It’s ironic, really. When they were young and strong they were literally protected by body armor – helmet and pads. When they had all the time in the world, they were always measuring it in 15-minute quarters.
In 1963, a year best known for the beginning of Beatlemania and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, their youth stretched out before them like a lush, green field without boundaries. They could run and catch and jump and tackle and play forever.
But then that’s always how it feels when you have no idea how fast the time will go once life gets serious about dividing your days for you: finish school, get a job, get married, have kids, have grandkids … and suddenly it’s 2013, you’re 70 years old, and you’re reuniting with your teammates from the 1963 Memphis State football team.
The 1963 University of Memphis football team that went 9-0-1 — the last Tigers team to finish a season without a loss — will be honored this weekend.
(The University of Memphis)
Yes, that team, the one that went 9-0-1 – the last Tigers team to go undefeated.
“You can’t believe how happy they all are to get to see each other,” said Billy Fletcher, who was a defensive back, kicker and backup quarterback in ’63.
To say it was a simpler time is so obvious as to be laughable. But that doesn’t make it any less true. Chuck Brooks, an All-American who played offensive and defensive end – and many players played both sides of the ball in those days – doesn’t try to tell you the players of his time could match the athleticism that now comes into our living rooms in high-definition.
“Today’s athletes are stronger, faster,” said Brooks, who is coming in from Cincinnati for festivities that will include the team being honored at Saturday’s game against Duke at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. “Were they better? I don’t know. It was different. We didn’t work (at football) year-round. We never lifted weights. It was very different. But the games were fun. Hitting people was fun.”
And, oh, how that team loved to hit people. The ’63 Tigers pitched five shutouts, including the famous 0-0 tie with No. 3-ranked Ole Miss at Crump Stadium on Sept. 21. About 15 players from the ’63 team, plus a handful of others from the ’62 and ’64 teams, will gather at a party Friday night, and there will come a point where the stories will flow.
“The older you get, the better you were,” Fletcher said. “The stories will be embellished. But that’s an awful good bunch of guys.”
This 50-year reunion was Harry Schuh’s dream. Schuh, an All-American offensive lineman, passed away last May. The day he died, Fletcher and another teammate, Herb Cummings, a center and linebacker on the ’63 team, had lunch with Schuh at the Blue Plate Café.
“He looked good. His color was perfect,” Fletcher said of the last time he saw Schuh. “(Herb) called me 10 hours later and said, `Harry died.’ I said, ‘Harry who?’”
Cummings says about 15 of the 35 to 40 players from the ’63 team have passed on. The team produced two of the five Tiger football players whose numbers are retired: Schuh, who wore No. 79, and running back Dave Casinelli, who wore No. 30, and in ’63 led the nation in rushing with 1,016 yards and captured the national scoring title. Casinelli died in a car accident in 1987.
“Harry, this reunion was basically his baby,” Fletcher said. “He knew we were getting older. Harry was the glue. He stayed in contact with everybody.”
Players such as Schuh, Casinelli, Brooks and quarterback Russ Vollmer, who passed away in 2012, were big stars. But it took everyone to make a special season.
“We all molded into one,” Brooks said.
Cummings says credit must start at the top, with coach Billy “Spook” Murphy, and his staff.
“Coach Murphy was good at recruiting kids from winning programs,” said Cummings, who played at the same Pennsylvania high school as Schuh. “I expected to win. So did everybody else. That was our deal.”
The late Harry Schuh was instrumental in making this weekend’s reunion gathering of the 1963 University of Memphis football team happen.
(The University of Memphis)
They were at their best when they beat No. 11 Mississippi State, 17-10, in what Murphy called the “toughest game ever played.”
Vollmer took the opening kickoff 79 yards to set up the Tigers’ first score. Then, in the second quarter, he returned a punt and cut toward the sideline and ran out of bounds near the Bulldogs’ bench, getting hit by a State player and falling down a Crump Stadium concrete stairwell.
His back injured, Vollmer was taken to nearby Methodist Hospital’s emergency room. Taped up by the team’s trainer and declared fit to play, he emerged from the locker room for the second half and trotted around the field to a growing cheer from the crowd. The story was complete when he led the Tigers on the winning 70-yard touchdown drive.
Boys will be boys
Bob Sherlag, a defensive back, receiver and punter, is coming in from the Chicago area for the reunion. As he talks about the 1963 season, about the triumphs on the field and the shenanigans off it, his voice becomes more animated.
He tells a story about how guys would affix lit cigarettes to cherry bombs in the dorm and drop them in a buddy’s trash can, waiting just long enough before leaving the room so the culprit wasn’t obvious.
“Nobody got hurt,” Sherlag said. “But you couldn’t hear too well for a while.”
Practices were survival of the fittest.
“The whistle didn’t mean a lot as far as ending a play,” he said.
And after practice, well, boys will be boys.
“About three or four of us guys would go over to the ladies dorm and introduce ourselves,” Sherlag said. “Sometimes we went in the front door and sometimes – the windows were low enough to the ground that we didn’t need to go through the front door.”
Those boys are now old men. Cummings looks back at the 6-2, 204-pound center/linebacker he was then and says, “I wouldn’t even get a scholarship today.”
It’s in the record books, can’t be taken away. The Tigers finished 14th in the final UPI rankings. The only reason they didn’t play in a bowl? They turned down the Sun Bowl’s invitation because they were sure an invitation from the more prestigious Gator Bowl was in the offing.
“We were proud of what did,” Sherlag, 70, said of the undefeated season. “I never heard anybody say we made a mistake (turning down the Sun Bowl).”
Fifty years later, it’s possible to even see the Sun Bowl as a risk that might not have been worth taking. They went undefeated. And long after they’re gone, their special season will stand.
Meantime, forgive them if they forget themselves for just a moment.
“You’re a step or two slower now,” Sherlag said, “but it almost feels like you can play.”