Jack Carlisle: So many stories . . .
You will see on the front page of this website and on the “news and updates” page where the Hall of Fame will be holding a first annual Roast on Oct. 16. The first honoree — or victim — is legendary coach Jack Carlisle, Happy Jack to his legion of admirers. Folks, we are going to have some fun with this and we’re going to make some money to make some badly needed improvements here at the museum.
For those who may not know about Happy Jack, here’s a column I wrote about him years ago for The Clarion-Ledger:
You coach football for 50 years, mostly in Mississippi, you see some stuff. Jack Carlisle, retired and living in Brandon, has seen plenty.
This is really his column. These are his stories. I’ll do the typing. We start with Carlisle’s first coaching job at Lula-Rich High School, north of Clarksdale. This was in 1954 and tiny Lula-Rich had only 14 players.
One night they were playing at Oakland High, south of Batesville. There was no money for a bus — and with 14 players and a manager — no bus was necessary. The team made the trip in five separate cars.
“Well, it got to be 8 o’clock, gametime, and one of the cars hadn’t made it,” Carlisle says. “Turns out, it broke down on some backwater road in the Delta. It was carrying the left side of my line.”
Carlisle was down to 11 players and the manager, a kid named Harris. Carlisle asked Harris to dress out. Harris said they’d have to ask his mom. So Carlisle asked the mother, whom he knew as Miss Polly, a science teacher. Miss Polly wasn’t keen on the idea, but she reluctantly agreed.
Sure enough, Carlisle’s best player got hurt and was carried off the field.
“So I tell my manager to go in the game and just stand off to the side and stay out of the way,” Carlisle says. “I didn’t want Miss Polly on me if the boy got hurt.”
First play: Lula-Rich was on defense and the smallish manager, draped in a uniform several sizes too large, stood 40 yards down the field. You’ve heard of the lonesome end? Harris was a lonesome safety. Of course, an Oakland runner broke through the line and barreled down the field with blockers ahead of him. One of those blockers took dead aim at Harris and knocked him head over heels into next week.
“Here came Miss Polly down to the sidelines,” Carlisle says. “She grabbed her boy, took him to the car, and home they went. His career lasted one play.”
Years and years later, Jack Carlisle saw the manager’s photo in the Sunday newspaper. Thomas Harris had just written Silence of the Lambs. Thomas Harris, Miss Polly’s son, is the creator of Hanibal Lecter.
“I had no idea he would become a writer,” Carlisle says, “but I knew he was a little bit different.”
We move ahead now to 1971. Carlisle has just moved from public schools powerhouse Murrah to Jackson Prep, taking a few of his best players with him.
News spread quickly through the academy ranks. Teams began to find all sorts of excuses of why they couldn’t play Prep.
“I only had nine games, but I finally found a team in in England, Ark., that would come play us if we would pay them $1,500 and expenses,” Carlisle says. “Heck, I was desperate.”
The Arkansans showed up with 15 players, 15 little bitty players. It was like the Packers vs. Millsaps.
Carlisle played his first team for the first quarter only, but it was 45-0 at half.
Prep came back out for the second half. The other team didn’t. The referee delivered the news to Carlisle: “Coach, they say they ain’t playing no more.”
Carlisle went to the visitors dressing room. The coach told Carlisle his players refused to play. Carlisle asked if he could talk to them. The coach shrugged.
So Carlisle challenged their manhood. He asked them if they had no pride. He promised he would play only his fourth team. “Are you Arkansas men scared of some itty bitty Mississippi boys?” Carlisle challenged.
Finally, one boy stood. “I ain’t scared,” he said. Others followed.
Final score: Prep 66, England Academy 0.
“I might be the only coach to ever give a pep talk to the opposition,” Carlisle says.
And surely the only one to ever coach Thomas Harris.