Friday, September 12, 2008

Remembering: Grambling's first game at Northwestern State

Historic first meeting between Grambling, Northwestern was defensive slugfest
September 11, 2008

By Nick Deriso
The stands, that night, were separated by color.

Fans sporting black and gold filled one set of bleachers, while purple and white populated the other.

But there was something else that divided them, as Grambling played its first-ever game against Northwestern State on Sept. 14, 1974.

"What was unique was not just the color of the shirts; you had all white people on one side and all black on the other," said Jack Brittain, an NSU special teams player in '74. "That was not something I was used to seeing. It was a different point of view."

The newly expanded State Fair Stadium — now Shreveport's Independence Stadium — was packed to the lid, as 30,000 fans joined together despite their differences for a night of stirring football action.

"We knew it was big, especially playing a school of different race from Louisiana," said Sammy White, then a junior wingback for the historically black Grambling college. "We knew the level of competition would be a step up for our program, and we wanted to give it everything we had to pull it out."

At the time, the late legendary GSU sports information director Collie J. Nicholson said this "could become a regular series for the two clubs."

But the Tigers wouldn't play another Southland Conference-affiliated program until falling to Arkansas State in the 1985 lower-division playoffs. Grambling, despite more recent efforts going back at least five seasons, hasn't played Northwestern since.

That changes Saturday at GSU travels to Natchitoches for a long-awaited Louisiana rivalry game that's stirred powerful memories of their first meeting more than 30 years back.

"It was actually a barrier breaker, as far as those things go," said Brittain, now Northwestern's sideline reporter. "As a freshman, it was my first football game, so my knees were shaking before we went out for the kickoff. Then, we were facing Grambling, who had such a great reputation for sending players to the professional leagues. We figured it was going to be an epic battle."

Was it ever.


Senior Grambling quarterback Joe Comeaux, a Westlake native, opened the scoring with a four-yard TD scramble. He'd hit Dwight Scales on a 43-yard pass to the NSU 7 on the second play from scrimmage.

Rodney Zeno, a senior GSU defensive back, added the extra point, but the 7-0 lead wouldn't stand for long.

A White fumble on the Grambling 13 gave the ball back to Northwestern's Butch Ballard, who answered with his lone touchdown pass of the night — hitting Gene Knecht on an eight-yard strike.

That followed a series of stuffs on off-tackle runs by Mario Cage, who couldn't get past Grambling seniors Gary "Big Hands" Johnson and Robert Barber.

In a harbinger of kicking problems to come, NSU's extra-point attempt then failed.

NSU's Cage — coming off a 1,000-yard, all-Gulf South season in 1973 — then made a dramatic second-quarter touchdown run on a pitch back from Ballard. (There are lingering discrepancies on the exact length of his run: Monroe's Morning World had it at 57 yards, The Times of Shreveport reported 61 and NSU's yearbook said 52.) Danny Foret's point-after attempt was true this time, giving Northwestern a 13-7 lead at the half.

Neither team, however, could gather itself for a knock out on offense. It was all body blows.

"That game," said White, "was tight, tight, tight."

Nicholson once marveled over NSU's 1974 defense, saying "they make up for a lack of size with speed, aggressiveness and a desire to hit."

Grambling's unit, meanwhile, featured James "Hound" Hunter as a secondary anchor along with the All-American Johnson, who late Grambling coaching legend Eddie Robinson had taken to calling "the best lineman in college football."

Both teams would punt seven times over the course of the contest, with Grambling earning just four first downs and outgaining NSU by a total of only 74 yards. Northwestern fumbled seven times, losing three — while picking off GSU a total of four stunning times.

"I was deep protection on the punts," Brittain said, laughing, "and we punted a lot. I just remember 'Big Hands' running past our center, right behind the snap as it was coming back. He would come in low, about one foot off the ground. All I could do is dive at his shoelaces. He would just shove me to the ground and trample right over me."

Grambling returned to the field after halftime with a new quarterback, and Shreveport sophomore Terry Brown reeled off a dramatic 82-yard pass to White.

"They were blitzing us a lot, so we had a one-on-one match up," said White, now an assistant coach at Grambling. "Terry threw a nice long ball on that one."

Zeno's kick gave the Tigers their final margin of victory, 14-13.

But not before a memorable NSU field goal attempt, blocked by Hunter, as time expired.

Hunter's playmaking through that junior season had already drawn raves from Robinson, who called the Texan "Mr. Clutch." A canny pass defender and zippy returner, Hunter was "generally spoken of with a reverence reserved exclusively for legendary Saturday heroes," the late Nicholson once said.

That legend was built on plays like the final one against Northwestern State.

NSU got the ball back after an interception by linebacker Dan Boddie, who dashed back to the Grambling 34 with 4:03 left in the game. Ballard then drove down to the GSU 3 as time grew short, setting up a 20-yard attempt by Foret. Demons coach George Doherty, in a gutsy move, had ordered the try on third down with just 39 seconds remaining.

Hunter got a finger on it, as perhaps did Johnson, and the attempt missed.


Cage, who went down to injury during that final push, rushed for 97 yards — though much of that was given back in the final team stats because of lost yardage by other players.

Ballard finished the day 11-of-16 for just 88 yards and a score for NSU. Comeaux and Brown, meanwhile, combined for a 7-of-21 performance — a lack of efficiency under center that eventually led to the now-famous insertion of a redshirt freshman named Doug Williams three games later against Prairie View A&M.

"We had our opportunities," Williams said. "We scored 14 points, but we were still largely ineffective. It wasn't one of those good old Grambling offensive days. You could give some of that to Northwestern, too. They had a good team."

Doherty, entering his last season in Natchitoches after winning the Gulf South in 1972, had brought A.L. Williams in as offensive coordinator — and installed his new assistant's more pass-oriented offense in anticipation of handing over the reigns.

NSU, which had already dropped its second straight game in 1974, was in the midst of consecutive 1-10 campaigns. Williams would coach at Northwestern for eight seasons, boasting ranked teams in 1980 and '82 when his teams finished 8-3 and 7-4 respectively.

Williams went on to pass for 1,150 yards (nearly 400 more yards than Comeaux and Brown combined) over the remainder of the 1974 season. Grambling finished 11-1, claiming the ninth of 17 total Southwestern Athletic Conference championships under Robinson. (Williams later returned to coach at his alma mater, and played host to the first Southland foe ever at Grambling's Robinson Stadium — McNeese State in 2003.)

Grambling's lone '74 stumble was a 19-14 loss to Alcorn, and they shared the SWAC crown. Robinson would finish the season at 236 career wins on the way to 408 total, a still-standing Division I record.

The Northwestern victory, thrilling in its playing and encouraging in its social significance, holds a special place among them.

"The perspective of this game is way beyond the football field," Brittain said. "In our lives, both at Grambling and at Northwestern, it had a big effect. What a great time to try something like that, to break through some of those unknowns."

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