My memories of playing football against Wilbur Hackett.

First, a brief background. In 1962, I was a happy little grade school athlete at St. Columbia living at 39th and Market Street. After I quarterbacked St. Columbia to a loss in the Toy Bowl (at the time when there was only one Toy Bowl) to St. Raphael, the family (not totally because of the shame of the loss) moved to the corner of Cannons Lane and Willis Avenue in St. Mathews. I spent the next year and a half at Holy Spirit where I had a not undistinguished 8 grade year as a stud quarterback.

Certainly, “Jeep” Quire at Trinity and Johnny Melhaus at St. X made it clear they would love to have me play quarterback at their schools. I could have walked out of my house, taken a left on Willis Avenue, and four minutes later been at Trinity.

At the time, you may recall that the four football powers were Flaget, St. X, Male, and Manual. Flaget had a legendary coach named Paulie Miller. I elected to travel 20 miles a day (each way) to play football at Flaget for Paulie. I was going to be the next Rick Norton.

The next year Paulie left and became head coach at Trinity (that prick!) and I stayed at Flaget. Under the new regime and possibly because they had a quarterback named Oscar Brohm, who was an OK thrower, I was moved to wide receiver. Without boring you about an additional coaching change where Paulie’s replacement followed him to Trinity, my senior year Head Coach at Flaget was Norm Mackin. Norm was an offensive guru and we ran a wide open offensive scheme.

By the time Flaget played Manual, it was essentially for the city championship as we had beaten Male (largely on an incredible catch of a wobbly Dave Norris pass and run on my part for the game winning touchdown), but had lost an earlier city game to Shawnee, and as you may recall, Manual’s only loss that year was to Male. Having put together consecutive relatively impressive wins against Trinity, Male and DeSales, we went into the Manual game appropriately cocky.

Manual was coached by Charlie Bentley, had a quarterback named Gary Evans, a wide receiver named Jerome Perry, a defensive back named Russ Gibson, who later coached at Fern Creek, but most importantly had a fullback/linebacker named Wilbur Hackett. Now you must understand, that at that point in my career, I didn’t think anybody in Louisville could “cover me” on any pass route which is why I was constantly in Norm Mackin’s face saying “I can beat ’em deep”. Gradually he started listening to me and I did “beat ‘em deep” for touchdowns on a number of occasions up to that point.

The game was for all the marbles and was relatively close. It was the middle of the third quarter, Manual was leading 7 to 0, when I went up to Mackin and said “I can beat ’em deep”. He put in the play: “triple right - sprint right - throwback - tight end post”. This was it! I would again of course beat ‘em deep, tie the game up, and with the momentum, we would go on and win and be in a position to play for another state championship for the Braves.

I proceeded to carryout my responsibilities on that play which was to brush block the defensive end, and slide off and run a “skinny post”. The quarterback would sprint out to the right, all of the defensive flow would follow the side of the formation in the direction of the quarterback’s movement, theoretically leaving the middle of the field open for me. As Dave Norris got outside the tackle and looked back, instead of seeing what he had now grown accustomed to seeing, which was me streaking free waiting for one of his wobbly passes to be brought in for a touchdown, what he saw was Wilbur Hackett’s knee with an odd blue attachment hanging from it as he sprinted toward the quarterback and as I lay supine and helmetless. The attachment was my helmet. He hit me so hard that the helmet cracked down the middle and I think for a stride or two, was attached to his knee instead of my head. Manual won 13 to 6, and went on to win the State Championship. I went on to play four more years of football at St. Joseph’s College in Indiana and believe me, I never got hit anywhere near remotely as hard as Wilbur Hackett hit me on that play.

Later that year after football season, I saw Wilbur at a track meet. I was a sprinter and Wilbur was a long jumper, which given the enormity of his thighs, is to this day hard to conceptualize. At the time, we were both contemplating going to U of K which he did and, as mentioned, I did not. I specifically remember the conversation for two reasons: 1) He commented on how big my arms were (I did two things to make my arms look big: (i) a zillion sets of bicep curls and (ii) at every track meet I rubbed analgesic balm on my arms, not for any medicinal purpose but rather to make them look shiny and thus bigger). In any case, I mentioned to him “the hit” and he looked at me grinning and said “Oh man, that was just a little love tap”.

Later that summer, I played on the City All Star team with Wilbur, which was also coached by Charlie Bentley. We practiced together for two weeks and believe me I did all that was necessary to avoid engaging in another even accidental “love tap” from Wilbur. The power of negative reinforcement!

The next summer, I was a lifeguard at a city pool, the Algonquin Swimming Pool located at 22nd and Cypress. I, and Kenny King, who was also a Flaget boy and who played football at U of K with Wilbur, were the only Caucasian guards. One Friday evening as I was leaving to walk back to Algonquin Parkway to hitchhike back to Cannons Lane, I was accosted by a group of thugs who would today be categorized as a gang. I thought I was in big trouble and then all of the sudden, out of the corner of my eyes I saw this familiar face with these huge thighs walk over and it was Wilbur Hackett. He said, “Hey Punks are you messing with my boy?” That was all it took for the gang to disburse, as he walked with me to Algonquin Parkway. He clearly saved my ass that day.

I have enclosed an article from the Sports Illustrated edition about pioneer African Americans in the SEC which tells the story about Wilbur’s days at U of K.

Recently I saw Wilbur who, like many of us, simply doesn’t have the same physical stature he once enjoyed. In fact, Wilbur, the day of the subject Flaget – Manual game, seemed 6’2” and 250. He is now about 5’8” and probably weighs 165; and surely can’t be the person who wreaked such havoc on my cranium. As you may know, he still referees in the SEC.

We talked about his nephew, Garnett Phelps, Jr., who played last year at Ballard, who I was recruiting for my alma mater. I was very impressed with the honest, articulate, straightforward way he communicates. After talking with him for a few minutes and seeing the intensity in those eyes, the jut of the jaw, and the always discernable integrity of the man, the sting of that hit was again vivid in my memory only this time, in a very pleasant and positive way.

Wilbur Hackett attacked everything he did in life the way he attacked tight ends trying to run crossing patterns on the football field; and that was with total effort, integrity and unambiguous purpose. I have always greatly admired Wilbur Hackett, but if we played them again that year, we would have beaten them. The reason that I know this now, is that I’m crafty enough to have figured a way to have had him miss the game! In any case, that’s my Wilbur Hackett story.


John Siegel