Good evening. I am so grateful for the opportunity to be a part of Coach Bob Stearnes’ induction into the Indiana Football Hall of Fame.
I can’t believe how fortunate we were at Tolleston High School to have two Hall of Fame coaches mentoring us in Coach Earl Smith and Coach Bob Stearnes. Their legacy as athletes and coaches in the city of Gary, and as pioneering African-American football players in the 1950s at the University of Iowa will last forever.
I have Coach Stearnes to thank for launching my football career as a kicking specialist over 50 years ago. He happened to watch me during a gym class outdoors when I was a skinny 14-year-old sophomore. I was kicking a football from around second base over a tall fence in right field on the baseball diamond–probably about 45 yards or so. Right on the spot, Coach Stearnes promised to order me a pair of square-toed kicking shoes, which all straight-on kickers used back in the day, and he assigned me to the varsity right in the middle of the season.
As perhaps the first-ever high school kicking specialist in the city of Gary, if not the entire state of Indiana, I was listed as a 6-foot, 150-pound tackle because Coach Stearnes wanted to unveil me as his “secret weapon.”
After a successful college career at Wittenberg University, fast-forward to 2013 when I was inducted into the American Football Kicking Hall of Fame in Augusta, Ga. I mentioned the influence of Coach Stearnes on my life and career during my acceptance speech, and days later I received a tremendous letter and phone call of congratulations from Coach Stearnes and his lovely wife Bennetta. It meant the world to me.
I think I speak for all of us who had the pleasure of playing for Coach Stearnes when I say that we wanted so very badly to please him and make him proud of us.
I know there are some folks here tonight from Valparaiso, but I must say that I never saw him happier after a game than on Oct. 7, 1964, when we prevailed 22-21 at Valpo during my senior year. We trailed 14-0 at the half and Coach Stearnes gave one of his most animated, impassioned halftime speeches to get us fired up. He gave us his version of the “I Have A Dream” speech that Dr. Martin Luther King had made famous in 1963. Then he lifted 290-pound Art Laster up by his shoulder pads and into a locker. Laster, by the way, later played for the Buffalo Bills.
Anyway, we went out in the second half and got touchdowns from Isaac Hood, Johnny LaBroi and Eli Myers. And I kicked a last-minute field goal before Tolleston linebacker Ivory Hood made a clutch interception to eke out the victory.
In addition to his concern for us as football players, Coach Stearnes stayed on us about our grades and our extracurricular activities. For me, that meant writing for the school paper, which turned out to be my life’s work as a sportswriter with the Chicago Tribune for over 41 years, and an author of 11 sports books.
Lastly, I want to once again thank everyone for allowing me to a part of this recognition of Bob Stearnes and I hope everyone appreciates what he has meant to me and hundreds of others who benefitted from his guidance.
We love you, Coach.