There've been thousands of football players at Ole Miss since that first season in 1893. Tonight in Canton, Ohio, only the second one ever will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Charlie Conerly is not in the hall and should be. Archie Manning isn't either and should be as well. There are other Rebels who should be on a list of the alltime greats of the professional game.
Only older Ole Miss fans and younger ones who've studied the history of the Red and Blue will know who Gene Hickerson is. But tonight he will join Frank "Bruiser" Kinard, enshrined in 1970, as the lone Rebels in football's hall of honor for those who played professionally.
The story of Gene Hickerson began in rural west Tennessee. He played only one year of high school football at Trezevant. The story goes that a postal employee who loved Ole Miss called the coaches here to get them to come see this guy Hickerson. So former assistants Tom Swayze and Junie Hovious drove up there.
Coach John Vaught wrote about their journey in his memoirs back in 1971. This week when I talked to three of Hickerson's friends from his Ole Miss era – Warner Alford, Eddie Crawford, and Gerald Morgan - they all told the story the same way.
This was more than 50 years ago so certainly it was a different era. Keep that in mind. As Swayze and Hovious drove up to the Hickerson house, out stepped Gene onto the porch.
According to Vaught's recollections in his book and also those of Alford, who is Swayze's son-in-law, one said to the other, "If that's him, we sign him today."
Hickerson became an All-American lineman at Ole Miss, playing in an era when players still played on both sides of the ball.
Morgan recalled a game at Kentucky in 1957.
"Kentucky had an All-American tackle by the name of Lou Michaels," Morgan said. "We only had 39 players on the travel squad. He and Gene went at each other all night on every play and wore each other out. They beat each other to death. Fortunately we won the game 15-0."
A lot of Ole Miss fans and former players can recall stories like that from 50 years ago. The saddest part about today is that Gene Hickerson likely won't be able to recall any of them. He may not even know that his former Ole Miss and Cleveland Browns teammates are there for his special day – and many of them will be.
That's because Hickerson, now 72, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. He is scheduled to attend, but nobody knows if he will even realize what's going on, which makes a truly special day not nearly as joyous an occasion.
Alford, Crawford, and Morgan will attend. So will Chancellor Robert Khayat. One of Hickerson's Ole Miss and Cleveland Browns teammates, Bobby Ray Franklin, will be the presenter for his longtime pal. Gene's son, Bob, will accept in his father's honor.
And Hickerson will be there, if at all possible, hopefully understanding at least some of what is transpiring.
Gene Hickerson returned to Ole Miss in 1993 to be honored as a member of the Rebels' Team of the Century. His younger brother, Willie, who lives in Memphis and also played at Ole Miss, is a regular at many Ole Miss sports events in Oxford. Willie called our office just a few weeks ago to talk about his Spirit subscription. He wasn't sure that he would be attending the ceremony in Canton. It's my understanding that he will be there today with his brother. That's wonderful if so.
Gene Hickerson retired from pro football after 15 seasons in 1973. He missed all of the 1961 season with injury. He was named the NFL's best blocker in 1968. The Browns won the NFL Championship in 1964. Gene remained in the Cleveland area after his football days were over.
He played in 202 games, fourth-most ever for a Browns' player. In the pros he was a pulling guard on offense and paved the way for three of the most prolific runners in the history of the game – Jim Brown, Leroy Kelly, and Bobby Mitchell.
"His speed was his biggest asset," Crawford said. "He was a fullback turned tackle. And he could really run."
"I met Gene for the first time when I was still in high school in McComb," Alford said. "He came down there with Jerry Stone, who played for Ole Miss and was from McComb. Gene was the biggest, fastest guy I ever saw. He was naturally gifted and durable and was a wonderful team player."
So many times it is said that linemen, the guys in the trenches, don't get their just due, that all the accolades, notoriety and headlines go to the backs and receivers and even the kickers.
Today in Canton, Ohio, Gene Hickerson will get his just reward for a life well lived and for a career as noteworthy as any lineman who played the game during the last half of the 20th century.
We can only hope that on some level he will be able to appreciate all that it means, not only for himself but for so many who have loved and supported him through the years.
UM's Hickerson enters Hall of Fame today
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