Friday, May 12, 2017

Celeste was the sweetest in our 'sweet spot'

      The day before Celeste Williams passed from this earth, I talked to my forever coach/philosopher/friend, and he wistfully remembered one of the "sweet spots" in our lives.
      "There are only a few times in life when we find that sweet spot," he said. "When you do, you need to cherish it."
      For me, the real sweet spot -- always -- is Bea and our kids, Jason and Rachel, and their families.
      Coach was referencing work situations, thinking back to the 1960s and Woodlawn High School, and all of us who were there will agree those were sweet days to cherish.
      That was a long time ago and, as I went into the work world -- mostly in the world of newspapers -- there were vestiges of sweet spots in several places.
      But the sweetest spot for me was the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, home for the last 10 years of a sportswriting career. It not only gave me a home, it gave me a work family. (The closest before that was the Shreveport Journal.)
      And, really, I mostly have Celeste Williams to thank for it. She was the sweetest part.
      In short, she -- and some others -- saved my career.
      By doing that, she also saved us from financial hardship. Who knows what would have happened late in 2002 if I had not been at the Star-Telegram?
       She was the head of our "family," our sports department, the managing editor for sports (and later features). She had the job for 19 years ... until this week.
      Cancer took her from us Monday night at age 56. Only a few people knew what she dealt with, health-wise, the past year and a half; she was a private person, until the end never one to call attention to herself.
         She was one of the kindest, unselfish, most charitable, well-rounded, interesting people I've known. All class.
         She was a fighter for her department, for her people. She told management -- and people complaining about a newspaper story or item -- how it was. She was honest, but she was fair and so darned compassionate.
         I am writing this for those who never had the privilege of knowing Celeste and, better yet, working with her.
         Because those of us who did, at the Star-Telegram and far beyond (she was well-traveled until this became her home), already know this.
          She was so beloved and respected. We were loyal because she was loyal. We had a department full of high achievers and standards, just as Celeste wanted.
         Facebook has been filled with tributes to her, beginning shortly after the news became public early Tuesday morning. Believe me, literally hundreds of people feel the same gratitude for her that Bea and I do.
         The obituary, by Jeff Caplan in the Star-Telegram, was as beautiful, as touching, as any obit I've read. The link is at the bottom of this piece. You should read it.
         In my decade at the paper, we might have had as many as 150 people working in sports in some role (I'm not kidding; when I arrived in December 2001, we were "fat" in personnel).
         The great majority of those people wrote posts, or notes, on Facebook to explain how Celeste impacted their careers and their lives. Many were very well-written; these were coming from talented journalists, after all.
         That talent, put together in large part by Celeste, produced a sports section that for at least seven years was among the best in the country. Damn right I'm bragging.
         It was a tough week. When I first saw the news on Facebook early Tuesday, we were getting ready to go to the downtown YMCA for a yoga class. And we went ... after I got through sobbing.
         Cannot tell you how many times I teared up reading Facebook, or choked up talking to friends on the phone.
         But with those tears came smiles, seeing the many beautiful photos of Celeste posted all week, always with her own dazzling smile.  
         The best moment -- more tears -- might have been Wednesday night when the Texas Rangers had a pregame moment of silence in Celeste's memory, and posted her photo -- with longtime partner David Martindale -- on the video boards.
          Gosh, that was wonderful.
          Late in 2001, I was job-hunting (again), ready to leave Knoxville. I had a Star-Telegram connection, from the Shreveport Journal days, and maybe that helped. 
          Celeste was the latest in a long line to come to my rescue, and I had no history with her.
          We traded e-mails, and she didn't have any fulltime openings but she invited me to come for a visit -- and a tryout -- if I was in the area.
          I did have another job opportunity at the small paper in Marshall, Texas, and a chance for a golf-magazine job in Orlando. So I went to Shreveport to visit the folks and interviewed in Marshall, where I was offered a job (not in sports).
          Then I came to Fort Worth, met Celeste and the assistant sports editors, and on the night of Oct. 5, 2001, my "tryout" became memorable.
         It was the night before the Texas-Oklahoma football game -- the Red River Rivalry -- and the night that Barry Bonds hit his 71st home run of the 2001 baseball season, breaking Mark McGwire's single-season record. The Star-Telegram sports department had planned a special section if that happened ... and, in the first inning, the plan went into effect.
         Wow. What a massive effort that night. I'd never seen such an operation -- so many people in one department (copy editors, designers, writers), so many sports pages (with zoned high school pages and the Bonds special section, it must have been 35 pages), so many stories to work.
         Vince Langford, one of the very best copy editors I worked with in 45 years and eventually one of my best friends at the S-T, was assigning the stories. Because I work fairly fast, he kept piling them on. Think I worked 16 stories that shift.
         (Because it was so much work, people in the department thought it would scare me away. Michele Machado laughingly has told me they agreed "he won't be back." They did not know how badly I needed -- and wanted -- the job.)
         I must have made a good impression because Celeste soon offered me a chance to come to Fort Worth on a "contract" basis (40 hours a week, good pay, but no benefits).
         I told Bea "this is a great place, a helluva department" and this was my choice, not Marshall. She had trepidation about the pace of the Metroplex, but Jason was living and working in Dallas, and we would be close enough to drive over and help out my parents, who were getting older.
         When I started -- Dec. 21 -- Celeste promised me that "as soon as we get a fulltime opening, we'll give you the job." It took only two weeks.
         It turned out to be crucial, especially the benefits.  Because a few months later, Bea -- who had been having bouts of severe illness -- was found to have colon cancer. After an operation and chemo, she -- thank God -- made it through. There was a recurrence four years later, but pinpoint radiation worked perfectly, and here she is 15 years later.
         What if we had not had health insurance?
         So that was one Celeste favor, among many. That April, 2002, we had tickets to go to the Masters. Many bosses would have said, no you can't do that because you are new here. Not Celeste; she was fine with it. Just as she told me to take all the time I needed after my parents' deaths.
         And here is a typical Celeste story. She was an avid reader -- one of her many, many interests. She would give Bea and me books (she oversaw the paper's book page and reviews) and she always wanted to know about our book-club meetings. Once she came to the apartments to join in. This will surprise no one at the S-T: She brought food and treats to share with the group.
        I was fortunate to be part of some very good sports staff with supportive management at The Honolulu Advertiser in 1980-81, Shreveport Journal in 1982-87, and Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville) in 1988-93. Much fun and good people -- good friends -- in each place, and much to like, too, at the Knoxville News Sentinel (1995-2001).
        All sweet spots to an extent, but not like here in Fort Worth. This was a big-league operation -- more resources, more people -- and Celeste was a big-league sports editor and leader.

        I had as many friends here at this paper as any place I've been, except maybe Woodlawn High. The work was challenging, but so much fun. And this was home, the right place to finish a career.
        My role for a decade was sports copy editor, plus on college football Saturdays and NFL Sundays, I was a writer, compiler of the national roundups. So I had a few bylines.
        Celeste at times asked my opinion about stories and writers. She had a mostly open door, so we'd visit briefly before and during many shifts. Had to go in for my candy fix -- one Celeste trademark was she kept a large stash of candy in her office, and many indulged. Too many miniature Mr. Goodbars and Tootsie Roll Pops for me.
        As she did with a lot of people, we had gentle conversations about the paper and life.
        She could be fierce, though, (profane even) about complaining callers, especially people from area college or pro teams. She and I talked politics a lot; again, she could be outspoken, but we Demos agreed on almost everything. She would be appalled these days.
        She must have known how intense a worker I could be, how loud and -- uh -- brash, that flying words and objects were a distinct possibility. She, and everyone, knew I also would keep things light and crazy. I don't miss working; I do miss the fun and the laughter.
        I was admonished a few times for my outlandishness. But the only time Celeste scolded me -- mildly -- concerned a college/NFL story. It was no big deal.
        I am so grateful to so many people in that department. But it started with Celeste.

        The good times at the S-T began ending, and the section suffered, when layoffs began in April 2008. Not sure how many sets of layoffs there have been since, but I know that each time Celeste was more upset than the people who were leaving.
        The department of about 125 at one time -- including parttimers -- is down to about 25.
        In recent years, when I made a few visits to the office, Celeste was resigned to the changing business, but still intent on having her staff produce the best it could. She never gave up or gave in.
        I was fortunate that, at age 63, when my layoff time came in May 2011, I didn't mind. I was nearly ready to step aside anyway.
        Still, I asked Celeste about maybe working parttime. She said she could not rehire me until the turn of the year, "but in January, if you want a parttime job, you've got one."
        Because I wanted to cover high school football that fall, I was fortunate that The Dallas Morning News would give me that chance. Then, The Morning News also wanted me to work parttime on the sports desk. Fine. Driving to Dallas 2-3 times a week was ... well, OK.
         Then the Rangers made the World Series and one week I worked six days. 
         The DMN sports section long has been one of the country's best, and the people there are real pros, could not have been nicer to me. But it wasn't "home." And that drive to Dallas ...
          In early January, I called Celeste and she -- again -- fulfilled her promise. I went back to the Star-Telegram for another year of parttime work and, in the fall, high school football coverage. Loved it, and in late December, I'd had enough. That was the end of my career. Sweet.

         Typical of Celeste, she did not want a funeral service. Instead David and her sister are planning a party in the next couple of weeks. Because Celeste loved being host for a party or being part of one.
          A significant number of Star-Telegram people had a gathering in honor of Celeste last Tuesday night at Bobby V's, a restaurant/sports bar in Arlington. I expect the formal party will require a bigger room. 
         Back to the sweets. That healthy -- well, unhealthy -- supply of candy in her office, and my chocolate fetish likely led to that extra five pounds I've had for years (but, hey, it was an extra 25 for a while). Let's blame Celeste.
         Plus, all that pizza and chicken -- and all those birthday cakes -- she had brought in for us on "big event" nights or special-section duty ... or whatever. I don't think those were in the S-T budget; I suspect they were from the personal Celeste budget.
         The deaths of so many friends, it seems, affects us more and more as we get older. This one really hurt.
         It has been so gratifying to see the tremendous response by Celeste's friends, especially the Star-Telegram family. She was our sweet spot.
         As so many have in the past week, I say "thank you" to my boss, but better yet, our dear friend. We were so blessed she was there for us, and we cherish what she gave us.

Bossier High memories (cont.) ... and bearkatsforever

    (Fifth in a series)
    More Bossier High School memories:
    Pesky Hill -- A basketball/baseball athlete in the Class of 1968, he became a sportswriter/sports information director and is now a medical sales representative living in Shreveport, working parttime writing sports for The Times.
     "I earned the nickname "Pesky" from an older brother and cousin when I was 7. I could have been given it by my Dad because I pestered him constantly to take me to games, mostly at Bossier High. I loved the Bearkats and dreamed of playing for them.
      "I remember going to the old Bossier gym in 1960 (I was 10) and sitting on the floor beneath the west end basket during the state championship game. There was even a photo in The Shreveport Times the next day. I was sitting on the floor of a packed gym in an action shot of the game.
       "Cecil Upshaw and all the starters were heroes of mine. I also would go to Walbrook Park and other venues to see Cecil pitch in the summer.
       "In the summer of 1967, my parents moved from the Central Park subdivision to Sun City, near the new Parkway High School. The Bossier Parish School Board gave me the option of staying at BHS or becoming part of Parkway's first senior class. It was not a decision. I wanted to stay at Bossier with my friends where I knew we would be competitive in basketball and baseball.
     "We were a very solid if not great basketball team in 1967-68. Bill Tynes (6-foot-2) was our leading scorer at forward with an excellent fallaway jumper. Dave Stevens (5-10), who held the state record for most free throws in a playoff game, was an excellent point guard. Mike Wood (6-4) was just an all-around fine athlete; he signed a football scholarship to play as a tight end/defensive back. Bill Triplett (6-2) was a solid rebounder and took up plenty of space under the boards. Then there was me. I was solid defensively, but I knew we won or lost through Tynes, Stevens and Wood. I was honored when they voted me a co-captain.
     "We finished second to Byrd in District 1-AAA, but advanced to the state finals before losing to undefeated Baton Rouge High (Little Apple Sanders).
    "I could not believe the support of the entire student body all season for the games and especially during our run to the Top Twenty in Alexandria. Rapides Parish Coliseum was packed for the state championship game. It seemed all of Bossier City was there. I was so disappointed we could not bring the trophy back to BHS. But it was a highlight of my prep career.
     "My best sports was baseball. I did lead the Bearkats in hitting (.383), total bases, RBI, runs, doubles and hits. ... We lost a couple of district games before basketball season was over. Tynes, Jack Fraser and I were still playing basketball, so that probably cost us from winning district.
     "We all loved playing for T.K. Henry. He was the best. I played on a national junior college championship team at Panola and Coach Henry was by far the best coach I had at any level. I just hated we could not win him a championship.
     "The teachers at BHS really cared about students. Of course, I was partial to the coaches because we had some real characters. Among the ones I cherished, other than Henry, were Thomas Mitchell, Earl Haynes, Bill Collinsworth, Roy Underwood, Billy Hudson, Jerry Burton, Jim Coleman and Lowell Morrison.
    "My favorite teachers who did not coach were Carol Ezernack and Mrs. Hudson, both English teachers and huge sports fans.
     "And Frank Lampkin, a former coach himself, was our principal. He supported athletics, so I liked him, too. His wife was a much bigger sports fan than he was. God bless them all.
     "Did I mention the girls? I thought the girls that were seniors when I was a freshman were the most beautiful ever. Wow! I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
      "It really is a great school and I was humbled when they inducted me into the BHS Athletics Hall of Fame a couple of years ago. Just really blessed to have been a part of BHS."
     Billy Don Maples -- A football/baseball athlete, a college baseball player (second base) at Louisiana Tech, he went to  crosstown rival Airline High as a football assistant and head baseball coach. Retired, he remains a Bossier City resident.
      "I remember playing high school and summer baseball with Cecil Upshaw, Robert Clifton, and Kenny Young. All later played professional baseball, with Cecil making it to the big leagues.
      "Our championship high school band.

      "Trying every Friday to pass English teacher Mrs. Ruby Tatum's vocabulary exam.
      "The fall of 1961, my senior year, playing in the football game vs. Woodlawn High School at State Fair Stadium. Packed crowd. It was for the district championship, and we lost 12-7. Got my chin busted open by future Louisiana Tech great Wayne Davis.
      "The spring of my sophomore year (I was about 5-foot-7, 125 pounds) playing baseball at Fair Park against one of those great Fair Park teams. I led off facing a tall left-hander, Sammy Ladatto (who later played professionally). He walked me. Big Sam Wilkinson was playing first base. When I got to first, Sam said, 'Nice eye, half-pint.'
     "Remembering John McConathy as assistant principal and basketball coach. A few years later, when I returned to Bossier Parish to teach and coach, he became a mentor until his recent death."

     The group most responsible for the 100th anniversary celebration of Bossier High School this Saturday is the school's alumni association.
     It also is responsible for the school's Hall of Fame, and information on it can be found on its web site,
     A 2014 story for the Bossier Press-Tribune written by Buzz Wojecki -- another ex-Bearkats football player (Class of '66) and one of the alumni group organizers -- explained that the Hall of Fame has three sections: (1) Lifetime Achievement (for alumni, faculty and honorary Bearkats); (2) Sports and Spirit (players, coaches, bands, cheerleaders, etc.); (3) Legion of Honor (for Bearkats who died in military service). 
      Many great Bearkats in those Halls. I'm sure many will be talked about Saturday.
      Worth noting that the master of ceremonies for Saturday afternoon's celebration will be Rick Rowe, who has done poignant features on North Louisiana people and topics for KTBS-TV (Channel 3) for four decades. His slight build now belies that before his TV days he was a tough little nose guard -- one of football's demanding positions -- for the Bossier Bearkats.
        Another tough nose guard for Bossier in the early 1970s, an All-City player, was D.C. Machen. He would become superintendent of Bossier Parish schools.
         Rowe and Machen were successors at nose guard to an All-State player, Kenny Craft (1970).

         For decades, it has been a fairly common practice in Bossier Parish schools that coaches move into school or parish administrations.
         An example is Bossier High principals who were once coaches. The list -- not a complete one, I'm sure -- includes E.L. Reding (1933-36, 1949-52), Frank Lampkin (1956-80), Freddy Shewmake (1982-85), Wayne Tinsley (1985-91), Richard Concilio (1991-97), Wayne Earp (2002-03), Bud Dean (2001-06) and David Thrash (2006-present). 
       Thrash is proud of many additions in academic programs, including mentoring for standardized tests (a "Win Wednesday" endeavor), to help students prepare for college or, with the help of community businesses, give the non-college students a route to find work.
      The alumni group has helped in those programs and with physical aspects at the school, such as lighting, painting, artificial turf for the football field, and auditorium improvements.
       "As the winds of change swirl around us with the revitalization of downtown Bossier, we look forward to the many changes to come," Thrash added. 
       "Our future is strong and we could not be more excited about the opportunities ahead."
        Forward, forward, Bossier High School.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

A proud legacy: Bossier High football

(Fourth in a series)
     It has been nearly 70 years since Bossier High School truly was a football powerhouse, but the Bearkats play on.
     There is a history of success -- 36 state playoff appearances, 19 district championships, two state titles and  one near-miss, hundreds of players who went on to college football, and a few who made it in the pros.
     Plus, coaches who stayed for a decade or two.
     Today's kids probably have no idea -- unless told -- that Bossier ruled the state in 1942 and 1948 (Class A) and arguably the best Bearkats team of all, 1950, was an unlucky runner-up.
     Those of us who are "baby boomers" most remember Bill Maxwell's 10 years as head coach (1954-63), which produced some tough and talented Bossier teams, winning records in all but one year, and district titles in 1955 and '59.
     Success has come in bunches since then; four times (1975-76, 1985-86, 1999-2000, 2011-12) the Bearkats won district titles consecutively, each under a different head coach -- Jim Coleman, Dick Concilio, Billy Don McHalffey and current coach Michael Concilio (Dick's son).
     Things are more difficult these days with a smaller enrollment and, thus, fewer players. But as has been the case since the recorded beginnings of Bossier football -- 1926 -- pride remains in wearing the kelly green and white uniforms.
     And who knows? Some day there might another player such as Gene "Red" Knight or Joe Reding or Tony Moss representing Bossier football.
    We cannot do justice, nor do we have the space, to list all the outstanding players in Bossier football history, not even all the All-State selections. But just a sampling ...    
     Let's start with running backs. Obviously, I was not around when "Red" Knight played, or when Tony Montalbano and Don Millen teamed up in the 1950 Bossier backfield, and I wasn't yet a fan when future Bossier Parish district attorney/judge Henry Brown was the Bearkats' star back in 1958.  
     But I remember Neal Prather and Joe Reding in the early 1960s, and Hal Fulghum, Charlie Lewis and Jimmy Blackshire in the early to mid-1970s, and then Tony Moss in the early 1980s.
     My opinion: Tony Moss was the most sensational Bearkat, period, the most exciting. (If someone wants to correct me or update me to cover the 30 years since I left Shreveport-Bossier, please do so.)
     But Knight in 1942 was the star back of head coach Ben Cameron's team that completed a 12-0 season with a state-championship victory (27-12 against DeQuincy).
Gene "Red" Knight, at LSU
      Knight went on to be LSU's star back and punter during and right after the World War II years. He played in the famed LSU-Arkansas "Ice Bowl" (New Year's Day 1947) on a snow-covered Cotton Bowl field in Dallas, a 0-0 tie in which LSU had 15 first downs and Arkansas one, and LSU failed to score on three drives inside the Arkansas 10.
      Knight was drafted -- in consecutive years, no less -- by NFL teams.
      The "golden era" of Bossier football came at the end of the 1940s. The 1948 team, with Loy Camp as head coach and Randel Kirkland as his assistant, won the state championship with a 9-2-1 record, beating Reserve 21-0 in the final game.
      Many of those athletes, coached by Kirkland, were responsible for Bossier winning three consecutive state track and field titles (1949-51).
       The 1950 football team scored 522 points, nearly 35 a game -- astounding for that era -- and won 13 games. Montalbano and Millen were a fabulous 1-2 running punch, scoring 159 and 154 points, respectively.
       (Millen would become a longtime Bossier High assistant coach, head track coach, and then football head coach for four years -- 1987-90.)
       But those 'Kats faltered twice, losing 13-7 to Haynesville and, after three playoff victories, the state championship game to Baker 7-6 -- a bad-luck game. Baker's only points came when Bossier's QB, back to pass, lost his grip and a Baker defender picked up the ball and ran it in.
       For much of the 1950s and early 1960s, the Bill Maxwell coaching era had a stable set of assistant coaches -- Chuck Birtman, Billy Hudson, Bobby Ray McHalffey and, for a short time, Joe Murry. 
       All-State players included guard Rupert Procell (1956-57), Brown ('58), tackle Robbie Hucklebridge (1959) and Prather ('63). 
       Other stars were running back J.W. Slack (1955),  lineman Richard Enis (1958), the Reding brothers -- Dick at end (Bossier senior season,1961), Joe at linebacker/offensive tackle and then fullback (senior, 1963), kicker-end Wayne Walker (1961), and tight end Robert Hamlett (1964).
       Slack and Enis went on to star at Louisiana Tech; Dick Reding and Walker at Northwestern State; and Brown, Hucklebridge, Joe Reding and Hamlett became LSU Tigers.
       Nealan Prather -- later Dr. Neal, an internal medicine specialist in Bossier -- and Joe Reding made for a talented pair at Bossier High in the 1961-63 seasons. Both had matured early physically -- the joke about Prather was that he was 16 but looked 25 -- and had been sensational even in junior high (Prather at new Greenacres, Reding at old Rusheon).
      They were impactful even as sophomores at Bossier, but despite consecutive records of 8-3, 9-2 and 7-3-1, the Bossier teams they led fell short of the playoffs.
       One memorable Bearkats player of the late 1960s was the madman linebacker, Joe McNeely. He was a good high school, a rough character willing to fight (ask Airline High people). And he improved as a college player, leading several outstanding Louisiana Tech teams in the early 1970s, earning some All-America honors ... and enhancing his reputation as a wild-and-crazy guy. 
       Randy Walker (senior season, 1969) followed his brother as a standout punter for Bossier and Northwestern State. Both Walkers were drafted by pro teams and played for a year or two -- Wayne in the American Football League, Randy with the Green Bay Packers (NFL).  
       But the best Bossier kicker -- punter and placekicker -- was Jerry Pope (1970-72), who went on to set records at Louisiana Tech. He also was a star on the powerful Bearkats baseball teams in 1971-73.
       So were Don Smith, an All-State linebacker in 1972, and Bill Bowman, quarterback of the '72 football team which, with John Thompson as head coach, went 9-0 in district and 11-2 overall, losing in the Class 3A state semifinals.
       Three years later, with longtime assistant Jim Coleman moving up to head coach, the Bearkats went unbeaten again in district (6-0), 10-2 overall and had a 1-2 punch to equal Montalbano-Millen.
       Charlie Lewis, at tailback, was fast and powerful; Jimmy Blackshire, at fullback, was a brute and an even better linebacker. Both made All-State and then played at Louisiana Tech.
       They were helped by tackle John Watson, who made All-State in 1976 when Bossier repeated as district champ.
       In 1980, Mark Bass was an All-State linebacker who went on to play at LSU.
First with Bossier High, then at LSU, Tony Moss
was a sensational player.
       Tony Moss wasn't big by football standards, 5-foot-8, maybe 160 pounds, but it was his elusiveness -- he could sidestep would-be tacklers or spin away from them -- that set him apart.
        Unlike the previously mentioned pairs of backs, Moss was practically a one-man team, a real threat on kick returns, and Bossier tried to get the ball to him nearly every offensive play because he was so dynamic.
      In 1982-84, he ran for more than 3,000 yards as a Bearkat. A star in other sports, too, he was the Shreveport Journal High School Athlete of the Year in 1984-85.
      Maybe, as offenses opened up, formations spread, and smaller backs become more a trend, he could have played running back in college. But at LSU, he became a wide receiver -- and a two-time All-SEC selection. By the time he finished, he was the third-leading receiver in school history (132 catches, 2,196 yards, 16 touchdowns).
      Billy Don McHalffey, who had been a football and basketball player at Bossier High in the late 1960s into 1970, became head football coach in 1991 after 15 years as an assistant.
      The Bearkats made the state playoffs each year of McHalffey's 16-year head coaching tenure -- the best seasons were a 10-1 record in 1999 and 10-2 in 2001 -- and three times won at least two playoff games.
      Michael Concilio succeeded McHalffey, starting with the 2007 season, and the best of his nine years as head coach was 2011 (10-2 record).
      Winning has become more problematic the past few years. But the Bearkats will keep trying, keep competing. It is tradition.
      For some of the great names and teams in Bossier City history through 1982, here is a link to a Shreveport Journal story written for a special section that year.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

"The Jolly Green Giants" and basketball glory

(Third in a series)
      You almost always knew that Bossier High School's athletic teams would be competitive. The Bearkats were rarely a pushover.
      One of the legacies of the 100-year-old school is success in athletics, and so many outstanding athletes that we don't have space to list all that many.
      There have been state championship teams in football (two) and boys track and field (three in a row) and some heartbreaking near-misses in baseball, and success in wrestling and perhaps other sports, but boys basketball is the centerpiece of Bossier High athletics.
In 2016, another basketball state championship
for the Bossier Bearkats.
      Why? Three state championships and five runner-up finishes. And it is a current story.
      Chris White coached the Bearkats to a Class AA runner-up spot in 2005. Then in seven of the past eight years under coach Jeremiah Williams, the Bearkats have played in the state tournament (until expansion, it was known as the Top 28). And that includes four state-championship games. 
      Count 'em up: 2009 -- Class 4A runner-up; 2011 -- Class 4A champions; 2012 -- Class 3A runner-up; 2016 -- Class 4A champions.
      Williams' 2011 team had a 33-2 record and was led by guard Jalan West, who has gone on to a terrific college career -- despite injuries -- at Northwestern State. (He's still there, just awarded an unprecedented injury-waiver seventh year by the NCAA.)
      Two years ago, the Bearkats were piddling along with a 14-9 record. Then they won 13 of their last 14 games -- the last three by a total of six points -- and they claimed the big trophy ... again.
      In 10 seasons, Williams' teams have won eight district championships and have a record of 296-67, and West is one of a dozen Williams-coached Bossier players to play college basketball.
Frank Lampkin: coach, principal
      The late Frank Lampkin and John "Hound" McConathy would be proud. They paved the way.
      Anyone familiar with Bossier High over the past 70 years knows those names.
      Before he was the quiet, dignified and steady school principal for 24 years -- more than double anyone else's tenure -- Lampkin was the Bearkats' basketball coach. His 1949 team was the school's first title contender, the Class 1A runner-up to Many.
      McConathy, a college basketball star and brief early years NBA player, was his successor in 1956 and had a powerful program. A few years before he came the respected superintendent of Bossier Parish schools, his Bearkats struck basketball gold.
      In 1959-60, Bossier won the Class AAA state championship with a 41-4 record -- the last year before the state tournament began in Shreveport.
      That well-rounded Bearkats team was led by a 6-foot-6 stringbean, Cecil Upshaw. I will tell you now that of all the  Bossier High athletes, he was my personal favorite. Read on.
      The often-told story is that McConathy -- nicknamed "The Hound" -- insisted that the state championship game with always powerful DeLaSalle (New Orleans) be played in the old Bossier High gymnasium, a "bandbox" that, crammed, could hold maybe 600 people.
      When it was suggested to McConathy that the game could be moved to, say, Hirsch Youth Center, to accommodate a much bigger crowd, he said he had waited a long time for his team to play for a state title, and he wasn't giving up homecourt advantage.
       Bossier won 39-35. We haven't forgotten.
John McConathy, coach, and George
Nattin Jr., player (later coach)
 McConathy's best player before Upshaw was a flashy guard, George Nattin Jr., son of the longtime Bossier City mayor. Nattin Jr. would go on to star for LSU's basketball teams in the late 1950s/early 1960s and, just after graduation, succeeded McConathy as the Bossier coach.
      Nattin's first Bearkats team, 1962-63, was part of "The Big Three" with Byrd and Fair Park, and Bossier's only losses came to those two rivals. It was the year of "The Big Three," and each of them could have won the state title. But Bossier finished third in the district and missed the playoffs.
      With Bill Collinsworth as coach, a big Bossier team -- earning a nickname that stuck for years on all Bearkats teams, "The Jolly Green Giants" -- won a district title in 1964-65. Then Collinsworth's 1967-68 team, second in its district, made a surprising late-season run
all the way to the Class AAA state championship game, only to lose to Al "Apple" Sanders (future LSU star) and Baton Rouge High.
      Bossier continued to have strong teams for the next 3 1/2 decades through a succession of good coaches, but after Williams took over, the 'Kats finally returned to the state tournament in 2005. And now it's a mini-dynasty.

      Here is why Upshaw is my favorite: Of all the Bossier High athletes, he became -- unless someone suggests differently -- the best-known and most successful at the pro level.
      OK, I'm partial because I got to know him a little bit -- wrote about him a few times -- and watched him play basketball and baseball, although a few years after he graduated from Bossier High.
       Although his roots were in Spearsville, La., where he showed early promise as an athlete (especially in baseball), he moved to Bossier near his high school years ... and the Bearkats, and eventually Centenary College, benefitted greatly.

       He was a heckuva good shooter, a star scorer on a couple of strong Centenary teams that often played major competition in the early 1960s.
      But he was an even better baseball pitcher (and a darned good hitter in college and semipro ball). Baseball was his route to the pros.
       He became a relief pitcher in the minor leagues -- with a wicked submarine delivery, tall and thin (his college nickname was "Stick") and especially difficult for right-handed batters -- and he was a star for the Atlanta Braves, his best year for a division champion in 1969 and again in 1971 (after he almost cut off his right ring finger in a freak accident early in the 1970 season).
        His baseball career and life ended too soon, but he always had his fans, starting in Shreveport-Bossier.
    Last season, Bossier was host for its 77th annual Bossier Invitational Basketball Tournament, which dates the event to at least 1940.  
     That is a lot of basketball. At Bossier, it really is a tradition.
     Next: Football memories

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Bossier High memories ...

(Second in a series)
     With the 100th anniversary celebration coming up Saturday, memories of Bossier High School from some with ties to the school:
      Ken Kruithof -- He went from student and quarterback, to coach and teacher, to middle-school principal, and then to superintendent of Bossier Parish schools (and later Calvary Baptist).
      "I entered Bossier High School in the fall of 1963 as a skinny, scared sophomore.  I went out for football, and our head coach was Bill Maxwell.  We had nine players who signed Division I scholarships after the season; players such as Joe Reding and Neal Prather, who both signed with LSU.  We were 7-3 and did not make the playoffs.  
      "We had Billy Hudson as head coach for our junior year, and Milford Andrews our senior year. Jimmy Gilbert would have been our starting quarterback, but his Dad became head coach at Bastrop after our junior year. Jimmy signed with LSU after his senior year, and as luck would have it, I became the starter at QB. 
      "We beat Bastrop 20-19 our senior year, which ended a dismal 2-9. I was fortunate to set state records for pass attempts and completions for really two reasons: (1) We were behind most of the time and (2) I called the plays.
      "After college, I came back to Bossier Parish as a teacher/coach at Parkway in 1970. One of the highlights of my coaching career was finally beating Bossier High. 
      "I had several career goals: head coach at Bossier, and principal at Parkway, which I never achieved. In 2000, after the School Board ran out of candidates, I was selected as superintendent, and served until June 30, 2009.
      "One of the memories I have of Bossier High is how the students and faculty rallied around me after my mother and sister were killed in an auto accident December 3, 1963, during my sophomore year. The support they provided greatly helped me through a difficult time.
      "I'll always be grateful for Bossier High, and the opportunities I have experienced.  Proud to be a "BEARKAT."
      Tommy Henry -- Teacher and coach (offensive backs in football, highly successful head baseball coach) and then commissioner of the Louisiana High School Athletic Association for 24 years.
       "After a two-year stint in the Army and just as I was set to complete work on my master's degree, I applied for a teaching and coaching position in Bossier Parish. The only position open was at Bossier High School and I was invited to make a site visit to the school.
       "The minute I walked into that building I knew that was where I wanted to start my career in high school education.  I felt just like I was at 'home' as I did at Bolton High School in Alexandria.  I attended Bolton from eighth grade for five years through graduation and dearly loved that school.
       "So I fell in love with Bossier High from that moment and that love lasted for 12 special years as a teacher and coach in the home of the Bearkats.
       "It turned out that our principal, Frank Lampkin, was also an Alexandria boy and grew up two houses from where I lived.
       "Those 12 years I spent at Bossier provided me with probably the best years of my life.
       "I can never remember dreading to go to teach there one single day during those 12 special blessed years that were so gratifying and rewarding in so many intangible ways -- even on the day after our baseball team lost a state championship game to Minden.  
       "Bossier High was blessed with not only a wonderful principal, but also with outstanding teachers, coaches and staff members -- and with such a variety of wonderful students. 
        "That's why even today I hold so many wonderful memories of my days at Bossier High School deep in my mind, heart and soul."
        Joe Reding -- His father, E.L. Reding, was Bossier High's football coach in the late 1920s and twice principal of the school (1933-36, 1949-52) and the school gymnasium is named for him. Dick Reding, two years older than Joe, was a three-sport standout at Bossier, then excellent in football and the shot put at Northwestern State. Joe was a three-year All-City football player at Bossier (1961-63), a linebacker and fullback, a superstar shot putter, and a starting offensive lineman for LSU in the late 1960s.
        "BHS has always been a very special place to me. I grew up in the shadows of the school, across from the old swimming pool at one end of Bearkat Drive.
        "When I was just 5-6 years old, during the summer I would get up and head to the railyards and the Gym Dandy scrap yard on the backside of the school property. This is where I played all morning.
        "I remember staring at the football stadium, dreaming that one day I would play there. My heroes were the BHS football players of the 1950s. This is where it all started for me.
         "From there many memories and friends (far too many to mention). I remember things good and bad. The highlight was probably winning three straight state shot put titles and being the first in Louisiana to exceed 60 feet. The low point was not being able to figure out why we could not beat Woodlawn in the final football game each season.
         "Two special relationships. The first was coach Bobby Ray McHalffey. After my father passed away, he became a father figure to me and when I later entered the coaching ranks, he was my friend, coach and mentor. I will be forever grateful and cherish the memories.
         "The second was a cute little blonde named Karen, who I dated, later married, and remain so after 52 wonderful years.
         "Yes, indeed, BHS was a very special place for me."
         Bill Tynes (Class of '68) -- star of the Bossier basketball team that reached the Class AAA state championship game, later head basketball coach at Haughton High School.
         "I have many fond memories of Bossier High School:
         "My freshman year while practicing football, I broke my collarbone. Coach Jim Coleman took me to the hospital, where he met my sister, Jimmie Ruth, and a year and a half later, they were married. They've now been married for 51 years. Pretty neat.
         "Then there was the time I was chased down the hall by Mrs. Hudson while riding my little brother's bicycle on the last day of school of my junior year. I thought I would be suspended the first three days of my senior year. Luckily, summer vacation sometimes makes people forget. Thank the Lord for that.
          "Then there was basketball. The Jolly Green Giants. My senior year we were fortunate enough to play for the state championship. The starting five were Dave Stevens, Pesky Hill, Mike Wood, Bill Triplett and myself.  Of the starting five,  only myself and Pesky are left. Dave, Mike and Bill were  called to their Heavenly Reward much too soon.
         "Spirit breakfasts -- what fun! Getting to start our day before school in the cafeteria with a pep rally for that 'most important' football game. Many times our band, The Madhatters (Mike Price, Bobby Kolb, Phil Sage, Mike Theodos and myself), would provide the music. Great times.
       "Last, and most important, I met my future wife Bonnie at Bossier when she moved there our senior year. We've been married for 46 years. So, in a sense, I have Bossier High to thank for my family, many friends, events and memories that will always be with me. Go Bearkats!"
        Billy Don McHalffey -- Long family ties to the school. His father, Bobby Ray, was a Bossier High QB and later an assistant coach, then became head coach at Ferriday and a very successful 15-year tenure at Haughton High: 106-60-2 record, including the Class 3A state championship in 1977. Billy Don, first a Bossier student/player and later an assistant coach, is the longest-serving (16 years) head coach in school history, with three district titles, playoff teams every year and a 108-76 record.
        "My grandmother (Mom's mother) was on the 1925 basketball team, and my Mom (Billye) played in 1947-48 and 1949-50.
        "My Dad had four brothers and a sister who all went to Bossier. Elmo, the oldest brother, was an outstanding player in 1931. Billy Joe (I was named for him) played in the mid-1940s and coach Randol Kirkland told me he returned a kickoff 75 yards for a touchdown but ran about 200 yards as he cut back and forth across the field at least four times. Coach said it was the longest return he ever saw.
        "My Dad was the quarterback for the last [Bossier] state championship team in football in 1948.
        "I was a 1970 graduate and played football and basketball.
        "My Mom worked at BHS [in the school office] for 30 years and I came back in 1976 and coached 31 years. It was a helluva ride, with big wins and crushing defeats.
        "My family does have a lot of years with BHS and we all loved our time there. A book could be written about my years at BHS.
        "One of the best compliments for our football program came from [Byrd, then Northwood coach] Jerry Burton about our kids. He always said he hated playing Bossier because no matter the record, the week after our game, he always had a beat-up team for his next game. He said he admired the toughness and how hard our kids played every game.
       "That speaks to the type of kids we coached at Bossier. I really appreciated what he said. It was something I will remember coming from a coach I highly respected.
       "I was very lucky to have had a playoff team in all 16 years as the head coach. I had a great staff and some really good players; all the things you need to win."

Monday, May 8, 2017

"Forward, forward, Bossier High School"

     The title of this blog piece is the fifth line of the school alma mater, and it is fitting. Bossier High School is about to complete its 100th year.
     Congratulations to all the Bearkats. This week -- OK, a corny line here -- we are all Bearkats.
Bossier High School: a place to appreciate (photo from Wikipedia)
     When I think of Bossier, I quickly think of Charles "Buddy" Roemer, who went from Bearkats' tennis player to U.S. Representative and then Louisiana governor, and of little Tim Dement, U.S. Olympic boxer in 1972, and of the football stars -- Gene "Red" Knight, Robbie Hucklebridge, Henry Brown, Neal Prather, Dick and Joe Reding, Charlie Lewis and Jimmy Blackshire, Tony Moss -- and in basketball, George Nattin Jr. and Cecil Upshaw, and I could list dozens more.
     Those of us who grew up in the area -- no matter which school we attended -- can take pride in the Bossier High's history and what is has contributed to the Shreveport-Bossier community ... and far beyond.
     If you love old schools and are in some ways an "old school" person, Bossier High is a fit.
     It is the oldest existing public high school in Shreveport-Bossier City, founded in 1917. Byrd High opened in 1926, Fair Park in 1928. 
     (But a couple of qualifiers: The predecessors to Byrd were two pre-1900 schools in downtown Shreveport, and then Shreveport High School, on Hope Street, opened in 1910. And what is now Loyola College Prep, the Catholic-based school that was once St. John's and then Jesuit, had its beginnings in 1902.)
     This Saturday, Bossier High's 100th anniversary will be celebrated -- first with an open house (10 a.m.-noon) at the school and then an event, a fundraiser, at the Bossier Civic Center from 3 to 6 p.m.
      The school address is 777 Bearkat Drive (what else?).
      It is an easy trip from Shreveport, just a couple of blocks after crossing the Red River bridges, right near old downtown Bossier (what there was of it). If you are on Interstate-20, you can get a glimpse of the main building (if you know where to look).
      For 4 1/2 decades, Bossier was the only white public high school in Bossier. It was, as you might expect with Barksdale Air Force Base so dominant in the city, heavily populated with Air Force "brats" -- pardon the term.
      Another term, and I hope Bossier High partisans will forgive me, was "River Rats." That was the often-used term of endearment (not!) from Bossier opponents, mostly those of us in Shreveport.
      (Hey, I loved the "River Rats." We knew it was a well-run school, no question. The kids were cool. But it was foreign territory, across the river.)
      Things began to change for Bossier High when Airline, in the northeast part of the city, opened in the fall of 1964. In 1969, Parkway -- in south Bossier -- began transitioning from a junior high to a high school. And then in 1970, the students from Charlotte Mitchell -- the city's only all-black high school located only a few blocks from Bossier -- were integrated into the previously all-white schools.
       These days, population shifts have made Bossier High the fourth-largest high school in the parish, behind Airline, Parkway and fast-growing Benton (north up Highway 3). It has been three decades since Bossier was in the top classification, enrollment-wise, in Louisiana.
       But the Bearkats remain a proud entity.
David Thrash, principal
David Thrash is in his 11th year as the school principal, and he said that when he arrived in the fall of 2006, "Bossier High was in need of a major overhaul. I truly believe God sent me here.
       "The things I have enjoyed the most are helping students and families, and supporting my teachers," and he credits the assistant principals for their contributions.

      The projected enrollment numbers for next year are 603 students in grades 10-12, plus 166 ninth-graders. For competition in athletics, those are sparse numbers. But Thrash considers the whole picture.

      "What best defines Bossier High is our family atmosphere," he said. "Many of our students come from homes where they receive very little academic support and our teachers are always there for these kids no matter the need.
      "It is the relationships that matter most to us. When the relationships are in place, students will learn and succeed."
      Bossier High moving forward.
     Learning and succeeding has been happening at Bossier High for ages. A Bossier High graduate, one of my longtime friends, suggested I write on the blog about the school in relation to the 100th anniversary.
     So I asked some of those with Bossier High ties to contribute their memories and appreciation of the school. We'll publish those the next couple of days.
      First, some facts, and personal memories.
      From the time I was a high school sophomore involved in athletics through my time as a sportswriter (and sports fan) in the area, it was always fun to visit the Bossier High campus.
      It was just across the Red River bridges, just a block or two from old downtown Bossier (what there was of it) and a short way off Interstate-20 (once it opened in the early 1960s). An easy trip. You can get a glimpse of the main school building if you are on I-20.
      Whether visiting in the school office or more often going for football at Memorial Stadium, basketball at E.L. Reding Gym, baseball a few miles away at Walbrook Park (at the Bossier recreation complex), or a track meet on campus, it was a good place to be.
        The memories are -- mostly -- fond ones. Read on.
        About the school itself ...      
       Since 2005, Bossier High has had an active alumni association, which has helped financially with school projects, established a school Hall of Fame, and has a web site, from which we took these facts (so thank you, ...
       · The first Bossier High School was located on Traffic Street in the building that is now Bossier Elementary.
       · The mascot and emblem, the Bearkat, was chosen in 1926, a year after the selection of the school colors (kelly green and white).
       · The new school, constructed from 1938 to 1940, was placed on a historic site -- Fort Smith, a Civil War-era fort.
       A link to the history:
       · The alma mater was written in 1938 by student Robert D. Young.
       · The school newspaper, Bear Facts, was begun in 1939. The yearbook, Les Memoires, was started in 1945. The student council began in 1947
       · In 1959, a terrazzo Bearkat was placed in the center of the mail hall of the school. Tradition is that no one is to step on that Bearkat. (Fair Park has a similar tradition with the logo in its lobby.)
       · A school flag was designed in 1962 -- a kelly green field bearing a Bearkat embracing the qualities of Truth, Honor and Wisdom embossed on a white background.
       · A standardized class ring was designed in 1965 and first worn by the seniors of 1966.
       Personal memories:
       When we were in high school, I remember that Bossier had a terrific, disciplined band, and it seemed to me that -- just the observation of a young man -- that Bossier High had the best looking girls in the area. (I know you're laughing.)
       I was awed by the new E.L. Reding Gym, but then I also was awed by all the fairly new gyms in Shreveport.
       I had heard of Nattin and Upshaw -- Bossier's big basketball stars of the late 1950s into 1960. Until a few years later and hours of research, I knew very little about Bossier's football history and its tradition. 
       Bossier was where I covered my first high school football game as a fulltime sportswriter for The Shreveport Times in September 1969, a rainy night and an upset: Minden 6, Bossier 0. Minden had struggled for a few years; Bossier was supposed to win. The Minden coach, Billy Roach, was elated; the Bossier coach, Milford Andrews, not much of a media-friendly guy anyway, was a very tough quote that night.
       Three years later, 1972, was the closest I ever came to being dumped into the showers after a game. Bossier had a very good team (eventually, a state semifinalist) and it won a game in which I had picked the other team (I forget who) to win (I never liked doing the predictions). The Bossier players got riled up afterward when I went to the dressing room for interviews. Bossier head coach John Thompson heard the commotion, came to the rescue and admonished his kids, and my notes (and I) stayed dry.
       Always loved covering the Bossier Invitational Tournament in basketball. It was early January; people had finally stopped thinking about football; the competition was usually fierce; and the Bossier folks had the best hospitality room. Free eats.
       One of the most amazing stories I covered in all my time in Shreveport-Bossier: Bossier High baseball, 1971-75, but especially 1972-73.
       Coach Tommy Henry -- later commissioner of the Louisiana High School Athletic Association for 24 years -- had a dynasty: five district titles in a row, 74 consecutive district victories, 66 consecutive regular-season victories and, after that streak was snapped, a 20-0 start in 1975.
       And this ...
       Two consecutive Bossier teams, unbeaten going into the state championship game, suffered stunning losses.
       In 1972, it was a 3-0 loss to Minden -- a team the Bearkats had beaten three times -- and what's worse, Minden junior Ronald Martin, on his home mound, pitched a no-hitter against what had been a powerful Bossier offense. In 1973, it was a 7-5 loss to Morgan City at Walbrook Park. Go figure.
       Next: The memories