By Chris McCarthy
ML Brackett’s career has taken him far and wide from his roots in rural Attalla.
The former Etowah High School, Auburn University and National Football League standout probably could rival Abe Lincoln and Will Rogers as a storyteller with regard to his gridiron accomplishments.
Then again, someone who has played for five coaching legends and with several Hall of Fame members might be inclined to weave an interesting yarn or two.
Born in 1933 in Attalla, Brackett played for the legendary Jim Glover at Etowah, or Etowah County High School as it was known back in his prep days.
Brackett was a two-way tackle for the Blue Devil varsity from 1949-51. He and his Blue Devil teammates won 22 straight games from Sept. 29, 1949 to Sept. 21, 1951, while the 0-0 ’50 squad ws named the state champion by the Birmingham News.
Etowah went another 49 years before bringing home another state title. That 1950 team included Bobby Gargus, John O’Barr, Wyman Townsell, James Campbell and Robert Hammonds. Brackett was named to the all-county and all-state teams that season.
“Our big rivals back then were Gadsden and Emma Sansom,” recalled Brackett. “Out of the nine high schools in the county, we were known as the Big 3, and Southside, Glencoe, Hokes Bluff, Gaston, Altoona and Walnut Grove were the Little 6.”
Brackett considers Glover a cut above his coaching contemporaries.
“Not only did he have the most innovative offensive mind of any high school coach around, Coach Glover was a tremendous motivator and a strict disciplinarian. They allowed students two smoke breaks at that time, but if coach caught any of his players smoking he would make him run over every other guy on the team at the next practice. He didn’t curse or scream, but he got his message across.”
Glover wasn’t adverse to a bit of chicanery during a game.
“We didn’t’ win ballgames by smoke and mirrors, but we did use quite a lot trick plays,” said Brackett. “One [play] in particular that always seemed to work was the ‘water bucket play’ in which we’d call a timeout when the ball wound up on the hashmark nearest our bench. After the time-out, our center Keith Lutz would leave the huddle and run over to where the football was. Meanwhile, we’d go up to the line of scrimmage. Lutz would then hike the ball 20 yards away from our huddle and toss it to our quarterback James Campbell, who was 15 yards behind the line. Campbell would then throw a swing pass to our halfback, Wyman Townsell. By that time we were walled up like a punt return, and Townsell would already be running with a full head of steam and score a touchdown. Townsell was the premier running hack in the state at the time, and he later was a roommate with Johnny Unitas at Louisville. No one was going to catch him in the open field. We beat Druid City High in Tuscaloosa with that play, and they were one of the stronger schools in the state at the time.”
“Probably the best athlete who came out of Etowah High was Excel Hester. He was a super football player and a better baseball player who led our 1948 team to a state championship.
Brackett pointed out that the rivalry between the ‘Big 3’ didn’t end when the final whistle blew.
“We had some rough kids playing on all three teams,” said Brackett. “We’d fight each other with rocks and raid each other’s women for dates. It was a great three-way rivalry.”
Brackett his Blue Devils “took on all comers,” including Baldy Smith’s Glencoe teams and Lou Scales’ Alexandria squads as well as Albertville and Guntersville.
“Those teams always gave us a heck of a battle, but we had the numbers. We’d also play the bigger Birmingham schools and usually beat them.”
Brackett’s road to the Plains began during his sophomore year, when local AU recruiter Henry Culp, Sr., took Brackett to a Tiger football game. Brackett initially felt out of place among the SEC-caliber athletes.
“I was just in awe of the speed, size and quickness of the college game, plus how hard those guys hit. I thought that I’d never be able to play at that level, but I had exceptional speed for a lineman, and as I developed and grew I became one of the crowd.”
Brackett also visited Georgia and Georgia Tech, but I fell in love with Auburn’s home-like atmosphere. Brackett also was high on Alabama’s wish list, but the feeling wasn’t mutual following his visit to the Capstone.
“Alabama had two strikes against them from the word go – the chlorine stench from the Tuscaloosa paper mill was awful and their dorms had triple-decker bunk beds with no air conditioning. Strike 3 was the foul language of an Alabama assistant coach, so I wrote Alabama off real early.
“I shied away from Georgia Tech because they were an engineering school and all I had was a half-semester of math at Etowah.”
One of Brackett’s many claims to fame was that he was Ralph “Shug” Jordan’s first-ever recruit at Auburn. Jordan arrived on the Plains for the 1951 season and left after the 1975 season, compiling a 176-83-6 record.
“Back then, the head coach didn’t go out to the recruit’s house,” said Brackett. “They sent assistants out to talk to kids and sign them up. Back then we didn’t have signing ceremonies at the school library or gym.”
Brackett himself signed his scholarship in his front yard in the family’s Ford truck.
Brackett’s John Hancock signaled the beginning of a special relationship between he and Jordan.
“Coach Jordan took a liking tome right from the start, and we enjoyed an enduring relationship throughout the years. I loved him as much as I did my dad. Auburn dropped him to interim head coach when his health began to fail, and he asked me to help with the crowd control at the home games. At the time, he was the greatest person I had behind me.”
Brackett noted that Jordan and Glover were cut from the same mold.
“Both men had pretty even-tempered dispositions, and both tried to relate the game of football to life. They would work your rear-end off but they cared about you as a person.”
Brackett was a four-year starter a tackle for the Tigers, one season with the freshmen team and three with the varsity. Auburn went 7-3-1 during his sophomore year of 1952, the most wins by a Tiger team since 1931. AU posted an 8-3 record in 1954 and went 8-2-1 in 1955. Brackett was named to the Collier Magazine All-American team his senior year and to the Atlanta-Journal Constitution All-Conference team three straight years.
Since the Iron Bowl series hadn’t been resumed until 1948 after a 40-year hiatus, Brackett noted that Georgia and Georgia Tech were Auburn’s biggest rivals during his four years with the Tigers. Brackett’s Auburn teams went 2-1 against Alabama, losing 10-7 in ’53 before posting victories of 28-0 and 26-0 the following two years.
Among Brackett’s college teammates were Vince Dooley, Bobby Brown, Fob James, Frank D’Agostino, Joe Childers and Red Phillips. Auburn went to the Gator Bowl all three years, losing to Texas Tech, beating Baylor and losing to Vanderbilt.
The Commodores’ next bowl appearance would not come until this past December.
Professional football was a foreign term to Brackett until his junior season at Auburn, at which time a scout form the Los Angeles Rams contacted him. With a degree in business administration in hand, Brackett said thanks but no thanks.
“I really never heard much about the pro game, but other teams started sending me letters and questionnaires to fill, and I became interested in getting paid to play football.”
Brackett ended up getting drafted by the Chicago Bears [in February of1956], setting up a negotiating showdown with coaching legend No. 3, George Halas.
“There were no agents in those days, and right from the start we didn’t agree on money. In the meantime I talked to Toronto of the CFL, who offered me a guaranteed, two-year contract of $15,000.”
Brackett informed Halas of the offer, who asked Brackett to drive to the Windy City to hammer out a deal. It was not a smooth give-and-take session.
“Halas’ offer was ridiculously lower than Toronto’s was, and I responded that I wanted a $2,000 bonus and a new car above and beyond the contract. He told me he couldn’t meet my demands, so I told him I was going back to Alabama and he had three days to agree to my terms. That was on a Friday, and Monday afternoon at 4 p.m. he called me and said we had a deal.”
Brackett started as a rookie for the 1956 season, playing at weak side linebacker and long snapper on a Bears team that went 9-3-1 and lost to the New York Giants in the league championship game. “It was a much bigger adjustment from college to the NFL as it was from high school to Auburn,” said Brackett. “The mental part was the most difficult thing, because the terminology was very involved and specific. It was a lot of information to process.”
Chicago fell to 5-7 the next season, during which Brackett suffered a knee injury and wore a cast on his leg for eight weeks.
Brackett soon had a change of venue, as the Giants needed a long snapper and the Bears deemed him expendable. Chicago traded Brackett to New York just prior to the 1958 season, giving him an up close taste of the Big Apple.
After saying goodbye to teammates that included Ed Brown, George Blanda, Zeke Bratkowski, Harlon Hill, Jim Dooley, Bill George, Rick Cesares and Willie Galimore, (Halas, Blanda and George are in the NFL Hall of Fame), Brackett took a bus to New York’s training camp at Bear Mountain in the Catskills.
Although he played only one season in Gotham, Brackett made no bones about his time in the Empire State.
“We were one big happy family with the Bears, but I hated playing in New York. I got along with my teammates and coaches, but it was just too cold for me and we didn’t have thermal clothing like they have now. It was also too crowded for me, and I didn’t like riding the subway or taking a ferry in order to get around. It was also a dangerous place back then, and the Giant players were told always to travel en mass. I do have some nice memories, though, like seeing the 1958 World Series and playing in Yankee Stadium.
“The guys from the South usually hung together, but there were only a few on the Giants at that time. Conerly was from Mississippi, and he was a super-nice guy.”
Two iconic coaches awaited Brackett in the Bronx – offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi and defensive coordinator Tom Landry. Jim Lee Howell was the Giant’s head coach.
“Coach Howell was very articulate and represented the Giants very well, but he really was just a figurehead,” said Brackett. “Lombardi and Landry were the ones who ran the team. To play for Lombardi, you had to treat every play like the last play of a game. He expected perfect execution, and after we were able to that, it still wasn’t enough. We had to sprint wherever we went and had to wear helmets all the time. He had his game face on when we took to the field, but in the locker room, he’d sit with us and ask about our families. He made an effort to get to know his players.
“Coach Landry, on the other hand, was a bit of a loner. He used to be a player coach for the Giants, and at that point he was trying to distance himself from the guys he played with, like Andy Robustelli and Rosie Brown. It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized that he wanted to separate Tom the coach from Tom the player. Unlike Lombardi, he’d allow you at your own level, but he’s run you off in a minute if he felt that you weren’t performing to his standards.”
Brackett’s 1958 teammates included a who’s who of NFL legends – Robustelli, Brown, Frank Gifford, Charlie Conerly, Sam Huff, Fuzzy Thurston, Jim Catcavage, Dick Modzelewski, Jim Parker, Don Maynard, Emlen Tunnell, Jim Taylor, Jack Kemp and Kyle Rote.
Brown, Gifford, Huff, Maynard, Robustelli, Tunnell, Landry and Lombardi are all in the NFL Hall of Fame.
“Gifford would have been an All-World if he’d played in the single-wing [formation], and Taylor was the toughest running back I ever saw. Even if he had a clear shot to the goal line, he’d veer off and look to run someone over. Rosie and Jim were the best offensive linemen I ever saw.”
As for the Greatest Game Ever Played – the NFL championship on Dec. 28, 1958 at Yankee Stadium between the Giants and the Baltimore Colts – Brackett knew going in that it would be his last.
“I had decided before the season that I was going to retire. I was going to retire the year before, but I’d just gotten married and I wanted my wife to see what the NFL was all about. I played on two injured knees for two straight years, and I knew when I got traded that I wasn’t coming back.”
Nursing a calf injury, Brackett didn’t see much playing time during the contest, which Baltimore won 23-17 in overtime.
Brackett was blunt and to the point as why New York lost the game.
“We were physically beaten up going in. The two games before that were against Cleveland and Detroit, and both were very physical games that were played in brutally cold weather. Basically we were worn out by the time we played the Colts.”
Brackett believed to this day that the Giants would have won the game if Gifford had converted a crucial third down play in the fourth quarter.
“Gifford’s carry was mishandled by the game officials,” said Brackett. “The referee actually took the ball from the spot and threw it to the line judge, so no one had an accurate idea after that of where exactly Gifford went down. Then Howell calls for a punt, and after they kicked the field goal to tie the game the Colts overpowered us in overtime. The air seemed to go out of Yankee Stadium after Gifford’s play, and the players were spent.”
Brackett recalled that he was one of the last players to leave a very solemn locker room, but was privy to a prediction that was right on the mark.
“I was sitting by myself and [longtime television broadcaster] Chris Schenkel came over. I told him that I was heading back to Alabama, and he told me right then that in the future, thi game would be call the greatest game ever played.”
Brackett last year attended the game’s 50-year reunion in December, one of five members of the ’58 Giants to show up. He was also interviewed by Gifford for the latter’s book about the game and was mentioned in a recent ESPN documentary about the game.
Back in Etowah County in 1959, Brackett worked briefly for Republic Steel before spending two years at Emma Sansom High School as a teacher and coach. He then returned to Etowah for three years to teach and coach.
Brackett then worked for Republic Steel until his retirement in 1985.
Football wasn’t the only sport that Brackett in which Brackett achieved notoriety. He played fast-pitch softball for six years and was a softball umpire for 30 years, nine of which he was the president of the state umpires association. He was inducted into the Alabama Amateur Softball Hall of Fame in 1994.
Brackett underwent four knee operations from 1988-89, but he still attends many Etowah High football games.
He and his wife of 51 years, Carolyne, have three children – Joni Lynne, who lives in Auburn and works for Smith-Barney; Carol Lee, a civil engineer who works for Ladd Engineering in Fort Payne; and Joel Scott, a science teacher and football and baseball coach at Gadsden City High.
“God has placed me in the middle of some very fine people,” said Brackett. “I’ve truly been blessed with the people I’ve been associated with. The Lord put me in the right places at the right time.”