Jackson’s loss is Oxford’s gain. Mike Dennis, one of the greatest running backs in Mississippi high school football history, has retired from his Jackson dental practice and moved to Oxford.
Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer Jack Carlisle, who coached high school and college football for 60 years, coached Dennis at Murrah High.
“I never coached a back who had all the attributes Mike Dennis had,” Carlisle said. “He had such size and strength, mixed with such speed. He would play hurt. He loved to compete. My goodness, how he loved to compete. And he was a great teammate.”
“I never coached a back with all the attributes…” and that coming from a man who coached more than 60 years in both high school and college football.
Mike Dennis was the old Big Eight Conference’s Player of the Year in 1961 and then went on to Ole Miss where he was All-SEC for two seasons under Coach John Vaught. He played for the 1963 SEC Championship team. He was co-captain, leading rusher and leading scorer of the 1965 Rebels who beat Auburn in the Liberty Bowl.
“He didn’t run around anybody,” says Murrah teammate Grady McCool. “Mike just ran over them. Not that he couldn’t have run around them; he had sprinter’s speed at 200 pounds, which was huge for a back back then.”
Judge Rhesa Barksdale was a manager of that Murrah team and still in awe of some of Dennis’s feats.
“He was a sprint champion in track at 200 pounds,” Barksdale said. “And people forget what a great receiver he was. We were down 17-14 to Central his senior year and Mike caught a 70-yard touchdown at the end to win the game.”
Carlisle remembers the recruiting battle that ensued over Dennis his senior year.
“Everybody, and I mean everybody, wanted Mike Dennis,” Carlisle said. “Bear Bryant really wanted him at Alabama. We couldn’t hardly practice from all the college coaches watching on the sidelines. It was a circus.”
Bryant wanted Dennis so badly, he sent his son, Paul, Jr., over to spend a couple weeks with Dennis the summer before his senior season. When Dennis visited Bama, he stayed at Bear Bryant’s house.
This was back when there were no scholarship limits.
Bryant wanted Dennis so badly, he offered scholarships to two of his teammates, including Dennis’s best friend, McCool, who was a very good but under-sized player, not recruited by anyone else.
I once asked Mike Dennis if it was hard for him to turn Bear Bryant down.
“You can’t imagine,” he replied.
But Dennis loved Ole Miss, and Carlisle was good friends with the legendary Bruiser Kinard, who was recruiting Dennis for Ole Miss.
“I guess it’s OK to tell this story now,” Carlisle said. “The day before signing day every school was sending people to Murrah to visit Dennis. Bruiser said, ‘We gotta get him outta here.’”
So, Bruiser Kinard got Dennis out of school, took him to the King Edward Hotel where they rented a room on the top floor. And there they stayed until midnight that evening. At 12:01 a.m., National Signing Day, Mike Dennis signed with Ole Miss.
Dennis, you should know, is beloved by all his former high school and college teammates, as much for his personality as for the remembrance of just how good he was.
He was like tackling a big, fast grizzly bear on the field, but like a teddy bear off it.
Take it from this writer: He is one of the most kind, friendly people you will ever meet.
He was the eighth pick of the old AFL draft, the 31st pick of the NFL draft. He chose the NFL and played two years, suffering two major knee injuries, with the Los Angeles Rams. He put his bonus money in the bank to use later for dental school.
When injuries ended his professional career, he did get that dental degree and set up a long and successful practice in Jackson, from which he just retired.
Again, Jackson’s loss is Oxford’s gain.