Class of impeccable credentials

By RICK CLEVELAND,

We begin today's effort concerning this weekend's induction of six new Mississippi Sports Hall of Famers (MSHOF) with a hall of fame story from 60 years ago.

Ole Miss had a football team with national championship hopes, indeed one of the greatest football teams in college football history. Those Rebels would outscore opponents by 349 to 21, despite resting their starters for the second half of most games. Richard “Possum” Price, recruited out of a Vicksburg tavern by the great Bruiser Kinard, was a key player – “the best linebacker I ever saw,” legendary Ole Miss coach John Vaught would call him. One problem: Possum smoked cigarettes – a lot of cigarettes – a serious violation of team rules. If caught, he would be suspended from the team. Ole Miss assistant coaches approached Vaught, told him they knew Price was smoking and asked what they should do.

Vaught never hesitated. “Don't catch him,” he told them. And then he asked Kinard to have a talk with Price. The conversation went like this: “Possum, are you smoking?” Kinard asked.

“Yes,” Price answered.

“Well quit,” Kinard said.

“Coach, I can’t. I have been smoking as long as I remember, I just can’t quit,” Price said.

“Well,” said Kinard, “at least try to cut back some, will you?”

•••

As seems always the case, the MSHOF's Class of 2019 is a deserving one of impeccable credentials.

You’ve got a high school football coach, Ricky Black, who has won 377 games and was selected the national coach of the year in 2017. You’ve got Mississippi State’s Rockey Felker, one of the Bulldogs greatest quarterbacks and football heroes. You’ve got Cissye Gallagher, the most accomplished amateur golfer, male or female, in the state’s history. You’ve got Wilbert Montgomery, who scored 57 touchdowns in a nine-year NFL career that earned him All-Pro honors twice and then enshrinement into the Philadelphia Eagles Hall of Fame. You’ve got Roy Oswalt, elected in his first year of eligibility, one of the most dominant pitchers of his era in Major League baseball. And, finally, you’ve got Price, whom Johnny Vaught once called “the best linebacker I ever coached or saw.”

It has been my good fortune to report on the accomplishments of all except Price, who played at Ole Miss before my time. I’ve heard enough about the man called Possum to know he should have been inducted 25 or 30 years ago. What follow are memories of each:

• Ricky Black: When Jackie Sherrill became head coach at Mississippi State, he called and said he wanted to hire the best high school coach in Mississippi and asked for three names of people he should consider. My three were Black, Mike Justice and Mac Barnes, all huge winners, widely respected. Sherrill hired Black and he stayed at State for seven seasons. If not for that, he already would have won far more than 400 high school games. He’s won in public schools and private schools, big cities and small ones. Last year, he won his sixth straight state championship at Jackson Prep. His overall record – 371-74 – is remarkable.

• Rockey Felker: Felker ran the Veer option offense as well as any quarterback. In 1974, his senior year, he led State to nine victories, led the SEC in total offense and was voted SEC Player of the Year. At age of 33 – and perhaps too soon – he was named head coach at State, taking over for Emory Bellard. He lasted five seasons but anybody who was around at the time will tell you he left the program far better, talent-wise, than he found it.  Those who remember the Veer will know that it took a lot of courage to run it. Felker told me what Bob Tyler told him when he switched to the Veer. Said Felker, “Coach told me, ‘We’re going to run the option to one side or the other and whichever way we run it, you’re going to have the ball and we’re purposely not going to block two defensive players on that side.’ I said to myself, ‘Oh boy.’”

• Cissye Gallagher: She was Cissye Meeks the first time I saw her. She was seven years old and her father, Ed, was playing in the State Am at Northwood Country Club in Meridian. Late one afternoon, Mike Taylor, 10-time winner of the State Am and future Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer, was hitting practice balls at one end of the driving range and, as usual, had drawn a crowd. Meanwhile, down at the other end of the range, Cissye started hitting shots. Every shot, she hit squarely with a slight, right-to-left draw. At least a few of us moved from watching Taylor to watching the little blonde-haired, pony-tailed girl. Flash forward to now when she has won 12 Mississippi State Amateur titles, while raising a son and three daughters and leaving professional golf to her famous husband, Jim Gallagher, Jr. She won two of those state championships while pregnant. And now two of her daughters, Mary Langdon and Kathleen, have each won two State Ams.

• Wilbert Montomery: Montgomery, a Greenville native, is already in the College Football Hall of Fame because of his exploits at Abilene Christian. As a pro, he was a Philadelphia Eagles Hall of Famer. And, so, you ask: How did the Mississippi schools let such a remarkable talent get away? The answer: Montgomery originally signed with Jackson State and arrived on campus to find a stacked running back situation that included sophomore Walter Payton. Montgomery wanted to play safety at JSU, but was moved to running back when Payton suffered a slight injury. That's why Montgomery transferred to the Texas school, which, of course, also moved him to running back where he set rushing and scoring records.

• Roy Oswalt: Now-defunct Weir High School, a perennial football power, never had a baseball program until Oswalt came along and people saw him throw the baseball. They quickly built a baseball field and the rest is history. He went from Weir, where he also played on football state championship teams, to Holmes Community College, where pro baseball scouts saw him for the first time. Drafted in the 23rd round by the Houston Astros, he quickly moved up the minor league ladder and became a three-time All-Star who compiled a 163-102 record with 20 complete games and eight shutouts. Six times, he finished in the top six in Cy Young balloting. He also won an Olympics gold medal in Sydney, Australia.

• Richard Price: Without question, Possum Price should have been inducted into the MSHOF long ago. When Price played at Carr Central High in Vicksburg he was teammates with Pro Football Hall of Famer Billy Shaw, who once told me, “I am almost ashamed that I am in the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Richard Price isn’t. He was as good as anybody I ever saw. I wanted to be like him.” Ole Miss won 29 games, lost three and tied one during Price’s three varsity seasons.

Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@mississippitoday.org) is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist.

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