The Boys of Forever

LSU seniors Matt Flynn and Jacob Hester jumped up like kids and started slapping hands in a choreographed little routine they call “No Big Deal.”

But this was a big deal.

Such a big deal they hugged. So did their teammates. And the coaches. Everyone hugged and laughed and jumped for joy because they’d just learned the Tigers would play Ohio State for the national collegiate football championship Jan. 7, which just so happens to be the 71st birthday of one Durel Matherne.

But more on him later.

For now, try to picture these 2007 Tigers winning the title game and surrounding Les Miles hoisting that crystal ball.

Then imagine these Tigers moving on with their lives and careers. Try and picture them growing old and gathering for lunch in the year 2056. Forget that they’ll be senior citizens: Miles will be 93, after all.

Just try to imagine …

Warren Rabb was the starting quarterback for the 1958 LSU Tigers. They won all 10 regular-season games and The Associated Press voted them No. 1, which is how national champs were chosen back then.

The Sugar Bowl was, as Rabb says, “the reward.” And LSU won that game, too, beating Clemson.

The following year LSU won all but one game, losing to Tennessee 14-13. But what Tiger fans still talk about is the ’58 Tigers.

LSU was a team for the ages. It allowed just

53 points all season, outscoring its last four opponents 126-24. A young Coach Paul Dietzel divvied up the team into three squads. The starters were known as the White Team, led by Rabb at QB, and they played offense and defense. Their substitutes on offense were called the Go Team, led by Matherne at quarterback.

The famous Chinese Bandits relieved them on defense. The Tiger Band even played a stereotypical Chinese jingle—unthinkable in today’s world—whenever the Bandits took the field, which made Tiger Stadium roar.

In those days, quarterbacks called their own plays. Yet starter Rabb threw just 90 passes the whole season, completing exactly half of them. Usually (and wisely) he handed off the ball to Billy Cannon and Johnny Robinson, two future legends of the game, who in those days were called halfbacks. Cannon went down in history for being LSU’s only Heisman Trophy winner and for a remarkable punt return the next season that lives in the lore of the sport, while Robinson led the Kansas City Chiefs to a stunning upset of the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV.

Now, five decades later and with LSU again poised to compete for the national championship, we wondered if those boys of ’58 had any idea how their accomplishment would enrich their lives, or that adoring fans would still ask them for autographs and ask them questions.

225 invited them, on only a couple days’ notice, to lunch one Friday afternoon in early December. In a private dining room at Sullivan’s Steakhouse, the gathering included Rabb, Matherne, Lynn LeBlanc, Gaynell “Gus” Kinchen, Don “Scooter” Purvis and a seemingly ageless Dietzel, who was only 34 in 1958.

One by one, these elder gentlemen walk through the door. Their eyes light up at the sight of old teammates, old friends.

They’ve been asked to bring whatever memorabilia they could find—old jerseys, old helmets, anything. LeBlanc, for example, brings the 1958 Tulane game program and his bright purple letterman’s jacket.

But for the most part, their wrinkled hands are empty. They’re not here to ogle relics or show off. They are here to see each other.

As they settle in to lunch, Rabb looks around and asks simply, “Why are people still interested in us after all these years?”

Probably because they were so cool about it all. It’s because they had character. And because they were characters.

They lined up with guys like Cannon, the closest thing Baton Rouge has to a living athletic legend. And through all the years of questions and autographs and adoration, they haven’t lost that twinkle in their eyes when they talk about the old days.

They still tease each other the way they did when they were boys, the way only teammates can. And they still seem to relish the way new generations of fans keep appreciating them.

Of course, droughts certainly didn’t hurt their legendary status.

Stretches of 50 years before and 45 years after made sports fans hungry. They won the 1958 title 50 years after the 1908 Tigers went 10-0 and were also declared national champs. And then 45 more years passed before the 2003 Tigers finished No. 1, not by going undefeated, but by winning the Bowl Championship Series national title game. More than two generations of LSU fans grew up between trophies.

“I’m not putting LSU down in any way, but I hear more about the ’58 team than I do about the 2003 team,” Matherne says.

So on the eve of perhaps national crown No. 4, we wanted to know just what winning it all will mean 50 years later.

“Well,” LeBlanc says, “every time LSU wins, someone like you invites us to lunch!”

And the room fills with laughter, like a locker room in 1958.

Don “Scooter” Purvis weighs 152 pounds today, which is only a few less than his playing weight. He’ll turn 70 in August but could pass for a 60-year-old. After college Dietzel hired him as an assistant at the University of South Carolina, and they’ve remained close ever since. When the coach arrives at this lunch, he extends his hand to Purvis and says, “Hi, Scoots.”

Representing South Carolina’s biggest school didn’t open many doors with recruits, Purvis recalls. But mention that he played for LSU’s championship team? “Oh, hey, come on in,” they’d say. “When I said ‘LSU,’ it seemed like a light came on.”

It was only then, a few years out of college, that Purvis began to realize the significance of what he and his teammates accomplished.

“Tradition is not something you can buy, beg, borrow or steal,” Purvis says. “If you’ve got tradition, it’s something you better nurture because it’s the one thing that will set you apart many a time.”

Winning the national championship in 1958 brought celebrity, and in some cases hastened success for several guys on the team.

“I got a job because of it,” Rabb says.

He had intended to be a coach—he’d already accepted a job at Central. But Jostens, maker of graduation rings, caps, gowns and now yearbooks, recruited him as hard as any blue chipper. Someone at the Minneapolis-based company saw what a charismatic, valuable salesman Rabb would be. First they worked him with phone calls, the first one at 1:30 a.m. Then they flew in a recruiter with an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Rabb started out at about $8,400 a year. “And 45 years later I’m still doing the same thing.”

Lynn LeBlanc was first the head coach at Larose-Cutoff, but what defined his professional career was working as a longtime assistant coach at LSU under Charles McClendon.

Kinchen, meanwhile, started an LSU legacy, with his sons Brian and Todd both becoming Tigers and later playing in the NFL.

Kinchen recalls being introduced at a gathering in Mississippi as “one of the Chinese Bandits. He didn’t have to explain it. The people knew who I was.”

Matherne says being a part of that team still opens doors in the business world.

“We appreciate what LSU did for us. I don’t think the kids today appreciate that as much,” Matherne said. He admits he didn’t realize the significance of winning the title until he made a serious entry into the business world four or five later.

Several now say they really weren’t aware of what they were about to accomplish as the 1958 season wore on.

“Even when were moving up in the poll during the year I didn’t realize it,” Rabb says.

“Coach Dietzel would remind us,” Purvis adds. “He’d tell us every week that something great was within our grasp.”

Contemplating a national championship is emotional stuff, especially for those who don’t play, and debate over eventual national champions is nothing new. In 2003 LSU won the BCS by beating Oklahoma in the championship game, but Southern Cal was voted No. 1 by the AP. Even this season, many around the nation think LSU isn’t worthy.

The ’58 Tigers, despite some close calls, were a unanimous No. 1.

Were there games they could have—or should have—lost?

“Mississippi State,” they chime in unison, recalling a 7-6 victory on a muddy field in Jackson, Miss. LSU took the lead on a Rabb pass to Billy Hendrix, the ninth victory that year.

Another close one: three weeks earlier, when they beat Florida, 10-7, for homecoming. (Imagine tabbing the Florida game for homecoming nowadays.)

“The only reason the Florida game was so tough was because I got knocked out that game and Rabb had to take it on his own,” Matherne cracks, eliciting a warm laugh from Rabb. Matherne completed 9 of 38 passes that season, and still has high praise for Rabb, the guy who started in front of him. “I couldn’t have gone anywhere else and played behind a guy I respected as much,” Matherne says.

Just another reason why we’re still interested in the ’58 team.

“Most of us on that team, we were winners,” LeBlanc says simply. “We liked to win.”

LSU wasn’t even ranked to start the 1958 season.

But oddly enough, when they talk among themselves, the main topic is how they should have won it all again in 1959. That 14-13 loss to Tennessee still eats at them.

They sound like fans of today’s Tigers bemoaning the triple-overtime losses to Kentucky and Arkansas, second-guessing themselves, and even Dietzel. You sense they still wish they could somehow get a few of those plays back 48 seasons later.

“Speaking for me, in 1958 I had a ball. Football was fun,” Rabb says. “We won it and came back in 1959 and we’re ranked No. 1 in the nation again for the first seven weeks. Hey, it wasn’t fun. Every week, don’t make mistakes, don’t get yourself beat. It wasn’t fun, I can tell you.”

Imagine, back-to-back titles …

The game of football is still the same, Purvis insists. “It’s blocking and tackling.”

“And now you see all these guys with wristbands for the plays,” Matherne says. “I think Warren and I were the first ones to use wristbands.”

While the coaches let the quarterbacks call their own plays, Rabb and Matherne were not without a mental “script.” Dietzel would literally walk them through the game on Thursday and talk about what they should do from just about any spot on the field. Obviously, they ran way more than they threw. And teams often punted on third down in those days.

“I had one halfback who was an All-American (Cannon) and another halfback who’s just as good (Robinson),” Rabb says. “What do you think would have happened to me if I’m throwing the ball 30 or 40 times a game?”

Especially with them running behind LeBlanc, the youngster of the gathering, who turns 69 this month. So he, in turn, teases Matherne about being the oldest. “We’re going to take care of you,” two of them tell Matherne.

And they all laugh again.

Believe it or not, as of this lunch in early December, not one of these LSU football legends had locked up a ticket for the championship game against Ohio State in the Superdome. However, Rabb buys 14 LSU season tickets every year and was still hoping to land some from a random drawing of season-ticket holders.

“I’m anxious to see what happens,” he says.

A couple of the others offer to get him tickets.

Belly laughs again. But most of them made it to the Superdome for the 2003 title game, and will do just about anything to be on hand again.

They sound like kids when they talk about rooting for the Tigers against Ohio State. “I’m so excited for them,” Rabb says.

Tickets? They suggest that the 1958 and 2003 teams should sit together. “That would be a big news story,” LeBlanc says, scheming on how to get seating for 150 or so.

If this year’s Tigers win it all, imagine 50 years from now some writer with 225 gathering the 2007 national champion LSU Tigers for lunch.

Matt Flynn and Jacob Hester will be asked to replicate “No Big Deal.”

Maybe Glenn Dorsey will give them grief for all the late-game comebacks, instead of scoring the points early.

Perhaps they’ll tease Craig Steltz about not remembering details of all the games correctly because he hit receivers and running backs so hard with his head.

Maybe Colt David will talk about his long field goal as time expired to win the championship.

Or better still, maybe they’ll all just talk about how they became successes in life, and how winning it all paved the way for even greater accomplishments like careers of distinction and loving families.

Or maybe someone will bring a copy of this very magazine, open to this very page, tattered and yellowed, with the following quote from a 70-year-old Warren Rabb highlighted in anticipation of that exact moment in 2058:

“For some reason people have not forgotten about the 1958 team,” Rabb says with a smile. “It’s amazing.”

And maybe a couple of the 2007 Tigers will think to themselves, “Not really.”