was a classic, won by Tech 42-39 on Bradshaw's 82-yard touchdown bomb to Ken Liberto that began with 25 seconds remaining and ended at 0:13. Those who witnessed it can't forget it.
          A few seconds earlier, Tony Papa thought he had run for the first down that would have clinched a 39-35 Northwestern State victory. But an unusual penalty call against the Demons wiped it out. Fullback Richard Ware was called for "aiding the runner." 
          "The play was a power I, two backs leading and I was the 'I' back," Papa recalled. "I was carrying the ball behind Richard. Richard was flagged for aiding the runner No. 38. [But] No. 38 was in front of me, not behind, and the film proved it."
          NSU then failed to convert on 3rd-and-6, had to punt, and Tony said, "You know the rest of the story."
          We sure do. And us Tech people are thankful for the missed call.
           Tony Papa didn't only excel at football. He was an All-State baseball player, too, for Jesuit as a senior, after starting at shortstop as a freshman and then as the only sophomore on the Flyers' state championship team in 1964. Plus, he played four years of American Legion summer ball, including two city/Fourth District championship teams for Cobbs Barbecue.
     Like I said before, a sensational athlete.
     His football career ended with a spring-training concussion in 1970 and Peter Papa's advice: "You've had a great career, you're not going to play at the next level, so don't take a chance. Finish school and stay healthy."
     "My Dad was a wise man; that was the right decision," Tony reflected. 
     While NSU coach Glenn Gossett didn't want him to quit playing ("he was as nice as could be about everything," Tony said), he became a non-athlete, a regular student -- and then a graduate. And, he married Carla.
        He returned to Jesuit in the fall of 1971 as a coach on a Tony-dominated coaching staff (Sardisco head coach; Papa, Rinaudo and Catanese as new assistants).
        After a couple of years, he left coaching to help his father run the family grocery business for five years, then moved gradually into insurance sales -- and he's still at it.
        In his 1981 book, Jerry Byrd picked Papa as one of the all-time running backs in North Louisiana high school football.
        "Papa was the most explosive high school runner I've ever seen," Byrd wrote. "He would've easily broken the state record for rushing yardage in a season if a knee injury hadn't ended his [junior] season after five games. He never completely regained his quickness after surgery, although he was good enough to repeat as an All-Stater the following year. He was also a super defensive back."
           It has been 3 1/2 decades since then and that area has had many outstanding running backs. But I'd say few were as exciting, as dynamic, as Jesuit's little No. 24 in 1964-65.
           That tough little kid could run.     
              (Photos from Shreveport Journal/Football Country and SB Metro Leader -- the NSU Independence Bowl luncheon, 2014)



  1. I've known Tony since grade school. I played baseball with him all the way through high school. He was a great athlete! Always humble. A genuinely nice guy then and now!

  2. From Taylor Moore: I played against Tony in 8th grade (120-pound football, if you can imagine me at that weight) in a game between Youree/Broadmoor and St. John's at St. John's and he came up the middle and hit me harder than I remember ever being hit. He grew up next to Judy. I got to know him later after college and he is a great guy.

  3. From Robert Levy: Now you’re more in my “sweet spot.” I remember Tony well as my neighbors, the Tarpys, were Catholic and went all through those schools. In fact, where I grew up on College Lane, the houses literally were lined up Catholic, Jewish, Catholic, Jewish. Hysterical.
    Thanks for this article.

  4. From Tommy Youngblood: Nice story. I never knew about the knee. I remember Kaposta, too. Dated a Fair Park girl for a while.

  5. From Jay Cheatham: Nice piece about Tony. He and I were both teammates and competitors but always friends.

  6. From Sammy Fertitta; I have heard the story more than once that the Minden player apologized to Tony years later saying he was told to do it.

  7. From Larry Saulters: Great post. Played American Legion baseball against Tony -- Homer Bankers vs. Cobbs Barbecue. He was a great baseball player as well.

  8. From Louis Cascio: In my eyes Tony was one of the greatest high school football players in Shreveport-Bossier history and for those who know him personally, he is an even greater person and friend.

  9. From Bill Smith: He was awesome. Even though he went to another school he was something and everything I've heard he still is. A real legend. Also the guy above me [Louis Cascio] was the same. Thanks.

  10. From Adrane Reeves: I loved reading this about Tony He and Carla are great people. I am so glad I had the opportunity to be their friend and watch Tony play football at Jesuit and in college.

  11. From Doug Rimmer: In my first SPAR football game we played St, John's and Tony Papa ran circles around us. He was already a force to be reckoned with. Playing without facemasks in the 75-pound league for Cedar Grove, my brother Dannie and I actually tackled Tony one time. Dannie got a black eye from Tony's helmet on one of his scoring jaunts down the sideline. I was a fourth grader playing defensive end at 62 pounds while Tony and Dannie were 5th and 6th graders respectively back in 1958. Tony was virtually unstoppable. (Our team's order of single-bar facemasks came in after that and we finished the season with the much-needed extra protection.)
    What I remember from that great Tech vs. Northwestern State Fair game was Tony's long kickoff return when he cramped up and was caught from behind, something I never saw happen before.
    He had massive thighs and a strong will, speed and power personified.
    The '61 Flyers had Tommy Kimball with over 1,000 yards and Bucky Bovenzi scoring over 100 points, and the Jesuit state champs in '67 had [Louis] Cascio and [Danny] Yerby, but Papa was the greatest pound-for-pound running back of the bunch in my book.

  12. From Jimmy Russell: Enjoyed this. I knew he transferred to Northwestern, but surprised he is in their Hall of Fame.

  13. From Greg Falk: Thanks [to John Marshall] for posting this. As good as Tony was in football, and he was very good, I always thought he was the best baseball player I ever played with or against or watched play.

    1. From John Marshall: Thanks for your comment. Amazing how good he was in multiple sports ... probably could have been good at anything.

  14. From Larry Fertitta: He might not remember, but he coached our 9th grade basketball team in 1972-73.