Remembering Dr. Prentice Gautt

Prentice Gautt is a name that may not be familiar to younger generations of football fans. But the former Oklahoma Sooner, Cleveland Brown, and St. Louis Cardinal running back was a pioneer in the 1950s, becoming the first African-American to play football at OU, joining the team just one year after most racial restrictions were lifted at the school.

Gautt became a two-time All-Big Eight running back, led the team in rushing his junior and senior seasons, and earned MVP of the 1959 Orange Bowl. He was named an Academic All-American his senior season.

Although Gautt excelled on the gridiron, he faced many of the same racial obstacles encountered by Jackie Robinson off the field. Many local restaurants refused to serve him and he was not allowed to stay in some hotels with the rest of the team. Gautt also went through verbal and physical abuse at OU, including late hits in practice.

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The Big Red vs Toronto Argonauts? It Happened in 1961.

TICKET STUB from CFL Game

A few months after the 1961 signing of legendary Canadian Football League quarterback Sam “The Rifle” Etcheverry, the St. Louis Cardinals traveled north of the border to play an exhibition game with the Toronto Argonauts. Oddly enough, it wasn’t the first time the NFL and CFL hooked up. The New York Giants tangled with the Ottawa Rough Riders in 1950 and 1951. And the Chicago Cardinals beat the Argos in 1959 by a score of 55-26.

In 1960, the Cardinals relocated from Chicago and finished 6-5-1 in their inaugural season in St. Louis. The offense  featured star running back John David Crow and wide receiver Sonny Randle. However, quarterback play was inconsistent and below average. As a matter of fact, the 1960 trio of John Roach, King Hill, and first round pick George Izo would all be playing elsewhere by opening day of the 1961 season. Etcheverry, who threw for over 30,000 yards and 183 TDs with the Montreal Alouettes, was brought in to lead the team to an NFL Championship. Unfortunately, Sam injured his throwing shoulder on his first pass in training camp and struggled during his two seasons in St. Louis.

Etcheverry in CFL exhibition

The Cardinals practiced 12-man football for 10 days in preparation for the exhibition game with the Argonauts. The game would be played in accordance with Canadian rules. CFL fields are 10 yards longer, 15 yards wider and also feature 25 yard end zones. Games are played with 12 starters. Big Red head coach Frank “Pop” Ivy was no stranger to CFL football. He won three consecutive Grey Cups with the Edmonton Eskimos before taking over the Chicago Cardinals in 1958. Assistant coach Ray Willsey played quarterback for a season in Edmonton as well. So, the Big Red were not only bigger and stronger than their opponent, the coaching staff had experience with CFL rules and style of play.

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Where Are They Now? MEL GRAY

Mel Gray 2

Many thought Mel Gray was too small and had questionable hands coming out of the University of Missouri in 1971. However, no one could question his speed and athleticism. In high school, Gray tied Jesse Owens’ record with a 9.4 in the 100 yard dash and he later became an All-American in track and field at Mizzou. Gray was working in a California book store in 1971 when a friend informed him that he had been drafted. He initially thought he was headed to Vietnam, but soon discovered the St. Louis Cardinals had selected him in the 6th round of the NFL draft. Gray spent the next 12 seasons in St. Louis burning NFL secondaries, delighting fans, and fighting with Big Red management (as did many other players). I recently sat down with Mel Gray to chat about his time at Mizzou and career with the Big Red.

Q: You’re a California native. How did you end up at Mizzou?

GRAY: I wasn’t a bad kid, but I got in trouble a lot because of the guys I hung out with. My mother wanted me to leave. I could have gone to USC or UCLA, but my mother said, “no, I want you out of California.” And Mizzou was the only school who would let me play football and run track. (Gray spent his freshman year at Ft. Scott Jr. College in Kansas)

Q: Was there a culture shock moving from California to the Midwest?

GRAY: When I signed with Missouri it was 80 degrees and sunny. But by November (1968) it was 10 degrees. I never experienced anything like it. I stayed in my room for two weeks under an electric blanket. One day, the coaches knocked on my door and asked me why I wasn’t in class. I said “have you been outside?” So they went over and looked in my closet, looked at each other, and then left. I climbed back under the covers and thought they were going to send my butt home! But they came back later with boxes of thermal underwear, sweaters, socks, scarves, jackets… It definitely took a while to get used to the cold weather!

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Where Are They Now: Tom Banks (Conclusion)

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The conclusion of my interview with former Big Red All-Pro center Tom Banks. Tom talks about his final years in St. Louis, his adventure into the USFL, today’s game, and his health, and retirement.

Where Are They Now? Tom Banks (Part 1)

Where Are They Now: Tom Banks (Part 2)

Q: Bud Wilkinson was hired after Don Coryell left in 1977. It was a rough couple of years for the Big Red in 1978/1979. What are your memories of Coach Wilkinson?

Banks: I don’t know if you saw this, but I was quoted in the paper saying, “insanity prevails.” (laughing) I thought it was a good laugh. But I really liked Bud. He was in a bad situation and he knew it right away. He did everything he could to change it, but there was just nothing he could do. Bud went in there and really tried to make things better. But, in the Cardinal organization, back in those days, you had to change their (management’s) attitude toward the players. And Bud learned pretty quickly that that wasn’t going to happen. So, I really think that he got so frustrated, he kept going in there trying to work with management and saw no results. Bud was really a good guy, and I know it was very frustrating for him, but it got to the point where he said the wrong thing to somebody and they told him to pack his bags and he was gone. But, he was trying to do the right thing.

Q: J.V. Cain was a future star tight end for the Big Red. He missed the ’78 season with an injury and then tragically passed away on the field in training camp in 1979. Tell me a bit about J.V. and your memories of that practice.

Banks: Actually, I was holding out here in Birmingham when J.V. passed away. I came up for the funeral, of course. J.V. was just a wonderful man and a great player, but I feel to this day, he was a better person than a player. Just feel so strongly about that. For that to happen to him… we all realized it could happen to any of us. That’s a sobering feeling. He had learned a lot from Jackie (Smith) and having them both there for a few years was terrific. But on his 29th birthday? I mean what a shock for all of us. I’ll never forget that Dan (Dierdorf) called me and told me and I just sat there and cried. He was one of the good guys.

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J.V. Cain

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Where Are They Now? Tom Banks (Part 1)

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Tom Banks is arguably the greatest center in Big Red history. He was a team leader and outspoken critic of management which made him a fan favorite during his playing days in St. Louis. Banks tells it like it is (and still does) and the fans loved him for it. The All-Pro center was drafted in the eighth round out of Auburn in 1970 and played 11 seasons for the Cardinals (1970-1980). After missing his rookie season due to a broken ankle, Banks became one of the top NFL centers in the mid-70s anchoring an offensive line that only gave up 8 sacks in 1975. He earned Pro Bowl honors from 1975-1978. I recently spoke with Tom about his time at Auburn, his days in St. Louis, and finishing his career with the Birmingham Stallions of the USFL.

Where Are They Now: Tom Banks (Part 2)

Where Are They Now: Tom Banks (Conclusion)

Q: Tom, tell us a little about your father, Tom Banks Sr.? I understand that he was a pretty good ball player himself.

Banks: My dad came out of WWII and went to Jones Junior College in Mississippi. It was impossible to get a scholarship to a major school because of all the veterans coming back from war. He was an undersized offensive lineman at 185 pounds, but he became a Junior College All-American. He took a year off to work in the steel mill when I was born and said it was the best decision he ever made because it made him realize to value education.  He went to Auburn in 1949 and earned a scholarship. He played in the first Senior Bowl in Mobile, AL in 1951 and I was in the stands sitting on my mom’s lap. I was only 2 and a half years old. Later we became the first father-son to play in the Senior Bowl (Banks played in the 1970 game).

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