Humble Freeze get his reward
Paul Letlow, Special to the American Press
EDITOR’S NOTE: Third in a series of stories about the eight inductees to be enshrined in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Saturday in Natchitoches.
What does it take to kick off a high school football dynasty?
For Louisiana coaching legend Mackie Freeze, the answer was a $300 budget, an assortment of hand-medown equipment — and a unique brand of tough love that molded the willing into warriors.
“I taught them about intestinal fortitude and the will to win,” the former Richwood High School coach said. “That old never-say-die attitude is what you have to teach kids. You teach them that if anybody can do it, you can too if you try hard enough. Don’t give up. Ever.”
Now decades after coaching his last game in 1967, Freeze was selected for induction into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. Freeze, who becomes the oldest living person inducted at age 94, will enter the hall Saturday during the 2020 induction celebration in Natchitoches which was postponed last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Better late than never,” Freeze said.
The late Mary Frances Goins hired the former Grambling State baseball star to start an athletics program at the old Terzia High School south of Monroe in 1954. Principal Goins challenged Freeze to mold something that would enhance the student experience at the rural north Louisiana school. He was tasked to perform with a tiny budget, but a grassroots effort brought donated shoulder pads, shoes, pants and jerseys from area high schools and the local college program.
“We had some good people around and they knew what was going on when I got there,” said Freeze, who began his coaching career at Montgomery High School. “There were some people around Richwood who were working around town and they started talking. They knew these coaches. When they found I was having problems, the coach at West Monroe sent for me. The coach at Neville and the coach at Northeast (now Louisiana-Monroe) sent for me. When I got through, I had enough to play the whole year.”
The school at Terzia burned in 1960, forcing the move to the new Richwood High, but Freeze was up to any challenge. He molded the hardscrabble young men he found in abundance at Richwood and delivered more than Goins or anyone else could have expected.
“We had to borrow equipment,” said Perry Thomas, a quarterback on the team from 1964-67. “Sometimes we had on mismatched cleats, not the same shoe or same size shoe. We played in whatever we had, but we always won. He said, ‘It’s within you. You will yourself to win.’”
Over the next 13 years, Freeze produced a 116-23 record (.834) and fielded teams that won 56 straight games on the field while claiming four consecutive state titles from 1961-64. More than 65 of Freeze’s former players earned college scholarships and 11 were drafted or signed professional football contracts. Freeze never coached a losing season.
“I had a bunch of extraordinarily good people,” Freeze said. “Really and truly, I had some boys who were smart kids. Most of them were honor roll students. I had a quarterback who was the valedictorian. You can’t beat stuff like that.”
Before he became a coaching legend, Freeze enjoyed a noteworthy baseball career at Grambling. As a pitcher, he helped Grambling win its first national NAIA title under the late coach R.W.E. “Prez” Jones. Freeze never lost a game on the mound and even subbed as a guard on the football team under the great Eddie Robinson. The Brooklyn Dodgers signed Freeze out of college, where he participated in training camp with Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese and Roy Campanella.
“My father was a baseball player,” said Freeze, who graduated from Grambling in 1950 with a degree in elementary education. “The material he showed me sitting on the porch one day put me in camp with Jackie Robinson. He sat me down and taught me to throw a curveball, a screwball and a sinker with a tennis ball. When I went to Grambling, I was demonstrating (pitching) and Coach Prez asked me what I played. I said I was a second baseman and he hit one or two out there to me. He said he’d heard I could make a ball curve. I threw the ball and he said, “Mackie, you’re a pitcher.’ Prez was something.”
He was primarily a basketball player in high school and had never seen a football game until he reached Grambling. Robinson liked his potential and invited him to join the team.
“Coach Rob saw me out catching passes one day and asked me who I was,” Freeze said. “He said he’d heard about me. He’d heard I was a basketball player but he told me I was a football player.”
Freeze spent a couple of years in the military after pro baseball didn’t pan out. Given his chance to coach, Freeze molded winners and pioneers. Louisiana Sports Hall of Famer Joe Profit (Class of 1999) became the first Black football player at a predominantly white college in Louisiana when he enrolled at the former Northeast Louisiana State College (ULM) in 1967.
“Coach Freeze taught us not to complain,” said Profit, a Richwood running back. “We used to get hand-me down uniforms. Coach said we’d take these and win with them. He was so grateful that we were able to get them, because we couldn’t afford to buy any uniforms. He taught us humility.”
Freeze developed other notable pros including Don Zimmerman (Philadelphia), Eugene Hughes (St. Louis), Goldie Sellers (Denver/Kansas City) and Amos Augustine (Los Angeles Rams).
“A lot of leaders came through there,” the late Don Zimmerman told The (Monroe) News-Star in 2008. “If you played for Coach, you are not going to be afraid to take the bull by the horns. You want to get the job done, regardless of who gets the credit. We learned that from Coach. That equates to teamwork.”
Hard work, ingenuity and resourcefulness were hallmarks of the Freeze regime. While foes wrapped up their preparations at five or six, the lights shined bright over Richwood’s football field long after dark.
“He’d practice until eight or nine at night,” Thomas said. “Then we’d go meet those other teams and just run over them.”
Richwood didn’t have a well-stocked weight room but Freeze utilized the resistance exercises he learned in the military to strengthen his players.
Freeze’s practice of inclusion expanded his influence beyond the football roster.
“He’d find a place for everybody,” Profit said. “He’d say, ‘You may not be able to make this team. When we’d go out for football, he’d tell us that a large number of us wouldn’t make it.
“But you’ll still be around and be a Richwood Ram and be a part of what we’re doing. He instilled in us that camaraderie of teamwork.”
Future Louisiana Sports Hall of Famer Larry Wright (basketball) was a manager for the football team. Future NFL wide receiver Charles “Tank” Smith also served as a manager before finally making the varsity squad. Even Profit, a future firstround draft pick of the Atlanta Falcons, held a non-playing role until his sophomore year.
“I was the trainer and took care of the shoes,” Profit said. “They called me ‘Little Joe.’ But Coach Freeze made us all feel important.”
Competing in the all-Black Louisiana Interscholastic and Literary Organization, the Rams were state champions from 1961-64.
“Most people when they go to a championship, they pray to let them win the game,” Freeze said. “I never did do that. I never prayed to win a game or a championship. You know what I always said? If it be thy will, I’d sure like to win it.”
Still in the prime of his coaching career, Freeze made a bold move when he left the sidelines to join the Richwood administration.
“I had four kids and the coaching salary wasn’t enough to send a kid to school,” Freeze explained. “They needed someone to help and I had some good coaches. They convinced me.”
Still viewed as a mentor and a respected community leader, Freeze groomed players and students who continued to succeed when they left his program.
“He pulled the most out of us,” Thomas said. “He made us feel like we were super men.”
“He’s one of the most humble guys,” Profit added. “A combination of strength and gentleness.”
Mackie Freeze, Louisiana Hall of Fame coach