By PAUL LETLOW
Written for the LSWA
What does it take to kick off a high school football dynasty?
For Louisiana coaching legend Mackie Freeze, the answer was a $300 budget, an assortment of hand-me-down equipment — and a unique brand of tough love that molded the willing into warriors.
“I taught them about intestinal fortitude and the will to win,” the former Richwood High School coach said. “That old never-say-die attitude is what you have to teach kids. You teach them that if anybody can do it, you can too, if you try hard enough. Don’t give up. Ever.”
Now decades after coaching his last game in 1967, Freeze has been selected for the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. Freeze, who becomes the oldest living person inducted at age 94, will enter the hall June 24-26 during the 2020 Induction Celebration which was postponed last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Better late than never,” Freeze said.
The late Mary Frances Goins hired the former Grambling baseball star to start an athletics program at the old Terzia High School south of Monroe in 1954. Principal Goins challenged Freeze to mold something that would enhance the student experience at the rural north Louisiana school. He was tasked to perform with a tiny budget, but a grassroots effort brought donated shoulder pads, shoes, pants and jerseys from area high schools and the local college program.
“We had some good people around and they knew what was going on when I got there,” said Freeze, who began his coaching career at Montgomery High School. “There were some people around Richwood who were working around town and they started talking. They knew these coaches. When they found I was having problems, the coach at West Monroe sent for me. The coach at Neville and the coach at Northeast (now Louisiana-Monroe) sent for me. When I got through, I had enough to play the whole year.”
The school at Terzia burned in 1960, forcing the move to the new Richwood High but Freeze was up to any challenge. He molded the hardscrabble young men he found in abundance at Richwood and delivered more than Goins or anyone else could have expected.
“We had to borrow equipment,” said Perry Thomas, a quarterback on the team from 1964-67. “Sometimes we had on mismatched cleats, not the same shoe or same size shoe. We played in whatever we had, but we always won. He said, ‘It’s within you. You will yourself to win.’”
Over the next 13 years, Freeze produced a 116-23 record (.834) and fielded teams that won 56 straight games on the field while claiming four consecutive state titles from 1961-64. More than 65 of Freeze’s former players earned college scholarships and 11 were drafted or signed professional football contracts. Freeze never coached a losing season.
“I had a bunch of extraordinarily good people,” Freeze said. “Really and truly, I had some boys who were smart kids. Most of them were honor roll students. I had a quarterback who was the valedictorian. You can’t beat stuff like that.”
Before he became a coaching legend, Freeze enjoyed a noteworthy baseball career at Grambling. As a pitcher, he helped Grambling win its first-ever national NAIA title under the late coach R.W.E. “Prez” Jones. Freeze never lost a game on the mound at Grambling and even subbed as a guard on the football team under the great Eddie Robinson. The Brooklyn Dodgers signed Freeze out of college, where he participated in training camp with Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese and Roy Campanella.
“My father was a baseball player,” said Freeze, who graduated from Grambling in 1950 with a degree in elementary education. “The material he showed me sitting on the porch one day put me in camp with Jackie Robinson. He sat me down and taught me to throw a curveball, a screwball and a sinker with a tennis ball. When I went to Grambling, I was demonstrating (pitching) and Coach Prez asked me what I played. I said I was a second baseman and he hit one or two out there to me. He said he’d heard I could make a ball curve. I threw the ball and he said, “Mackie, you’re a pitcher.’ Prez was something.”
He was primarily a basketball player in high school and had never seen a football game until he reached Grambling. The Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame coach Robinson liked his potential and invited him to join the team.
“When I got to Grambling, Coach Rob saw me out catching passes one day and I asked me who I was,” Freeze said. “He said he’d heard about me. He’d heard I was a basketball player but he told me I was a football player.”
Freeze spent a couple of years in the military after pro baseball didn’t pan out. Given his chance to coach, Freeze molded winners and pioneers. Louisiana Sports Hall of Famer Joe Profit (Class of 1999) became the first black football player at a predominantly white college in Louisiana when he enrolled at the former Northeast Louisiana State College (now ULM) in 1967.
“Coach Freeze taught us not to complain,” said Profit, a Richwood running back. “We used to get hand-me down uniforms. Coach said we’d take these and win with them. He was so grateful that we were able to get them, because we couldn’t afford to buy any uniforms. He taught us humility.”
Freeze developed other notable pros including Don Zimmerman (Philadelphia), Eugene Hughes (St. Louis), Goldie Sellers (Denver/Kansas City) and Amos Augustine (Los Angeles Rams). One of his former assistant coaches, Abe Pierce III, later became the first Black mayor of Monroe.
“A lot of leaders came through there,” the late Don Zimmerman told The (Monroe) News-Star in 2008. “If you played for Coach, you are not going to be afraid to take the bull by the horns. You want to get the job done, regardless of who gets the credit. We learned that from Coach. That equates to teamwork. That’s how we won, as a team.”
Thomas said Freeze wanted his players to have confidence, be prepared and then “go out into the world and be a positive example. That’s what they put in us at that small school.”
Discipline was always part of Freeze’s game plan.
“He was hard,” Profit said. “Coach Freeze was one of the hardest people I knew at the time, but we loved him, man. You’ve been in that situation where you love to hate somebody? We hated the way he trained and pushed us, but we loved him as a result of what came from it. Even guys that didn’t play first string were just proud to be on the team.”
When his players needed extra motivation, he’d dole it out with a paddle named “Papa.” Freeze chuckles at the legend of “Papa” and insists the stories are exaggerated.
“They are just telling tales,” Freeze said. “I might have tapped one or two with it, but it wasn’t that much.”
“He didn’t have to use Papa on most students because they already knew his position on our discipline and our educational opportunities,” Thomas said. “He made us take advantage of all of that. A lot of us went to college and graduated and did pretty good in life That’s why we thanked him so much.”
Hard work, ingenuity and resourcefulness were hallmarks of the Freeze regime. While foes wrapped up their preparations at five or six, the lights shined bright over Richwood’s football field long after dark.
“He’d practice until eight or nine at night,” Thomas said. “Then we’d go meet those other teams and just run over them.”
Richwood didn’t have a well-stocked weight room but Freeze utilized the resistance exercises he learned in the military to strengthen his players.
“He used our body weight to do a lot of things,” Thomas said. “When we didn’t have enough sleds for everybody to practice with, he’d put us up against the rails of the bleachers and tell us to ‘move those bleachers!’”
Freeze’s practice of inclusion expanded his influence beyond the football roster.
“He’d find a place for everybody,” Profit said. “He’d say, ‘You may not be able to make this team. When we’d go out for football, he’d tell us that a large number of us wouldn’t make it. But you’ll still be around and be a Richwood Ram and be a part of what we’re doing. He instilled in us that camaraderie of teamwork and being part of something that is great. You didn’t have to just be a star, or what he called the long pole in the tent. You could be the shortest pole and still a part of it.”
Future Louisiana Sports Hall of Famer Larry Wright (basketball) was a manager for the football team. Future NFL wide receiver Charles “Tank” Smith also served as a manager before finally making the varsity squad. Even Profit, a future first-round draft pick of the Atlanta Falcons, held a non-playing role until his sophomore year.
“I was the trainer and took care of the shoes,” Profit said. “They called me ‘Little Joe.’ But Coach Freeze made us all feel important.”
“At the time we were young, and we saw him as a coach who didn’t mess around,” Thomas said. “When we got older, we realized what he was trying to do with us. Some cats were going to reform school and jail. He didn’t want that for his students. If he could help anyone who was going astray, academically or otherwise, then he would put the time in.”
Although he was tough, Freeze fostered a family atmosphere. When his players couldn’t find rides after practice, he’d sometimes walk them back to Berg Jones Lane and the Bryant’s Addition neighborhood of Monroe. The coach and his wife made sandwiches for long bus rides.
“Coach Freeze was more than a coach and a disciplinarian. He was like a father, a counselor,” Profit said. “He had a saying. ‘When you come out here, it’s going to be hard. But it’s going to be fair.’ Everybody knew that, from the scrubs to the first-stringers. Coach Freeze was going to treat you fair and give you an opportunity to do what you can do.”
“I was a country boy, you see,” Freeze said. “When I first started at Richwood, I had a lot of kids who picked cotton and came to practice every day. Or they would handle jobs across town. We always said we were all good old country boys. We just stuck together.”
Competing in the all-black Louisiana Interscholastic and Literary Organization (LIALO), the Rams were state champions from 1961-64. The record books show Richwood as the champion in 1964, but the win was by forfeit and Freeze never claimed it.
“Most people when they go to a championship, they pray to let them win the game,” Freeze said. “I never did do that. I never prayed to win a game or a championship. You know what I always said? If it be thy will, I’d sure like to win it.”
Even when Freeze’s teams were hoarding championship trophies and dominating all challengers, he never allowed the players to become complacent.
“We were not big headed people,” Freeze said. “We were just good old boys who went to Sunday school. I’d take them to Grambling or Southern to see the college teams play. We were just people who were trying to learn things together. We taught them to be good people.”
Freeze presided over a historical victory the first time Richwood and Carroll High Schools, two state powerhouse teams, met in football in 1964. The Rams won 12-0 against a Carroll team led by future Grambling, NFL and Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame quarterback James “Shack” Harris. Between the two teams, there were eight players who later went on to play professional football.
“Carroll was a class ahead of us as far as student body numbers and they were winning championships with James ‘Shack’ Harris,” Thomas said. “But on that night, we played Shack, we practiced on hitting him on every play. Coach said, ‘I don’t care if he’s got the ball or not, hit him. He won’t be thinking about any receivers. He’ll be thinking about who’s fixing to hit him.’”
Said Harris: “Coach Freeze was truly a great coach.”
Peabody’s 34-6 victory on Oct. 8, 1965 ended Richwood’s winning streak on the field at 56 games. However, Peabody had to forfeit all of its games for use of an ineligible player. Richwood won three more games before losing 19-14 to Carroll.
Said Profit: “He’d tell us after almost every win, “Y’all are not that good.’ He said, ‘We didn’t beat these boys. They lost.’ We learned how you can win or lose a game or get beat. He’d tell us, we might lose but we won’t get beat.
“He’d always remind us that you’re not that good. Don’t get a big head. A lot of it has to do with luck, blessing and skill. I took that with me. All the guys who played for coach had a similar attitude about life.”
Still in the prime of his coaching career, Freeze made a bold move when he left the sidelines to join the Richwood administration.
“I had four kids and the coaching salary wasn’t enough to send a kid to school,” Freeze explained. “They needed someone to help and I had some good coaches. They convinced me. They wanted to make me principal, but I didn’t want that. They ended up making one of my other coaches principal, Abe Pierce, and we took over the school. He followed Ms. Goins for a while.”
Looking back, Freeze said he put everything he had into coaching and knew it was time for a change. And he trusted his top assistant Eugene Hughes and the staff he left behind to keep the train moving.
“Sometimes you get a little tired,” Freeze said. “Coaching football is not fun all the time. You like to see the boys progress and the changes they go through. But you have to do a lot of things to produce that kind of change.”
Today the Freeze legacy endures, with the Richwood football stadium named in his honor. Still viewed as a mentor and a respected community leader, Freeze groomed players and students who continued to succeed when they left his program.
“He pulled the most out of us,” Thomas said. “He made us feel like we were super men.”
“He’s one of the most humble guys,” Profit added. “A combination of strength and gentleness.”