Spotlight on Former Athletes: Past Ballplayers Association - Their Unique Tailgating/Support Spirit
Ex-Cajun athletes extend support with tailgating at Cajun Field, Russo Park
By Bruce Brown
Erath's Jimmy Poche experienced the transition between Russ Faulkinberry and Augie Tammariello when he played football for USL's Ragin' Cajuns from 1973-76,
Now, more than 40 years later, he has seen Sam Robertson, Nelson Stokley, Jerrry Baldwin, Rickey Bustle, Mark Hudspeth and now Billy Napier lead the school's program.
It's a long way from 0-10 to bowl games and the chance for conference championships, and Poche has had an up-close look at that progress from his tailgating perch near Gate 1 of Cajun Field.
“I have a group of ex-players and friends,” said Poche, a tight end in his playing days. “We call ourselves the PBA – Past Ballplayers Association, or Pro Backers Association. It's a fun group, and it actually started from our friendships in college.”
Nathan Thornton is another charter member of the group. He, too, bridged the Faulkinberry and Tammariello eras.
“They talked me into coming back out when coach Tammariello came in,” Thornton said.
There are 31 families in the PBA group, which occupies the Nos. 18 and 19 tailgating squares near the oak tree and maintenance building on the stadium's west side. They also tailgate for Cajun baseball games in the spring at Russo Park.
“The first year was 1993,” Poche said. “It's gone from $50 to $500 per square. Expenses run between $1500 and $2000.
“I have five cooking teams, of 7-8 people each, and each team is responsible for one game. They have to make sure they fix enough for all the families and their guests. We often have enough for people to take home.
“We also feed the team twice a year, in the fall and the spring.”
“I've always enjoyed coming out for games, since we finished school,” said attorney Rick Keating (1973-76). “It was informal at first. It's good to have cooking teams. That means you only have to work hard one time.”
The rest of the time, the former teammates enjoy cigars, drinks, good food and tall tales.
“Augie was very ahead of his time,” Keating said. “He wasn't a Woody Hayes type. He was very much into the mental side of it. He stressed visualization. He also tried to run half of us (holdovers) off, but we hung in there. We stayed.”
They stayed long enough to form lasting friendships and loyalty to the university.
Rayne product Rick Young had his issues with Tammariello, toiling as backup quarterback to the mercurial Roy Henry, but emerged unharmed.
“Augie kicked Roy off the team after Roy didn't show up for media day,” Young recalled. “The next day, none of the Black players but Andy Harrison were at practice. It split the team.
“They told me I was the starting quarterback. After Augie took Roy back, they named him the starter and Augie didn't tell me. He had Sam Robertson tell me. That irritated me.”
There was no doubting Henry's ability, though.
“One time,” Young said, “he stood on one goal line and threw the ball to me on the other one – about 95 yards. I could stand on the 50 and throw the ball through the uprights. Roy could do that on his knees.”
“In the early days, the best player I played with was (linebacker) David Neustrom,” Keating said. “He always played hard, every single game and practice. Priobably Roy Henry was the best overall. He was an exceptional talent.”
“The best I played with were Reggie Dupre and Cleo Samuels,” said Thornton, the president of UL's Gridiron Club. Dupre held the school record for longest run from scrimmage at 90 yards before current Cajun Raymond Calais dashed to a 92-yard TD last season.
“Jake Delhomme and Brandon Stokley, of course,” said Kevin Guilbeau, a Cajun punter in the 1990's. “They both had even better pro careers. Peanut (Charles Tillman) had a better pro career than Orlando Thomas, but Orlando was cut short by ALS. Orlando was a great college player.”
Poche pointed to place kicker Rafael Septien and Henry.
“Rafael was as good as anyone who ever kicked the ball,” Poche said. “Augie brought him to practice one day and told Rafael (from Mexico) to 'keek the futbol.' They put the ball on the 45-yard line and he kicked 10 straight 55-yard field goals. Then he kicked 55-yarders left-footed.
“Roy was just a bad a**,” Poche added. “He could have been a runner like Brian Mitchell, but wanted to throw the ball and make it to the pros. And, he could throw it.”
Guilbeau joined the group after playing for Stokley, and has settled into the culture of good food, some hard teasing and laughs that mark the PBA mentality.
“Our stories are similar – just a different time and different place,” said Guilbeau, who likes what he sees of Napier's 2019 squad, the first in school history with 10 regular season victories, but he's staunch in his defense of the Cajuns who won back-to-back Big West Conference titles in 1993 and 1994 yet didn't go to bowl games.
“There were only, I think, 14 bowls at the time we played,” he said. “Things have changed. I remember when we got our conference championship rings, they called us into an office and we signed for them. Now they have parades and ceremonies for them.”
The Cajuns battle Appalachian State for the Sun Belt Conference crown on Dec. 7, with a bowl game to follow, yet fan support has lagged behind achievement with some.
A mere 14,262 fans showed up for the 53-3 win over Troy that locked up the Sun Belt West Division title on Nov. 23 – barely a third of capacity at the 41,264-seat stadium.
Some tailgaters come for the party but don't go inside Cajun Field to catch the action. That's not the case for PBA members, who generally hustle across the drive in time for the opening kickoff.
“We always take time to check around our site before we go in, but we're there for the games,” Poche said.
Current Cajun seniors like running back Calais and right guard Kevin Dotson are likely to get their chance to impress NFL scouts. Juniors Elijah Mitchell, Trey Ragas and others will get their chance.
But just as important to the team's success has been chemistry.
“My freshman year, the seniors ran the team,” Thornton said. “We were more afraid of them than we were the coaches. And I think you see some of that here with this team.”
“I like our coach,” Young said. “He's the real deal. He knows his X's and O's, and the players want to play for him. He's tough, but the kids respect that. They're 100 percent bought in. The players call him 'Coach Chill.' “
Young's father coached at Rayne High, with future coaching legend Lewis Cook his quarterback at one time, so he knows the game from that perspective.
Most of the PBA members have a different look on the team's progress. But they'll be there each Saturday next fall, swapping tall tales and supporting the program they helped to build.
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The visit of the Athletic Network to PBA tailgating on Nov. 23, 2019 revealed that they do not allow their highly organized approach to tailgating and support of their beloved Cajuns detract from having fun and passing a good time with teammates, family, and friends. Please find below the leadership cast and some photos of the AN visit on Nov. 23, 2019.
Sept. 14 6:30 PM Texas Southern - *Kevin Guilbeau, Eric Fincke, Charlie Fox, Don Blair, Matt Roth, Bill Delahoussaye
Oct. 9 (Wed), 7:00 PM App. St. ESPN2 *Jimmy Poche, Rick Keating, David Daniels, Rick Young, David Goff
Nov. 2 4:00 Homecoming Texas State *Jerry Gibbons, Tommie Rogers, Jim Webb, Dickie Haik, Bubby Schexnayder, Leslie Vogel, Gerald Landry
Nov. 23 4:00 Troy *Brian Abshire, Farrell Lebouef, Nick Abshire, Brady Muth, Paul Falgout, Oliver Mitchell
Nov. 30 6:30 UL-M *Doug Begley, Emmitt Cherie, Nate Thornton, Ken Begley, Rodney Bertrand, Rip Eveland, Steve Judice (Honorary)
* denotes host captain for each game. This listing includes only some of the leadership.
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Team Captains - Tommie Rogers, Doug Begley, Jimmy Poche', Brian "Holly Beach" Abshire, Kevin Guilbeau, (not pictured - Jerry Gibbens)
Front Row - Jimmy Poche', Charlie Fox, Oliver Mitchell, Rick "Slick Rick" Young, John Bordelon, Back Row - Eric Fincke, Roland "Rip" Eveland, Nate "The Skate" Thornton, Barry Johnson, Lee Tatford, Nick Abshire
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Click here for photo gallery of the Nov. 23, 2019 visit to the PBA Tailgating.
* * * * * * Click here for the 2007-present chronological listings of the Spotlight on Former Athletes.