Friday, June 9, 2023

Oxford’s Olden Days: He Played Football Without a Helmet

OxfordOldenDaysWith the publicity that Oxford and Ole Miss received recently with the Mississippi Rising benefit for Hurricane Katrina victims and the start of the Ole Miss basketball season just around the corner, I thought it might be of interest to some readers to give you a little history on just who C. M. “Tad” Smith was and what he meant to the university community.

Smith was born in the south Mississippi community of Heucks Creek on October 21, 1905. He is said to have stated that he spent his early years “milking cows and playing with lightning bugs.” His family later moved to Brookhaven and this is where young Claude Smith got his nick name Tadpole which was later changed to just Tad. “When I was a little bitty thing I fell into a drainage ditch at the little red school house and was drawn under the road,” Smith recalled. “It was deep and muddy and when I came out Henry Ware Hobbs looked at me and said, ’You look just like a tadpole.’” The nickname stuck and remained with Smith the rest of his life.

As a young man Smith worked for the railroad in Brookhaven in the summer of 1925. His brother was a section foreman and he got him a job as a “gandy dancer”. He did not see much of a future in driving railroad spikes. He wanted to go to college and play football and baseball. In a ride south on the railroad he met a banana boat owner from New Orleans. Blaise D’Antoni had interest in athletics at Loyola and he offered Smith a scholarship as he had done to other south Mississippi boys. Smith spent about three weeks at Loyola until his father came to see him and told him he should go elsewhere to play football and baseball.

An attorney from Hattiesburg, D. H. Holmes, had connections with Ole Miss. He had seen Smith play football and invited Smith to go to Oxford with him. “I drove Holmes’ Franklin, which had an air-cooled engine, on gravel and dirt roads all the way from Lincoln County to Oxford,” Tad Smith said. “We crossed 92 one-way bridges.” Smith had seen one Ole Miss game before he came to the campus. A high school friend of his and Smith saw a game for free in Jackson. He and his friend had hoboed up from Brookhaven to Jackson. “I climbed a mulberry tree and watched it. A&M, coached by Earl Abel, won the game, 13-6,” said Smith.

At Ole Miss, Smith’s flying feet won him a reputation as the greatest punt returner in the South. He disdained fair-catch signals and tried to field every ball on the dead run. “He was an exceptional broken field runner,” said Webb Burke, center and captain on the 1926 team. “He could scat.” Smith never wore a helmet. He did tape his ears back. He did not want anything to slow him down. “The helmets in those days were made about like helmets worn by boxers in training,” said another teammate, Pie Vann from Magnolia. “Tad just taped his ears against his head and let her rip. Showed me how to do it, too, and I played several games without a helmet.”

Smith played football and baseball for Ole Miss during 1926, 1927, and 1928. He was on the team that beat Mississippi A & M in 1926. The infamous “Cane Chair Game.” The next year was the first ever Egg Bowl, which his 1927 team also won. He was All Southern in 1928 and was on the Southern Conference Championship baseball team as a first baseman in 1929. The only time he left Ole Miss was during World War II. He had coached at Ole Miss from 1929 until the war and then returned to Ole Miss in 1946 as the Athletic Director. He is credited with bringing Ole Miss out of the dark ages with reference to the athletic facilities. The Field House was doubled in size, Hemingway Stadium was expanded, a department of intercollegiate athletics building was constructed, an athletic dormitory (Miller Hall) was constructed, and an 8,500-seat coliseum was constructed at a cost of $1,800,000 in 1965. Later the University of Mississippi Coliseum was renamed the C. M. “Tad” Smith Coliseum in his honor. It is now known by most alumni and students as the “Tad Pad.”

It was said of Smith that he never lost his country modesty. “It wasn’t a case of one person doing anything,” he said. “Our problems of growth and expansion simply brought a lot of talented, dedicated alumni together. All we had to do was call—and a lot of times they were calling first. It is because of this tremendous loyalty that Ole Miss will continue to endure and stay strong in athletics.”

He was elected to the Mississippi Sorts Hall of Fame in 1969. Smith also had the ability to recognize talent. “I never named but one football coach,” said Smith. “And he’s the greatest football coach I’ve ever been around—John Vaught.” When he retired as Athletic Director in 1971, he could look back on a golden era at the University of Mississippi.

Mayfield 34Jack Lamar Mayfield is a fifth generation Oxonian, whose family came to Oxford shortly after the Chickasaw Cession of 1832, and he is the third generation of his family to graduate from the University of Mississippi. He is a former insurance company executive and history instructor at Marshall Academy in Holly Springs, South Panola High School in Batesvile and the Oxford campus of Northwest Community College.

In addition to his weekly blog in Oxford’s Olden Days, Mayfield is also the author of an Images of America series book titled Oxford and Ole Miss published in 2008 for the Oxford-Lafayette County Heritage Foundation. The Foundation is responsible for restoring the post-Civil War home of famed Mississippi statesman, L.Q.C. Lamar and is now restoring the Burns Belfry, the first African American Church in Oxford.