Corsicana Daily Sun, Corsicana, Texas

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October 21, 2013

‘63 Tigers: ‘It was magical’

Corsicana — Voices cracked, silence swallowed the room, and grown men fought back tears.

That’s what it looked like and felt like Saturday night when the members of the 1963 Corsicana Tiger football team got together one more time.

It’s been a half century since they won the state football championship.They’ve gained weight and lost hair, but what they have together, this eternal bond and gift of brotherhood and being a team (so much more than a team), that bond is stronger today than ever.

That’s what filled the room Saturday night at the Fannie Mae Vernon Room, where they celebrated the 50th anniversary of that magical, unforgettable season.

There was laughter and story telling and more laughter, and there were those moments — those silent, heart-tugging moments when someone would speak and throw a lasso around this team, squeezing it closer and closer together.

“The three most cherished things in my life,’’ said Marc Maxwell as he stood in front of the group and took his turn to speak. “The three most cherished things in my life are Jesus Christ, my wife and family and this team.’’

Then he lost his voice. He looked down, fighting back tears, and walked slowly back to his seat.

There was silence and a lump in the team’s throat the size of Texas. Every man fought back tears of his own.

Jim Hagle, the big powerful running back, started his speech with jokes about two-a-days, and someone shouted out how the kids nowadays, “are pampered.’’ Another voice added, “Yeah, they give them water.’’

Hagle was funny and then he shifted gears — just as he did coming out of the backfield years ago — and talked about how Gary Roman, the quarterback and his close friend, had talked about that season, calling it a journey.

“It really was the journey,’’ Hagle said. “It was the journey that was so important, ‘61, ‘62, ‘63 … It was the journey that made us.’’ Then he added in a soft voice that faded to nothing, “I’ll never forget it.’’

He stopped, losing his voice with the memory, then his voiced cracked gently. “It was a great time to be in Corsicana and to be a Tiger,’’ he said, tears welling in his eyes. He lowered his head and walked off slowly.

It was so quiet you could hear a heartbeat — the single heartbeat of this team.

It’s there today, that feeling of being one, that rare sense of sharing something so special that words can’t define and feelings can’t hide — it’s still there 50 years later.

“It was magical,’’ said Don Denbow, who was an all-state tight end. “For the most part, we didn’t have the best athletes, but we had the best team. We came together as a team. It became a situation where we were so intense that we were not going to let failure happen.’’

Denbow, Jim Wood and Hagle all went on to play for SMU.

“We won the Southwest Conference title in 1966 at SMU,’’ Hagle said. “That was a big deal, a real big deal, but winning the state championship in 1963 was bigger to me. I’m not saying winning the Southwest Conference wasn’t big, but being an 18-year-old kid and winning the state championship with guys you have played with since grade school and up, that was special -- real special.’’

It was more than that.

“It was a life changer,’’ Denbow said. “It redirected your efforts to be successful in any thing you do. All of these guys are successful. They all have big families and they are all successful in business. It changed your life.’’

Denbow went on to be as successful as any man in Corsicana, first as a legendary football coach and later as a high school principal, administrator, superintendent of the CISD school system and is now a member of the Corsicana City Council. He cherishes his days on the 1963 team.

They all do.

“It’s been 50 years, but it doesn’t seem like it was that long ago,’’ Denbow said. “Seems like a couple of years ago.’’

Roman said the same thing.

“Oh Lord no, it doesn’t seem that long ago at all,’’ he said.” It seems like yesterday. It’s special, and maybe because it hasn’t been done again makes it even more special, makes it seem like it wasn’t that long ago. The thing that makes it special is the closeness of the team, the togetherness. Usually seniors are with seniors and juniors with juniors, but on that team there was no distinction. It was just one big team.’’

It’s that way today.

Most of them have moved away, but 19 of the 31 members of that team came back for the reunion. Six have passed away, including Coach Jim Acree, who was the heart and soul of the team, a man they all love to this day.

You can hear it in their voices when they talk about Acree. They laugh harder at the funny stories and shake their heads when they remember the grueling practices and bellow today when they remember the discipline. But they love their coach, love and revere him and every man in the room gives credit for that season to Acree.

“The No. 1 factor was coach Acree and his coaching staff,’’ Roman said. “They were so far ahead of the other coaches in Texas with the off season program and their preparation.’’

Acree gave them lessons they have never forgotten, and every man said he was successful today because of being on that team.

“I remember we were playing Tyler and Coach Acree told me, ‘Hagle, when they come around your side, gut up your belt one notch and say Hell no!’ I’ll never forget that,’’ Hagle said. “It has stayed with me all my life and there have been times in the business world, in sales and in life when I’ve said that to myself. Funny how some things stay with you.’’

Acree’s son Felix gave an emotional speech, telling the team that, “You were my heroes,’’ and adding that the 1963 team was always “the team,’’ his father always talked about and compared every team to in his years of coaching, how this team was special. He ended his speech with words that pierced the room. “This team is perfection,’’ he said.

They were. The only unbeaten team in Corsicana history, they went 14-0 and won it all in Victoria with a 7-0 victory over  Pharr-San Juan-Alamo. And after pounding teams in the regular season (they outscored teams 41-7 in district), they won the game on — of all things — a fake field goal. The holder, Rankin Koch, threw the pass to a wide open Hagle.

“No I wasn’t surprised when Coach Acree called the play,’’ Rankin said Saturday night. “We had practiced that play so many times. I knew it would work.’’

It was the only pass Koch threw all year. The next season he was Corsicana’s quarterback.

They laughed and joked and remembered driving ‘56 Buicks and ‘51 Fords, 10-cent hamburgers and gas that cost 15 cents a gallon. They talked about bailing hay and crazy trips to Dallas. On one of the trips in the summer of ‘63 three of the players met a nightclub owner named Jack Ruby. Three months later the world knew Ruby’s name.

It was 1963 and everything seemed to look and feel and taste better, but nothing ever tasted as sweet as winning the state title. They still joke about the Blue Goose, the name they affectionately called the team bus, an old Army surplus bus that the school bought and painted blue. They retired the Blue Goose the next year. But oh what a ride those kids took in the fall of ‘63 on that bus — the ride of a lifetime.

There are a couple of games this group talks about with crystal clear memories so vivid you would have thought they had been played last week. There was a cold, rainy, miserable night in Cleburne against their biggest rival, a game many say to this day defined the character of this team. They relived the goal line stand and that 21-0 victory on Saturday and then added some icing with the story about a stop in downtown Cleburne on the way home.

There were some young men in Cleburne and as the bus passed, they all gave the Corsicana kids an obscene gesture. Hagle went to the window to take care of it, but Acree stopped him. Then Acree stopped the bus and let the group from Cleburne have it in words that have stayed with these men for 50 years.

“As players, he stood up for us. Coach Acree was not going to let anyone treat his players that way,’’ Koch said as he told the story. “I’ll never forget the way Coach Acree stood up for us.’’

The best memory of Acree on a bus came on Nov. 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. There was talk of not playing the game, but they played —  even though it was a “great distraction,’’ Denbow said.

“I’ll never forget coach Acree standing on the bus on the way to Terrell,’’ Rick Libal said. “He said, ‘Men, John would want us to play this game.’ It was like he was a personal friend of his.’’

The room broke out in belly-laughter.

Corsicana beat Terrell that night, 53-16 to go 10-0.

The game no one will forget is the state semifinal against Graham. Denbow caught a long pass to give the Tigers a 6-0 lead, but Libal missed the extra point. “I’ve only thought about that a few thousand times,’’ Libal joked Saturday when he was reminded.

Graham led 13-6 in the final minute of the game when Hagle scored —  shortly after a penalty had erased a Graham interception that would have sealed it. Hagle’s TD made it 13-12, but Corsicana had to go for two points, because in 1963 there was no overtime. Ties in the high school playoffs were decided by the team with the most penetrations into the other team’s territory, and Graham would have won a 13-13 game. Roman faked a handoff to Hagle, and then saw nothing but daylight.

“I could have walked in,’’ Roman said. “It felt great, just great,’’ a smile filling his face as he remembered the play.

Wood called it. “Our game of the century.’’

It still felt that way Saturday night.

“I’ll never forget that game. We got the ball with (2:35 left) and drove down and won it,’’ said Cody Sherrard, the smallest man on the team. He was about 5-7 but played nose guard. He was lightning-quick and played like the Tasmanian Devil, a whirlwind with a motor that wouldn’t stop. They still give him a hard time about his height today. When he took the floor to speak, shouts filled the room: “Stand up!’’ Laughter followed.

But Sherrard left the floor the way he played the game — with impact. The wildest man on that team said what every man already knew.

“There’s not a person in this room I wouldn’t do anything for,’’ Sherrard said. “I love you.’’

After the dinner and the speeches, Mark Dawson, a backup running back who scored a touchdown the only time he carried the ball that season, gathered the team in the center of the room to sing, ”When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.’’

Dawson wrote and sang solo verses for each of the members of the team who had died, with touching lyrics to describe each man — six verses, five players and Coach Acree, followed by the chorus by everyone on the team.

And with each chorus their voices grew louder and stronger, rising together, one voice echoing  throughout the room covering 50 years of emotions, embracing each other and that magical journey  — a journey that still lives in these men today.

Voices cracked, silence swallowed the room, and grown men fought back tears ...

—————

Mike Phillips may be reached by email at mphillips@corsicanadailysun.com. Want to “Soundoff” on this story? Email: soundoff@corsicanadailysun.com

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