Somewhere in our pasts, tucked away in a box in our attics or stowed deep in our memories, is THE jersey.
You know the one.
THE jersey of your first sports hero with his or her number.
The first time you saw your hero play, you were smitten. Whenever you played backyard football with your friends, or battled in playground basketball, you had to wear THE jersey.
You believed it would magically transfer your hero’s athletic skills to you. You could weave your way on a long touchdown run, through all your friends, dodging a parked Buick and evading an angry German shepherd. You could swish the 20-foot fadeaway game-winning basket just before your older brother shoved you in a thorn bush.
That’s when you didn’t care whether you needed 14 Band-Aids and bunch of mercurochrome. You just cared whether THE jersey had been torn, which would be the ultimate price of victory you did not want to pay.
My No. 21 LSU football jersey, THE jersey, never got torn. When my Dad bought it for me for my sixth birthday at the start of the 1962 season, I cared for it like it was a precious diamond. I didn’t even like being tackled in it.
I don’t know whatever happened to the jersey after I outgrew it. Yet it always stays with me, because it lives on in a picture I found. There’s skinny little 6-year old me at a December ’62 LSU Cotton Bowl practice posing with my hero LSU halfback Jerry Stovall.
It’s just weeks before his final college game and just days after he finished second in Heisman Trophy voting. For some reason, he’s not wearing his usual No. 21, but some old No. 77 jersey. I didn’t care about that.
I look at the picture, me with a frozen smile. Even now I remember how nervous I was, how my heart was racing when Jerry Stovall – it’s really him! – took a break from practice, called me by name and seemed glad to pose like we had been friends forever.
With LSU renewing a dormant rivalry at Texas A&M on Saturday with the Aggies now a SEC Western Division member alongside the Tigers, the matchup in College Station stirred fond memories of my No. 21.
For 16 straight seasons that the Tigers and the Aggies met starting in 1960 – Jerry’s first year on LSU’s varsity – the game was the season opener eight times and the second game seven times. And it what may have been the most inequitable scheduling contract in college history, all 16 games were played in Tiger Stadium.
No. 21 is now 71 years old, and the longtime CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Sports Foundation that recruits sporting events to be staged in the city. He is thrilled A&M is finally in the SEC.
“I think Texas A&M will become the closest thing to an in-state rival that we’ll have,” Jerry says. “LSU’s largest alumni chapter is in Houston. The state of Texas has big, strong fast high school athletes growing on trees, and every school in the SEC, especially in the Western Division, will try to get in there and recruit.
“You throw in A&M’s tradition with its cadets and everything else that goes with the school. They have the money, they have the size, and they have all the things needed to compete well in this conference. This rivalry could be spectacular. You know our (LSU) people – they love to hate somebody.”
The Aggies also revive good memories for Jerry, and not because he was 3-0 against them as a player. In his first varsity game as a sophomore against A&M in 1960, an Aggie kick returner broke free behind a wall of blockers at the start of the second half. Jerry the Kickoff Kicker backpedaled, got an angle on the returner and one last blocker, and forced them both out-of-bounds at the LSU 20.
The Tigers threw up a defensive stand and A&M didn’t score. Then, Jerry the Punter began flipping field position, first with a 60-yard punt and another that sailed out at the A&M 11. Soon, LSU opened a possession at the A&M 28 and went in for the touchdown that clinched a 9-0 win.
After the game, then-LSU coach Paul Dietzel said, “Stovall’s debut was impressive as any I’ve ever seen as a sophomore.”
It was more of an admission than an observation. Starting from the previous spring, Dietzel had done his best to downplay the hype over Jerry. In fact, Dietzel even listed Jerry as right halfback on offense going into the season and not left halfback, the spot vacated by Billy Cannon, the 1959 Heisman Trophy winner.
But Jerry’s talent couldn’t be denied, especially after his clutch TD-saving play in the ’60 opener.
“All of a sudden, there’s the kick returner in front of my face with a blocker in front of him,” Jerry recalls. “It’s one of those things where you keep pushing off and pushing off, and pretty soon the runner gets tired so you can jump on his back. I’m the last guy back and I just tried to head him to the sideline.”
“Everybody thought it was a great play. Shoot, it was just self-defense.”
Two years later when Jerry was a senior in ’62, he, as Jerry the Kickoff Returner, came close to busting a long TD return vs. A&M off a trick return the Tigers had developed.
The return involved the LSU quarterback – usually Jimmy Field – standing in the middle of the field at the LSU 20-yard line with his back to the onrushing kick coverage team. Whoever fielded the kickoff would run straight for Field. With absolute perfect timing, the return man – most of the time Jerry – would reach Field just before the kick coverage team did. Jerry, running straight at Field, could either slip the ball to Field, who would then pitch the ball to another halfback cutting across the field left to right, or Jerry could fake the handoff and run right down an open seam of a confused kick coverage team.
In a 21-0 victory over A&M that started the Tigers 9-1-1 ’62 season, Jerry came close to breaking a TD off the deceptive kickoff play, going 58 yards before being tackled.
Two weeks later at No. 6 Georgia Tech in historic Grant Field against then-SEC member Yellow Jackets coached by Bobby Dodd, the play worked for what was the decisive touchdown in a 10-7 LSU victory. Because the game was nationally televised by CBS and because Jerry had probably the best overall game of his remarkable college career – he cracked a rib in the second quarter and never missed a play on offense or defense – his name began being mentioned as a Heisman candidate.
Any Heisman candidate, even back in the early 1960s, needed a signature play that would grab the attention of voters. For Jerry, it was that 98-yard kickoff to open the second half vs. Tech that broke a scoreless halftime tie.
“I almost got loose against A&M on the return,” Jerry says. “If you disguise the ball well enough, somebody on the kick coverage team on the outside has to slow down a bit.
“By golly, it works at Georgia Tech. It was a long way. If I had had to run another 10 yards, I would have passed out. I didn’t have to run around or over anybody, I didn’t have to make anybody miss me. I got a lot of good blocks. It was just matter of me not falling down and not dropping the doggone ball.
“I was running as fast as I could as hard as I could in one direction and it seemed like the end zone wasn’t drawing close. It was just staying there. My wife Judy told me later that `you’re even slower than you look.’ ”
By the end of Jerry’s senior season, he had led the Tigers in rushing, receiving, scoring, punting, kickoff returns, was tied for first in interceptions and was second in punt returns.
For all of that, he finished second in Heisman voting to Terry Baker, an Oregon State quarterback, who led the nation in total offense with 2,276 yards (the second-most ever at the time). Baker got 172 first place votes and 707 points to Jerry’s 112 first-place votes and 618 points in the closest Heisman balloting ever to that point.
Jerry, voted a first-team all-American, certainly had the right to be disappointed to not win the Heisman. But he wasn’t – not then and not now – because he has never forgotten he was the last player signed in LSU’s 1959 recruiting class.
“The runt of the litter,” Jerry says with a laugh.
Back then, when there wasn’t a 25-man NCAA-established scholarship limit per year like today’s game, you could sign as many players as you wanted. So Jerry, despite being an all-state back at West Monroe (La.) High, was the 52nd player in a class of 52 signed by Dietzel.
Jerry’s recruitment process was simple. Four colleges contacted him – Louisiana Tech, Tulane, Northeast Louisiana and LSU.
Probably the only reason LSU finally offered Jerry was because of the persistence and persuasion of Red Swanson, a former LSU player and coach, who was a member of LSU’s Board of Supervisors when Jerry was in high school.
Swanson had seen Jerry play as a ninth grade baseball player, believed in him by following his high school football career and drove him to Baton Rouge for five LSU home games during the Tigers’ ’58 national championship season.
“Coach Swanson is the gentleman I hold directly responsible for me getting a scholarship to LSU,” Jerry says. “I think the last time he drove me down there, he told Coach Dietzel, `Look I’m going to leave him on the steps, I’m not going to take him back. If you don’t want him, send him home on a bus.’ ”
Jerry will never forget being taken to Broussard Hall, LSU’s athletic dorm, as part of a recruiting visit with future college roommate Danny Neumann of Tallulah, La.
“Coach (Larry) Jones showed me my bed and then showed Danny his bed while we’re standing in an air conditioned room,” Jerry recalls. “I’d never got to sleep in my own bed ever, much less in an air conditioned room. At home, I shared a bed with four younger sisters.
“So I sat there and thought, `I’m sleeping in my own bed in an air conditioned room. And I get three hot meals daily seven days a week.’ So I asked Coach Jones, `What do I have to do for all this?’ He said, `You’ve got to go to school and attempt to get an education while you play ball. That’s it.’ I said, `Where do I sign? I can do that.’ ”
The competing running back talents of Jerry’s freshmen class, such as fellow North Louisiana standouts like Neumann, Bo Campbell of Shreveport Byrd and others, initially intimidated Jerry.
“In between all those guys was skinny Jerry Stovall, whose two chances to play at LSU seemed slim and none,” Jerry says. “I originally wanted to go to Louisiana Tech, but my Dad reasoned with me.
“He said, `Son, if you start and play well at Louisiana Tech, you’ll always wonder about how good you could have been. If you do the same at LSU which has just won a national championship, I’m thinking you’ll know you can play for anybody.’ ”
Even during Jerry’s freshman year, back in the day when freshmen were ineligible for varsity play and had to play a schedule against other college freshmen squads (LSU’s freshman team was called the Baby Bengals), he had times when he was ready to head home and never return to Baton Rouge.
Those thoughts ended for good one day when unhappy Jerry phoned his father, a no-nonsense, pound-the-pavement salesman whose day always started well before sunrise and ended after sunset.
“When I got to LSU, everybody was bigger and faster than me,” Jerry says. “Bo Campbell was the state of Louisiana high school track champion in the quarter mile. White Graves, another back, was the state of Mississippi high school quarter mile champ.
“Jerry Stovall’s school never even had a high school track. So I’m thinking my chances of ever playing for LSU don’t look real good. I call my Daddy and say, `I may have made a mistake coming here. Everybody is really good.’
“He says, `And so? You’re there to do what?’ I said, `I’m here to get an education and play ball.’ He said, `Has anything changed since you got there?’ I said, `No sir.’ He said, `Good, then don’t call me anymore.’ My Daddy had a great way of dismissing me.”
Call it tough love, call it what you will. But Jerry got the message and never looked back. Once on the varsity in an era where players mostly played both offense and defense, he quickly proved to be LSU’s best all-around player.
Jerry played his first two seasons under Dietzel, who had established a three-platoon system called the White Team, the Go Team and the Chinese Bandits. Dietzel left LSU after the ’61 season to coach at Army, which had always been his dream job.
The White Team was comprised of LSU’s best 11 athletes, equally effective on offense or defense. The Go Team was 11 players specializing more on offense and the Chinese Bandits were primarily 11 defensive stoppers.
Jerry, on the White Team, loved playing both ways. Consider he also was the punter, kicked off and also was a kickoff and punt returner. He hardly ever got a breather.
“What that means on offense we might methodically have a 75-yard drive over six minutes to the Ole Miss 5-yard line where Jerry Stovall fumbles that cotton-pickin’ thing back to Ole Miss,” Jerry says. “Let me tell you, 11 guys didn’t trot off and 11 new ones didn’t come on. The same 11 huddled, then we played defense.”
Jerry was taken No. 2 overall in the first round of the 1963 NFL draft by the St. Louis Cardinals where he became a hard-hitting strong safety that earned All-Pro honors twice (1967-68) and Pro Bowl three times (1967-68-69).
Jerry played 97 games in nine seasons, finishing with 18 career interceptions. When he retired after the 1971 season, he became an assistant coach at South Carolina under his first former LSU head coach Dietzel, then in 1974 joined the LSU staff of his second Tigers’ head coach Charles McClendon.
Though Jerry had dreams of becoming LSU’s head coach, the political forces that forced McClendon to resign as coach at the end of the 1979 season didn’t want to hire anyone as coach who had been associated with McClendon. Jerry became a fundraiser for the athletic department, while the school’s Board of Supervisors hired North Carolina State coach Bo Rein to replace McClendon.
Rein was on the job about a month when on a recruiting trip flying back from Shreveport, the plane’s cabin depressurized killing both the pilot and Rein. The plane flew by itself, crashing eventually in the Atlantic Ocean. No wreckage was ever found.
LSU moved quickly and named Jerry as head coach. He lasted four seasons, going 22-21-2. He went from 7-4 in 1980, to 3-7-1 in 1981, to 8-3-1 in 1980 with a guy named Mack Brown as Jerry’s offensive coordinator, to 4-7 in 1983 when the Tigers finished last in the SEC at 0-6.
The winless SEC record was enough for new athletic director Bob Brodhead to convince the Board of Supervisors to fire Jerry, despite ex-Louisiana Governor John McKeithen fighting for Jerry’s job.
Jerry became a bank vice-president in Baton Rouge. Then, he was named Louisiana Tech’s athletic director in 1990 before coming back to Baton Rouge three years later to accept his current position.
A lesser man would have never forgotten being fired as head coach of his alma mater. A grudge-holding man who couldn’t forgive would have never gone back to the city that he and his wife had adopted as their home as college students.
But Jerry, because of his strong Christian faith, couldn’t stay away. He could not hate his school. He could not forget the people who became his friends for life at LSU, trainers like Dr. Marty Broussard and Herman Lang, and teammates like lineman Fred Miller, who later played 10 NFL seasons with the Baltimore Colts.
“One of the greatest blessings God ever gave me was to meet Doc Broussard as a total stranger when I was a freshman at LSU, then have him accept me as an athlete and a warrior and then he accepts me as a friend man-to-man,” Jerry says, “Doc and I became best of friends. The last five years of his life, I would go by his office at about 7 a.m. – he was always there prim and proper – and we would just talk for about 45 minutes daily on everything.
“One day, I said, `Doc, you’ve seen everybody come through LSU the last 50 years. Who do you think is the best ever football player in LSU history?’ He thought for minute and said, `J, you won’t be mad with me if I tell you it wasn’t you?’ I said, `No.’ Then he said, `Then that would be easy. It’s (quarterback/defensive back) Y.A. Tittle. Man of great integrity. Fine multi-sport athlete.’ ”
Now, it’s Jerry who often gets asked which LSU team is the best ever, or who’s the best LSU lineman ever (“Fred Miller, who started on the line on both sides of the ball and the finest lineman I played with and against at any level,” Jerry says).
“The sport has dramatically changed,” Jerry says, “and so have the players and the coaches and the equipment and the nutrition. Look at strength coaches today who can turn a skinny kid into a man in six months. That gives the athletes today an incredible advantage, and plus they play just one side of the ball.
“What if Billy Cannon today played just offense, lined up as a tailback in the I-formation six to seven yards deep, getting the ball 20 to 25 times a game? At 6-2, 220 pounds, he was strong enough to pick up half the stadium and carry it with him. What could he have done today? It could well be like a Herschel Walker, just a beast. Can you imagine his stats?
“I know the play is better now. I’m just not sure the game itself and the industry of the sport is better. When I was in school at LSU, we had two athletes who were elected student body president. Our football team had the highest grade point average of any male fraternity on campus, excluding honor societies.
“I’m as proud of those things as any game we ever won. We played under quality men that taught us how to live life and be productive in our community. We had a good relationship with the student body.
“Today, I’m not sure that’s there across the board. I’m not just talking about LSU, I’m talking everywhere.”
But Jerry still loves the game and LSU, and reflects how both have taken him to places in life that he never imagined, even long after qualifying for social security.
Three springs ago, Jerry got a call from LSU athletic director Joe Alleva who told him he had been selected to the National Football Foundation College Football Hall of Fame.
“Joe told me and I got real quiet,” Jerry says. “I asked him to repeat it and I said, `It sounded just as good the second time as it did the first time.’ ”
Several months later in December 2010, Jerry was inducted with the rest of the class at the Foundation’s annual banquet in New York City at the Waldorf-Astoria. They handed Jerry a small box that contained his Hall of Fame ring.
“I don’t think I’ve ever cried in front of that many people in my life,” Jerry says. “I was thinking about coaches and players and teachers who meant so much in my life, like Dan McClure, my high school coach. It made sit down and think, `How in the world did his happen?’
“I always felt God has a plan for everybody in life. Can you imagine skinny Jerry Stovall from West Monroe, Louisiana, coming to LSU on a football scholarship? And then to be surrounded by the greatest personalities in all of athletics like Paul Dietzel, Charlie McClendon, George Terry (an assistant coach), Doc Broussard, Herman Lang?
“When I sit back and think about the guidance they gave the skinny kid, I say `Thank you, Lord’ for all those people making me better.”
Those people, along with Jerry’s parents, his wife of 50 years who has survived cancer and their kids, enabled Jerry to handle life’s triumphs and tragedies with dignity, kindness and grace.
He has never changed, and here’s one last bit of proof.
At the end of the lengthy interview of this story, I finally tell Jerry after all these years about my No. 21 jersey and the picture I still have of me with my first sports hero.
There’s a deep exhale on the other end of the phone.
“It makes me feel humble that somebody somewhere wore No. 21 because I wore it,” Jerry says with wonder in his voice. “I hope you still got it somewhere.”
I don’t, but I’m going to buy a new clean white No. 21 LSU jersey just so I can frame it for my home office. Just stick it right there next to the picture of Jerry and me from almost 51 years ago, when our faces were smooth, our bellies were flat, our will was strong and our hearts were filled with all of life’s possibilities.
You’ve fought the good fight and you’ve run the good race, No. 21.
And I’m still trying to catch you.