MULE': Remembering an LSU great

Paul Dietzel had no other – and no better – description of J.W. "Red'' Brodnax than "an unsung LSU hero.''

Dietzel, who coached the program from a deep slumber to national prominence from the mid-1950s to the early ‘60s, said the largely unheralded fullback – as fullbacks often are – was one of the foundations of the Tigers' No. 1 ranking in 1958.

LSU had running backs. Billy Cannon, Johnny Robinson and Scooter Purvis more than filled that role for the Tigers. What Dietzel needed was one commodity no coach ever has enough of, effective blockers.

"Red was as good a running back as we had,'' Dietzel recalled of Brodnax, who displayed the form that made him an All-State halfback at Bastrop High when he was LSU's leading rusher in the sophomore season of that star-studded class in 1957. "He just wasn't quite as fast, but who was?''

Dietzel said he vividly remembers talking to Brodnax and telling him the coaching staff was thinking about moving him to fullback. "It's an unglamorous position,'' Dietzel reflected. "It was then as it is now. It's not as much fun to know most of what you're going do on Saturday night is trying to clear a path through a wall of bodies so somebody else can enjoy the thrill of carrying the ball.

"So what was Red's response? He just said ‘OK.' That was it. He just wanted to contribute. He accepted his role, then went about doing it as well as anyone ever did. Red was as important as anyone in the national championship of 1958.''

Teammate Lynn LeBlanc mused, "I really don't know if (All-American) Billy Cannon or (All-SEC) Johnny Robinson would have been as good without him blocking for them.''

Brodnax, though, did play a pivotal running role in the closest call LSU had all season, the 7-6 heart-stopper against Mississippi State in Jackson. "Our team was built on speed,'' Dietzel recalled, "and that was negated against Mississippi State. The way I remember it is we were up to our knees in mud, though I'm sure it was just ankle-deep. Still, it was enough to take away one of our major strengths.''

A torrential rain-storm fell on the turf of Jackson Memorial Stadium that November day, and the footing that night was extremely slow and soggy.

The conditions, of course, affected both teams, but the smaller, quicker Tigers appeared more handicapped. Even with a missed extra point after the Bulldogs went ahead 6-0 on a touchdown, it still seemed more than enough to put the first blot on the record of LSU, which had not yet even threatened to score.

"Our bread-and-butter was a counter-play,'' Dietzel said, "and they seemed to be picking up something every time we ran it. Between that and the muddy field, Cannon was stopped in his tracks. He could hardly get out of the backfield.''

Whatever it was, Dietzel determined to cross State up. At halftime he took quarterback Warren Rabb and Brodnax aside and told them they were going to keep calling the counter-play, but instead of running it as diagrammed they would handoff to Brodnax – and no one was to know. That way everyone would perform as usual without any letup – or tip-off.

Sure enough, in the third quarter, after a recovered fumble, on LSU's first play, the Tigers ran to one side and the Bulldogs went right with them – while Brodnax shot through the middle for a 14-yard gain.

The Tigers and Brodnax continued to slough their way to the State 5, where eventually, on fourth-and-goal, Rabb threw a pass to end Billy Hendrix. Tommy Davis' PAT won the game – and, as it turned out, the national championship for LSU.

Brodnax' contributions were realized and recognized by his teammates and the coaching staff. They voted him the MVP of the '58 Tigers.

A pro career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Denver Broncos and in the Canadian Football League followed, but in 1968 Brodnax was involved in a horrific accident, one that seemed to make him reticent.

"After the accident Red didn't make a lot of get-togethers with his old teammates,'' Dietzel said. "But, I'll tell you, those players loved him . . . and so did I.''


Marty Mule' is a former longtime sports writer with the Times-Picayune. Reach him at

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