Life didn’t end after high school for the distinguished gentlemen comprising the Class of 2017 of the Texas High School Football Hall of Fame. All went on to grand achievements after graduation, including a litany of further gridiron accolades.
But high school is were it all began, and Saturday’s induction ceremony provided a trip in Marty McFly’s DeLorean, back in time to those glory years.
“I’ve been going down memory lane a few times,” said Lovie Smith, a standout defensive star for Big Sandy in the 1970s. “They’re all good memories. I’ve been in football for a while now, and my time at Big Sandy, that run that we had, a lot of positive memories come back from that, for sure.”
Talk about hard-hitting talent – a joint tackle by Smith, Temple Dunbar’s “Mean” Joe Greene and Rockport-Fulton’s Dat Nguyen could have left a man in traction for the rest of his days. In addition to those stalwarts, the rest of the Hall of Fame class included Lufkin’s Reggie McNeal, San Antonio Holmes’ Johnny Walker, coaches Steve Lineweaver of Euless Trinity and Eddy Peach of Arlington Lamar, former Converse Judson athletic director Frank Arnold, and McKinney’s Tommy Joe Crutcher, who was enshrined posthumously.
Granted, not all of the inductees’ memories from those high school days were happy ones.
“Let me tell you right here, this two guys I’m sitting next to, both of them beat my butt,” said Lineweaver, referring to Lufkin’s McNeal and Arlington Lamar’s Peach. “But they still love me. I was thinking, ‘What in the world am I doing in here? I can’t beat nobody.’”
Lineweaver laughed, but he wasn’t kidding. One of his toughest losses coincided with one of McNeal’s most epic victories. McNeal rallied Lufkin from a 20-0 halftime deficit against Trinity in the 2001 state semifinals, withstanding both an injury and a driving rainstorm to carry his team to a comeback victory. He threw for 171 yards, ran for 181, accounted for all four of his team’s touchdowns and contributed the game-sealing interception on defense.
“That had to have been one of my best memories, being in the rainstorm, being down 20-0 at halftime,” McNeal said.
Lineweaver interjected, “Reggie said, ‘I’m fixing to take over.’ And he did.”
The victories and championships and records accumulated by the nine men in the Class of 2017 class are documented in tens of thousands of Google search hits. Yet almost to a man, when they received the call about making the Hall of Fame, the general reaction was that of, “Who, me?”
“I didn’t believe it when they first called me,” said McNeal, who went on to quarterback Texas A&M after high school. “When I got the initial call, I didn’t believe it, then after I got the second and third, I was thinking, ‘All right, this is really legit.’ It’s a great honor. The class that we have, I don’t know that it gets any better than this. It’s great talent every time you have it, but we have a great class, from the coaches to the players.”
Walker expressed a similar sentiment. He excelled as an all-state receiver at Holmes in the 1980s before moving on to the University of Texas, distinguishing himself as a versatile enough athlete that he was selected in both the NFL and Major League Baseball Drafts.
And yet he was a little surprised anyone even remembered.
“I was very excited. I was actually kind of shocked. Johnny who?” Walker said. “The drink (Johnnie Walker whiskey) is real familiar. It was a great honor. I loved to hear it, and I’m glad to be here.”
Nguyen, whose parents fled Vietnam when he was an infant and settled on the Texas Gulf Coast, made headlines at every level of football. With the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, the linebacker made the all-rookie and all-pro teams. At Texas A&M, he garnered three all-Big 12 awards and won the Chuck Bednarik Trophy in 1998. He’ll actually join the College Football Hall of Fame later this year, in December.
But it all began at Rockport-Fulton, where Nguyen said he truly first fell in love with the game.
“As a young kid, 15, 16 and 17, playing the game of football, you’re just out there playing have a good time,” Nguyen said. “To be recognized for what you did during that time is very rewarding and very humbling. As we all know, the other high school coaches and players and teammates give you a chance to be where you’re at and represent them.”