September 28, 2013 9:55:54 PM
Birney Imes - [email protected]
The other day Tommy McCann came in with a framed black and white photo of three high school football players. Two players in uniform, each holding a football, flank a teammate, who has a cast on his right arm. McCann is on the right and Mike McRaney is on the left. The player in the middle with the cast and a "Lee High" sweatshirt is unmistakably Billy Brewer.
The picture was likely taken by Roscoe Robson for a story in this newspaper about who would succeed Brewer as the Generals' starting quarterback.
McCann discovered the picture while going through his mother's things. By his reckoning it's 60 years old.
The photograph startled me in a way. Fifteen years after it was taken Brewer coached me and my classmates at Lee High. I had never visualized him in any way other than who he was those few years he was our coach. Yet, here as a boy, then a junior in high school, the Coach Brewer he would become is clear to see.
After a storied career at Lee High, Brewer coached at two colleges in Louisiana before ending up at his alma mater, Ole Miss. There he was head coach for 11 seasons.
Saturday morning I called my old coach to ask about the picture and broken arm. He replied as though it had happened the night before.
"We were playing West Point and I was playing defense," he said. "They had a pretty good little running back who tried to hurdle me."
Brewer threw up his right arm and somehow broke it. He was taken to Doster Hospital (where the Trustmark Bank is now). The young quarterback may have been out for the season, but he was otherwise undaunted.
"I left the hospital and went to a dance at the Y.M.C.A.," he remembers.
Brewer grew up on Military Road near 14th Avenue across from what was then a fire station. He delivered newspapers in Sandfield and along Seventh Avenue North. He remembers Sundays playing sandlot football on the sawdust-covered lot of a sawmill on 14th Avenue. He was the only white kid there.
"We'd play to past dark, until we were worn out," Brewer remembers. "We didn't even have a football. We'd make a ball out of rags."
There a friendship developed between Brewer and John "T" Thomas. During high school --Brewer at all-white Lee and Thomas at all-black Hunt High -- Brewer would walk down to Hunt on Friday afternoons to watch his friend play football. In those days of segregation blacks who watched the Generals play football did so from atop a clay bank overlooking Magnolia Bowl. It was from there Thomas watched his friend.
Thomas eventually played Canadian football where he acquired the nickname "Long Gone T. Thomas."
"T. Thomas was the first guy I hired at Ole Miss," Brewer said. Thomas coached the tight ends and in Brewer's words, was a "big-time recruiter."
Thomas lives in Starkville, said Brewer, and plays golf every day.
Brewer was an extraordinary high school coach. He was innovative and instinctive; he understood human nature. During a time of rigid segregation, he was rare in his ability to navigate easily between the black and white communities. That trait stood him well as a coach. When the city's high schools were fully integrated in 1971, Brewer guided its bi-racial football team to an undefeated season.
Two standouts on that year's team, a team loaded with talent, were Robert "Fat" Hinton, a 6'2", 190-pound running back with dazzling speed and a defensive linebacker, about whom Brewer said no one could block, Robert Smith.
Brewer told a story about "recruiting" Hinton at Lee. He had seen Hinton in action at Hunt and was well aware of his gifts. In the summer before the schools were to be integrated, Brewer sought Hinton out -- he was working the night shift at Beneke making toilet seats -- and told him he needed him to come by the school the next day.
At the time Brewer was living with his mother-in-law, Roak Gunter, on Third Avenue South. Frank McKellar, one of Brewer's former charges, then playing defensive back for Ole Miss, lived just up the street. McKellar, who was extremely quick, happened to be home and agreed to race Hinton.
Brewer laughs at the memory of Hinton showing up at the school with a pack of Lucky Strikes rolled up in his shirtsleeve. McKellar was wearing cleats. Hinton declined the offer of same.
Brewer signaled and the boys took off. At 20 yards McKellar lead by two yards; at 40 Hinton was out front by a yard. Just to make sure, Brewer had the boys run again, with the same result.
When I repeated the story to Hinton, now a teacher at West Lowndes, he roared with laughter.
"Yeah, that sounds about right," he said.
Brewer says it wasn't uncommon for Hinton to carry the ball 30 times in a game. Hinton played college ball at Southwestern Oklahoma State where, not coincidently, T. Thomas coached.
Brewer, 77, has had a rough year. About a year ago he had gall bladder surgery and he's since had a series of surgeries.
"That deal changed my life," he says about the gall bladder surgery. "This time last year I was running stadiums."
He says he's about 90 percent back. He has a granddaughter at Ole Miss and several other grandchildren out in the world. Friday night he attended a high school football game with his long-time friends Robert and Judy Youngblood.
As for Hinton, he'd like to visit his former coach.
"I want to get some guys together and go up there and see him," Hinton said.
If he were to do that, one thing is almost certain: There will be no shortage of stories or laughter.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.