When the Istrouma High Class of 1963 met Saturday night for its 50th reunion at the Oak Lodge, there had to be plenty of laughs, hugs and smiles.
The group hadn’t met since its 30th reunion in 1993. And after all these years, the accomplishments of the school’s last state championship football team stand the test of time and as a testament to a bygone era.
Istrouma won its sixth Class 3A title in eight years under legendary coach James “Big Fuzzy” Brown, beating Byrd, of Shreveport, 21-14 on Dec. 14, 1962, at Memorial Stadium.
“I believe it was the best of times you could have had,” said Melvin Johnston, who now lives in Bonita, La., near the Arkansas border. “Our dads worked in the plants. We were middle class, living in north Baton Rouge, and we didn’t have the drugs or other issues kids have to deal with now. “Our group made it (last title) special, but we were no more important than the ones who came before us or after us.”
A group of 11 players and one assistant coach, Leon McGraw, were expected to attend the reunion. Johnston, Mike Barbier, Tommy Fussell, Benny Griffin, twins Melvin and Michael Hopper, Ronnie McAdams, Donald G. McCrary, John C. McGehee, Charles Rush and Bill Wilkinson were the players planning to attend.
The 1962 Indians finished 11-1 and outscored opponents 228-43, according to published reports. Istrouma’s lone loss was 3-0 to Jesuit, of New Orleans. Sixteen of the 17 senior players signed football scholarships. Four players, the Hoppers, Fussell and Griffin followed in the footsteps of Heisman trophy winner Billy Cannon by going from Istrouma to LSU. Johnston was a teammate of Parkview Baptist coach Kenny Guillot at Northwestern State University.
In addition to Brown, the players cherish their memories of assistants Moose Stewart and Coon Porter, along with McGraw, who took a special interest in the few players who came from single-parent homes. McGraw also coached many of the players in their undefeated days at Istrouma Middle School.
Their existence was much more “Leave it to Beaver” than “Real World,” but there were real-world implications.
“I think the positive influence our coaches had on us was the most important thing,” Melvin Hopper said. “That was the rough, working side of town. You could grow up fighting. There were guys we grew up with who were in Angola by the time we were in the 12th grade.
“We focused on grades and sports. They (coaches) told us we could use football to get an education and then go anywhere in the world.”
Some have. Fussell played two years with the Boston Patriots. A knee injury ended Mel Hopper’s career at LSU, but he went on to get an engineering degree at LSU and worked in the oil refining business for years. He lived in Las Vegas for a while and has settled back in Texas, where at age 67 he works in insurance and bonding.
Michael Hopper, a Central resident, played two years at LSU. After getting his degree from LSU, he taught and worked in sales before returning to Baton Rouge for a 31-year career at Exxon. Johnston got his degree in agricultural engineering and has been a career farmer.
“I felt like we had a bond with coach Brown; we were twins and coach Brown was a twin,” Michael Hopper said. “His (Brown’s) twin was our principal (Ellis “Little Fuzzy” Brown). But he was tough and so was coach McGraw. Coach McGraw told us if he ever caught us with a cigarette he’d make us eat it.”
Johnston adds, “They (coaches) were hard on us, but they also made us feel special. I weighed 155 pounds my junior year and I played guard and linebacker. They made me believe I could accomplish anything and go on to college.”
After nearly two years of writing more than I ever cared to about sportsmanship issues, I’ve got to praise three schools, Live Oak High, Parkway High and Walker High, for how a regional-round softball playoff game was conducted Friday.
The game attracted a standing room-only crowd at Walker High for the Parkway vs. Walker matchup and ended with players from both teams sharing a FCA prayer around the pitcher’s circle following Parkway’s 10-3 win.
There were concerns about what could happen, given the controversy that erupted in November at Parkway when Live Oak football coach Barry “Tut” Musemeche was handcuffed, but not arrested, following a dispute over pre-game warm-up time. Parkway was later sanctioned in an LHSAA sportsmanship hearing, and Musemeche is pursuing a civil lawsuit.
Rumors about Live Oak students coming to the game at nearby Walker, a District 4-5A and Livingston Parish rival, were predictable. And some LOHS students did come, along with Live Oak softball coach Michelle Morris and several of her players, who were there to support Walker.
Walker Principal Jason St. Pierre added security and Parkway and its principal, Nichole Bourgeois, also had a security officer on site.
Also visible were LOHS Principal Tracy McRae, Livingston Parish School Superintendent John Watson and Louisiana High School Athletic Association assistant director B.J. Guzzardo, who attended at St. Pierre’s request.
The only thing to see was a softball game. And that was good news.