Remembering the great Charlie Conerly

Rick Cleveland
Rick Cleveland

(This column from was written in February of 1996 from Charlie Conerly’s funeral.)

CLARKSDALE — It was a traditional, southern funeral, replete with prayers, readings from the Scriptures, Amazing Grace, How Great Thou Art and The Old Rugged Cross. Sale T. Lilly Jr., the pastor at First United Methodist Church, remembered Charlie Conerly so accurately as a “kind, humble and very modest person.”

Many, many tears were shed. Then, as the casket was rolled toward the exit, the organist broke into a rendition of New York, New York, and everyone in the jam-packed sanctuary seemed to smile at once. Those who knew Conerly could just imagine that, somewhere, he was flashing that crooked, wry grin of his.

“That was my idea,” Perian Conerly, Charlie’s widow, said. “He loved that song, and we had so many great times in New York. I just thought it would send everyone out on a happy note. He would have liked that.”

Conerly would have loved some of the stories that were told later Thursday at The Ranchero, where the barbecue was tasty as ever, and where many first-time or infrequent visitors gawked at the many trophies, photographs and other memorabilia from Conerly’s football career.

“There’s been a few times when people from New York have come in here not knowing this was Charlie’s hometown,” Ranchero proprietor Mike Card said. “You should see their faces when they see that NFL Most Valuable Player Trophy.”

**

Former teammates, coaches, friends and fans from all over came to Clarksdale to pay their respects. John Vaught was here, dapper as ever. Conerly was his first great passer at Ole Miss, and many of those who followed were here, as well Jimmy Lear, Eagle Day, Jake Gibbs and Archie Manning among them.

“He was my first football hero,” Manning said. “It was probably because he was my dad’s hero. We used to watch him playing for the New York Giants on Sunday afternoons. I didn’t know much about football back then, but I knew he was from Ole Miss and Clarksdale, and that was enough for me.”

Conerly was Gibbs’ first hero, too.

“I was 9 years old when Charlie was a senior at Ole Miss,” Gibbs said. “That was when I started following football. Later, I was like all the other Ole Miss quarterbacks who followed him. What I mean is, I was trying to measure up to him.”

Barney Poole, the man who caught so many of Conerly’s passes, shook his head when asked about Conerly. “We lost a great one,” he said. “There’s never been a better one, and I know that better than most. Charlie was such a great leader, such a great passer. He threw balls that just melted in your hands like butter.”

Poole was talking at Oakridge Cemetery, as a cold, damp wind whipped across the Delta, chilling those without overcoats. Just across the street from where Conerly was buried is Crumpton Field, where local high school football teams play.

***

Many of the funeral-goers retreated back across town to The Ranchero, where Conerly was a regular, and where most knew him as Roach.

There was 12-year-old Coleman Card, Mike Card’s son, who knew Conerly as the grandfatherly man who often delivered a lunch of chicken tenders and french fries to him at school. “He never talked about himself, but I read about him in books,” Coleman Card said. “He was a nice man.”

And there was Roscoe Word, the former Jackson State and New York Jets great, who lives in Ridgeland and operates a nursing home in Clarksdale. “You learn a lot from older gentlemen, and I learned a lot from him,” Word said. “I think what I learned most from him is that if I’m lucky enough to live to be 74 years old, I hope I’ll be able to enjoy life the way he did. You know as you grow up, you think about what you want to become, but as you get older you think about how you want to be remembered.”

And how will Word remember Charlie Conerly?

“I’ve been lucky enough to know Gale Sayers, Joe Namath and Charlie Conerly,” Word said. “They are all special, not only because they were great players. They all had class.”

Word paused. “You know, there’s no substitute for class,” he said.

 

 

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