American Press managing editor Bobby Dower
Last Modified: Monday, October 14, 2013 2:05 PM
They return grayer, some with noticeable limps, others with creaking hips, knees and shoulders.
Once these men, now into their seventh decade, were the toast of the town, members of the first McNeese football team to ring up a perfect season and undisputed Gulf States Conference championship in 1963.
Fifty years later, they’ll again be feted, this time as parade marshals of the university’s homecoming parade on Thursday and guests at a dinner hosted by university President Dr. Philip Williams on Friday and honored during the Cowboys’ game against FCS No.-2 ranked Sam Houston State Saturday night.
Over the next few days, backs will be slapped, memories jogged, tales told, some with a dash of exaggeration, others minus a detail or two. But this reunion reminds all of a bond of a football fraternity of brothers who once sweated and bled and strained and cursed and celebrated together through a once-in-a-generation campaign.
It was certainly a different era — before Cowboy Stadium was even built — where slot-I and straight-T offenses tried to bulldoze a 6-2 defense that never had fewer than eight men in the box. It was single bar helmets worn over crew cuts, spartan padding, substitution by 11-man units that played both offense and defense and the kind of smash-mouth slugfests that were not for the faint of heart.
How different? McNeese State College played its home games at Lake Charles High School’s Wildcat Stadium in purple and gold uniforms (the university did not switch to blue and gold until 1972).
Led by Head Coach Les DeVall, the 1963 Cowboys dominated opponents, outscoring them by an average 28.6-6.5 margin. Their defense, spearheaded by end Paul Guidry, who would go on to have a stellar career with the Buffalo Bills, and linebacker Gerald Conner, pitched two shutouts and only allowed two teams to score more than a touchdown against them.
‘‘Gerald Conner was the best linebacker in the state,’’ said second unit quarterback Richard Guillory, who has been one of the driving forces behind the team’s annual reunion. ‘‘Everybody on defense was a striker. We had two good tackles, Paul Guidry at end and Lloyd Guillot as a defensive back.’’
The offense, sparked by 6-2, 228-pound Little All-American fullback Darrell Lester and tailback Charlie Anastasio (6-0, 190) and slotback Merlin Walet (6-0, 220) hammered opponents into submission. All three had transferred to McNeese from LSU.
But these Cowboys featured depth. Guillory said the second team, nicknamed the Green Onions because they wore green jerseys in practice, ‘‘kept the starters on their toes.’’
Conner said McNeese’s ball-control offense dovetailed perfectly with its dominating defense that yielded only 52 points that year.
‘‘Today’s game has changed so much,’’ he said. ‘‘All they want to do is score and score and score. Defense and offense has to work together. You can’t run three plays and punt. That’s what happens with the spread — you either score quick or give it up quick. Both phases have to complement one another. We did that very, very well and that was probably the primary reason for our success — the team concept.
‘‘Today, teams give up 52 points in one game.’’
Guillory recalls DeVall as a coach who demanded perfection.
‘‘Everything was done the way he wanted it done,’’ he said. ‘‘You did it until you did it right.’’
Conner said the ’63 Cowboys combined great athletes who believed the team was more important than individuals. He praised DeVall and defensive coordinator Jim Clark who he said performed the roles of good cop/bad cop, respectively.
‘‘He (DeVall) was a people person,’’ said Conner. ‘‘He would listen to people if you had problems. If he had a problem with you, he’d bring you in and handle it professionally.
‘‘He wouldn’t brow-beat you. He wasn’t that type of person. He would talk to you more like a father.’’
Fittingly, USL stood in the way of perfection in Game 8 that was scheduled to be played on Nov. 23, 1963. The game was postponed until the next Tuesday, some say because the 35th president of the United States was assassinated in Dallas the day before, others because USL requested the delay after a member of its music faculty, Dr. George Barth, died in his classroom on Saturday morning.
Still John F. Kennedy’s death cast a pall over the game — that is until 8,000 mainly Red and White-clad, ‘‘Go to Hell, McNeese’’ screaming fans filled McNaspy Stadium in Lafayette looking to spoil McNeese’s dream season. After a scoreless first half, McNeese scored on its first possession of the second half. The Cowboys turned the Bulldogs back at the 7, their second goalline stand of the night after stopping USL at the 6 in the first half. But the Bulldogs (USL’s nickname before the Cajuns became Ragin’) finally broke through and tied the game at 7-all.
Late in the game, the Cowboys recovered a fumble at the USL 25. On fourth down and 5, Richard Guillory tossed a 20-yard pass to Robert Young, who stabbed the ball with one hand, then outfought a USL defensive back for possession for the touchdown with 1:20 remaining. It was only the fourth Cowboy completion of the night in a game that saw both teams throw a total of 21 passes.
‘‘He (Young) was in the corner of the end zone almost out of bounds,’’ recalls Guillory. ‘‘He reached up with one hand, slapped it and caught it. Robert wasn’t fast, but he had great hands.’’
It was the difference between perfection and what might have been.
After the game, DeVall said, ‘‘I have never been so proud of a bunch of seniors, or of a team, in my life.’’
His players return to campus five decades later, most of them retired after exemplary careers in business, education and law enforcement.
Les DeVall’s words still ring true today.
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American Press Managing Editor Bobby Dower covered McNeese athletics as the newspaper’s sports editor from 1975-1991.