Dale’s Sideline View 10/15/18
If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day, You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special,” said Jim Valvano, former basketball coach at North Carolina State, as he was accepting the Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award at the first televised ESPY Awards in 1993. Valvano was in his final stages of a battle with bone cancer.
It has been 25 years since Valvano echoed those words, and it has been 50 years since one of my favorite football teams won a national championship. Those Jones County Junior College Bobcats of 1968 did all three things in winning the first national championship for the school. The team will be honored this Friday night at 6 p.m. with a banquet at Jones.
A Changing World
The year of 1968 changed the world. Sadly, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated. Surveyor 7 made a historic soft landing on the moon and began sending back photos. The blood and gore of the Vietnam War was televised in our living rooms each night on the national news. The youth of America challenged the establishment. And civil unrest saw riots in the streets and protests at the Olympics.
That year in sports was the beginning of Archie’s Army in Oxford and was also the final season of O.J. at USC. Vince Lombardi coached his last game with the Green Bay Packers, and a New York Jets quarterback named Joe “Willie” Namath was marching his team to a most unexpected finish.
On the local scene, the sleepy little town of Ellisville, Mississippi, was awakening to what would prove to be one of the most memorable football seasons in Jones County Junior College history. As fall workouts began that season, an optimistic Bobcats head coach Sim Cooley told one of the local civic clubs, “We’ve got the best ball club we’ve had in a long time.” Jones was returning 18 sophomores and had a couple of transfers that made the Bobcats a team to watch. The previous season, Jones had returned only 13 sophomores, so many of the sophomores of 1968 had gained a lot of experience during their first season at JCJC. Bay Springs native Tommy Parker was a first-year coach for the Bobcats, and Cooley’s other coach was his long time assistant Bill Morris.
They Laughed, They Thought, and They Cried
“We knew that we had a very talented team. We blended well together on and off the field and are still that way almost 50 years later,” said Richard Thoms, former Richton Rebel and leading receiver of the team. Thoms laughingly recalled one of the many shenanigans that he and some of his teammates pulled off the field. In several cars the guys headed to the Laurel drive-in one night. Thinking that they would pull one over on the operator of the drive-in, some of the guys hid in the trunks prior to entering the premises. Thoms said that it is likely that the operator had the last laugh, however, since the guys purchased their weight in food and drinks.
Raleigh’s Billy Clingon, who was one of the Bobcats’ team captains and was named an All-American offensive lineman, also remembers the special bond that still exists for these students of the game. “The coaches prepared us well. They did an outstanding job of teaching us the game and bringing us together. I could tell we were developing after the spring game against Perkinston. We had unity, and players were motivating and encouraging each other as we wanted no weak link in the chain,” said Clingon. “The student body at Jones really got behind us that year both at home and on the road, which only increased our sense of unity,” Clingon added.
Bobcats quarterback David Abercrombie said the team had a solid nucleus. “We worked hard, and practices were pretty tough. We had great leadership, and we had tough coaches that demanded toughness,” said the Seminary native. “We had several Division I players on that team. The only reason we were overlooked was because we had played at small high schools,” he added. Abercrombie himself went on to play at Tulane University where he led the Green Wave to the 1970 Liberty Bowl win and was named MVP of the game.
The team was a ground-oriented team with the likes of Laurel’s Steve Bailey and Taylorsville’s Lynn Horn carrying the load. Horn scored six touchdowns against East Central and led the Bobcats with 114 points in nine games. “Every team we played was very physical. We played a winless Hinds team, but they hit harder than any team we played. It was a tough league for sure,” said Horn.
Waynesboro’s Johnny Walker remembers the Perkinston game. Both JCJC and Perkinston were undefeated entering the game at Bush-Young Field. “That had to be the biggest crowd ever at JCJC. The fans were lined up around the track, and every seat was filled,” related Walker. Most of the guys on the team had played against each other in high school, so they all knew each other, according to Walker. They had a camaraderie that would see them through tough times. “Those days,” Walker said, “were incredibly demanding.” Players would routinely practice long hours that tested them physically and mentally. Oftentimes they would think they had run their last series at practice as the evening drew near only to have Coach Cooley turn on the lights for another couple of hours of grueling workouts. The passion that drove the team to endure week after week developed a fortitude in them that resulted in tears of joy in the end.
For these guys, laughing, thinking and crying seven days a week every week gave them something that was indeed special.