Something happened two Fridays ago that I had thought would never happen. What happened was that my high school alma mater, La Vega, won its very first state high school football championship.
I was born in Waco but when my father died on Christmas Eve of 1932, after a severe coughing spell (suffering from either the flu or pneumonia, while coughing he had ruptured a major artery near his heart and bled to death), my mother moved herself, me and my baby sister to about 5 acres of land she had inherited. She had a small house built on that land with the $1,000 of insurance my father had left her and that January, and she enrolled me in La Vega Elementary School. This country was in the depths of the Great Depression.
So that’s where I grew up. Being a huge sports fan from reading what Waco sports editor Jinx Tucker wrote and hearing people talk about the Waco Tigers and how many state championships they had won, I naturally kept waiting for the La Vega Pirates to do likewise.
And I waited and waited and waited. For 82 years I have waited.
And on this past Dec. 18, watching on TV as the State Class 4A championship football game unfolded, I saw the Pirates go ahead and then fall behind, go back ahead and then fall behind again, and finally go ahead and stay ahead and defeat the favored Argyle Eagles, 33-31.
I whooped and hollered and immediately called fellow Waco resident and La Vega classmate Horner Shelton. And as it turned out, he had been watching, too.
I think the Pirates could have won it all in 1941. Coached by John Hugh Smith (formerly a star guard at Louisiana State University) and powered by a running back named Fred Sherman (Jinx Tucker called him one of the best running backs in the state; he signed with Baylor but quit school after one semester), and easing past a powerful Mart team after Sherman had faked a run and thrown a long pass to Gene Hix (if my memory isn’t failing me) for the winning touchdown.
The Pirates went on to win the regional playoff game held in Fort Worth.
But regional play was as far as UIL-sponsored small town football teams went in those days.
Incidentally, that coaching job at La Vega marked the first time John Hugh Smith had been a head coach anywhere. He made the most of it; indeed, Belton later hired him to coach the Belton Tigers. That was in the era of Richard Inman; signed with Baylor and then defected to Oklahoma.
Smith finished his career coaching a high school team in the Fort Worth area.
With the help of Horner Shelton, I think we have come up with the starting lineup of that 1941 Pirate team. The backfield featured Fred Sherman, Rip Thomason, Gene Hix and Pat Cook. The line was comprised of ends John Ed Williams and Ernest Veselka and the interior featured Lonny White, T.B. Rutherford, Bobby Carter, Horner Shelton and Levi Robertson.
And the main substitute was the very fast Stoney Cotton, who later became a standout in the sprints at Baylor.
The Pirates also came close in 1951, losing to Arlington, 7-0, in the state Class 2A championship game, and again in 2008, losing to Prosper, 17-10, in Class 3A’s ultimate game.
But those seven points proved all too elusive — until this season’s title game.
So hat’s off to La Vega, school superintendent Sharon Shields, veteran head coach Willie Williams, the Pirate football team and the entire community of Bellmead.
Honoring the champs
I have been told the school will honor the title-winning team with a banquet to be held at the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in Waco on Jan. 25 starting at 6 p.m. I certainly plan to be there.
When I first became sports editor of the Waco Tribune-Herald in late December 1953, following the sudden and highly unexpected death of my predecessor, Jinx Tucker, the first two football games I covered were state high school football championship games.
The first involved Houston Lamar and Odessa, which was played at Rice’s comparatively-new football stadium, maybe the biggest football stadium I had ever been in, with Houston Lamar winning, 33-7.
In my second game, Huntsville, featuring the play of passer-runner Joe Clements, defeated Ballinger, 40-6, in a game played in Temple.
Jinx Tucker had always covered the state championship football games, so I thought I should do the same.
And what I remember in particular about that Lamar team, other than the fact they had just defeated Waco High in the semifinals, was its quick and elusive — and ultimately rich — halfback named Walt Fondren.
He signed with Texas and when Darrell Royal took over at Texas in 1957, he quickly moved the 170-pound Fondren from halfback to quarterback.
“He’s quick as a hiccup,” Royal had said.
Clements, son of another Clements who was rather famous in UT circles in his era, also wound up playing quarterback on Royal’s first Longhorn team in 1957.
That 1957 UT football team went on to play in the Sugar Bowl, meeting Ole Miss and losing decisively, 39-7.
I got to cover that Sugar Bowl game. My wife, Reba, got to make that trip with me after having to miss out on Baylor’s trip to the Sugar Bowl after the 1956 season because she was pregnant with our first child, our daughter, Becky.
The Longhorns were not the only ones cold in the Sugar Bowl that day. That Texas-Ole Miss game was one of the coldest games I ever covered.
Fans were stuffing whatever newspapers they could find inside their jackets and coats, trying to stay warm.
In all, I have covered four Sugar Bowl games; a Peach Bowl game, involving Baylor and Clemson that was played in Atlanta; quite a few Cotton Bowl games; a Sun Bowl game; a Copper Bowl game; and maybe five or six Final Four basketball championship games, including Baylor’s first-ever national championship game that was coached by Kim Mulkey and played in Indianapolis, Ind., in 2005.
I also was fortunate to be on hand when coach Matt Knoll’s tennis team claimed the NCAA national championship in Tulsa in 2004.
But the point I started out to make was that winning a widely-watched football bowl game, a national champion basketball game or a national tennis event is special.
And so is winning a state football championship.
It was an unforgettable experience when I first became sports editor and it remains so these days. And I know the 2015 La Vega Pirates and their fans will never forget it.