Mike's Living Memorial for Coach Russ Faulkinberry's Tribute is following by the Spotlight Feature on Former Athlete during September, 2017. Mike also did an update on Aug.27, 2017, which follows the Spotlight Feature done by Bruce Brown. Mike's LM was posted by Dr. Ed Dugas on Sept. 29, 2017.
Coach Faulkinberry recruited me. I will always remember the first time I saw him standing like a giant in the LaGrange High School football locker room. His presence was of course noticed by everyone.
He had an unexplainable charisma about him. (Anyone who knew him understands what I mean by that.) He was bigger than life in size and demeanor.
His motivational pre-game speech was so dynamic you felt like you could and should run through whatever brick wall he was pointing at.
I think we won a lot of ball games because he always had us peaking in intensity just at the right time. It is a skill he possessed, and for many of us the experience was and is unforgettable.
I miss Coach Faulkinberry. He was a great coach and a great friend.
With many statistics and records in athletics, there is often a story behind the numbers.
Take Mike McDonald's school-record four interceptions against ULM (then Northeast Louisiana) in 1970, four picks that helped preserve a sixth straight Ragin' Cajun victory in a 9-7 nailbiter.
There is much more to the tale.
“The first play, or the first third down play of the game, they ran a slant off tackle and I went charging in there,” said McDonald, a smallish LaGrange High product who played safety for USL from 1968-71.
“They had a big tight end who was really fast, and he ran right by me. The quarterback pulled the ball out of the running back and hit the tight end for a touchdown pass.
“We were down 7-0 because I messed up. I came to the sideline and coach (Russ) Faulkinberry just shook his head. I knew I needed to do something to make up for it.”
Swiping four enemy passes seemed like a good way to do that.
“I had a friend from high school who was one of their quarterbacks, and I got two of the interceptions off of him,” McDonald said. “Years later, he said he was throwing me the ball. I knew we had to come back and win.
“Roy Pendergraft kicked the winning field goal, and I was sure glad to see him make that kick.”
McDonald tended to get interceptions in bundles, starting early.
“The first game my freshman year, I was on the kickoff team,” McDonald said. “Bobby St. Amant got hurt on the first series. I got in, got two interceptions and started from then on. That was my opportunity to play.”
The precocious McDonald picked off eight passes in 1968, running them back for 160 yards, as the Cajuns won the Gulf States Conference with an 8-2 record. He only had one theft in 1969 as USL finished 5-5, then tied the school record with nine interceptions (and 140 yards of returns) in the 9-3 season of 1970 that ended in the Grantland Rice Bowl.
McDonald finished with three more picks in 1971, totaling 21 interceptions for 380 yards. The career and single-game marks are still his alone, some 46 years later, while he shares the season record of nine with Ed Pratt (1965) and the late Orlando Thomas (1993).
He remains reluctant to claim credit for his records, despite an obvious knack for being in the right place at the right time. For example, he had 12 pickoffs as a high school senior at LaGrange. That was no accident.
“The really good years I had were when we had really good teams,” McDonald said. “Without pressure up front, it's not going to be good for the secondary. That's what it's about.
“When I was a freshman, we had All-Americans like Mike Neustrom and Glenn LaFleur, great leaders who would motivate you inside the huddle. I was not that kind. They had a way of saying the right thing at the right time.
“We had other leaders, like David Rogers, Leroy Booker and Jimmy Hunter, who I always looked up to.”
The coaching staff knew how to deploy the Cajuns, especially in 1970 when they claimed another GSC crown and played Tennessee State in the bowl game.
“Coaching had a lot to do with it,” McDonald said. “We had a great football team, with seniors who were terrific leaders, and we had great coaches.
“Don Smith and Bobby Banna ran a pro-type offense, and Irwin Sibille and Sonny Roy had their own genius on the defensive side of the ball. They did a lot of things to put us in the right position to make plays, things that I don't think a lot of teams were doing at the time. Slanting, stunting, things to help us overcome our (lack of) size.”
The general, of course, was the imposing Faulkinberry, whose gravel-like voice commanded the program.
“He was a great motivator,” McDonald said. “He could get you fired up, say things to make chills run up and down your spine. He had a way about him in the locker room.”
Faulkinberry's staff and team faced their biggest challenge in the Grantland Rice Bowl against a Tennessee State team loaded with future NFL talent like Ed “Too Tall” Jones and quarterback Joe Gilliam.
Tech prevailed 26-25, but it was a classic battle.
“They introduced the players on TV before the game,” said McDonald, who played despite a surgically-mended knee. “They had me stand next to Too Tall, and I remember him looking down at me and grinning.
“They were very fast. Some great athletes. We were out-manned. We taped up my knee and I played at about 75 percent. We gave them a great game. It was a great experience.
“It was a surprise. We hadn't expected the bowl game. We hadn't really thought about it until we got invited.”
The Cajuns were usually too busy battling in-state GSC foes like Northeast, Northwestern State, La. Tech and arch-rival McNeese State, to ponder bowls. McNeese was always the season finale, and the Cajuns were 3-1 against the Cowboys in McDonald's day, although he missed the 1970 game with the knee injury.
“Those games were such a fun thing to experience,” said McDonald, whose Lake Charles background gave him special incentive to play well. “I knew a lot of their players, and even today I'll run into them.
“It was a great rivalry. I remember coming out of the tunnel at Cowboy Stadium, and their fans yelling at us and throwing their cups (drinks) at us.”
“McNeese was always tough, but it was such fun. My freshman year, I had two interceptions each against Northeast and Northwestern State. The conference schools were our big rivals. That's just the way it was.”
There were many memorable games along the way.
There was a tie at Tennessee-Chattanooga.
“It was 9 degrees, and it was a day game,” McDonald said. “The field was frozen, like concrete. It was a 10-10 tie – it wasn't a fun outcome.”
There was a 50-38 loss at Tampa, an especially painful memory for McDonald.
“They had a halfback named Leon (X-Ray) McQuay, who was, super fast, a 9.5 sprinter,” McDonald said. “I had an interception and broke out in the open, and Leon came out of nowhere and tore my knee up.
“He was a great player, the best running back I ever played across from.”
The best opponent quarterback might be a tie between Tech's Terry Bradshaw and Roger Staubach of Pensacola Navy.
“It's a toss-up,” McDonald said. “Bradshaw was bigger. Both were hard to tackle. I think Bradshaw had better receivers than Staubach did.”
It was against Pensacola Navy that McDonald returned the opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown as a freshman. Despite that moment, McDonald recalls the 39-35 loss.
“It was one of the worst games I played,” he said. “Staubach made us look ridiculous. He destroyed us.”
That was rare for McDonald, who never endured a losing season in college or in football and basketball at LaGrange.
In fact, with McDonald at point guard and Poo Wells the star, LaGrange went 35-0 and won the state basketball title over previously unbeaten Baton Rouge High and Apple Sanders.
“I knew my role,” McDonald said. “I had to get the ball to the talent.”
LaGrange also went deep in the football playoffs, losing to eventual champion Airline on penetrations in a 7-7 tie, and McDonald also threw the javelin in track and field.
“Basketball helped me a lot (to get interceptions in football),” McDonald said. “I also go back to those playing in front of me. A lot of people could have gotten interceptions playing behind them.”
Perhaps so, but McDonald is the one who did so. And now, 46 years later, there is still no one who has taken his place.
Updated Aug. 25, 2017 in preparation for the Spotlight Feature for Sept., 2017.
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Updated Aug. 27, 2017
Ed, I had a couple of additional thoughts if you have room for them. I mentioned specific people that were leaders on the team but failed to mention many others. We had good athletes and people who were overachievers; I wish I could list them all. I had very good friends on those teams who made great contributions. We would not have won two conference championships without them.
I also wanted to recognize some people in the Lafayette area who gave me great support off the field. My family situation was not good when I first came to Lafayette. I was “adopted" by many in the community. I was treated as family by Coach Faulkinberry and his family and by Coach Blanco and Kathleen. Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Lipstate and family also provided me with a home away from home. Larry Boullion was a great friend as well as the trainer for our team. Bill (Black Jack) Landry was a friend to us all.
I also wanted to mention a little about my life after UL: I retired from AstraZeneca in 2009 and enjoy travel with my wife and time with my grandchildren. We have three very successful daughters and four beautiful grandchildren. Connie, my wife of 43 years, is still the love of my life.
I loved my time at USL and “Go to Hell McNeese!” (: