To many who have heard it, the tale of how Ray Latoof guided the 1970 West Jefferson High School football team to a state championship after the squad’s coach died in his arms deserves a Hollywood film.
But no movie has been made. So Latoof’s admirers recently decided to preserve his story in another way, petitioning the Jefferson Parish School Board to name the field at West Jefferson’s football stadium after Latoof, who died three months ago at age 85.
Latoof was an assistant under West Jefferson Coach Harold “Hoss” Memtsas when the 1970 football season began. Memtsas and Latoof had coached their players to a 6-0 victory in the season opener, had scouted their next opponent and were driving back to West Jefferson with a friend when they noticed that someone had possibly broken into the school’s stadium.
The three men rushed into the stadium and discovered a group of intruders trying to steal some of the team’s equipment.
There was a tussle. Memtsas, 57, suffered a heart attack and collapsed on the floor near Latoof.
“Hoss … literally died in my arms,” Latoof told The Times-Picayune more than three decades later.
Latoof was barely afforded time to grieve before he was promoted to head coach. In his first meeting with the team, he admonished the players not to seek retribution against those responsible for the break-in that led to Memtsas’ death.
He and the rest of the coaching staff then urged the Buccaneers to fight on “in Hoss’ memory,” reserve offensive lineman Wade Perrin recalled.
“That really rallied the troops behind the cause,” Perrin said. “It was an awesome thing to do.”
Over the ensuing months, Latoof led West Jefferson to a second-place finish in its district, losing the district championship because of a two-point defeat to archrival East Jefferson High School.
Afterward, at a social gathering at Latoof’s place, a priest sensed the coach’s disappointment, Buccaneers quarterback Joseph “Poochie” Fonseca recalled.
However, West Jefferson had qualified for the state playoffs, meaning it could still win the state championship. So the priest went into Latoof’s bathroom, took a bar of soap and wrote a message on the mirror: “Only you can turn defeat into victory.”
It stuck with Latoof when he found it, “and it got him going,” Fonseca said.
West Jefferson won four straight playoff games, including a 17-point shutout of Bogalusa in the final game to capture what remains the only state football title in the school’s history.
One can’t overstate the masterful coaching job Latoof did that year, Perrin said.
In 1970, Louisiana high schools had not been desegregated for long, so aside from processing Memtsas’ death, the Buccaneers faced another challenge, as white players who had been at West Jefferson and black newcomers from another campus teamed up for the first time.
“You saw ‘Remember the Titans’? It was like that,” Perrin said.
With one major exception, Perrin and Fonseca said: The Buccaneers managed to avoid the racial problems depicted in the 2000 movie about a racially mixed team in Virginia, and Latoof was the main reason for that.
Latoof retired from coaching in 1987 after stints at De La Salle, John Ehret High and River Oaks Academy.
Fonseca never lost touch with Latoof, who raised three daughters with his wife of nearly six decades.
The former quarterback always suspected that Latoof quietly felt he would never receive as much credit for West Jefferson’s glorious season as Memtsas, for whom the Buccaneers’ stadium in Harvey was named in October of that year.
So once, when sharing a beer with him years later, Fonseca told Latoof, “Coach, Hoss was wonderful, but you were the one who got us together and won that championship. … You’re the one who got us there.”
Fonseca remembered Latoof’s reply: “You know, no one did tell me that, but I appreciate it.”
Latoof died Jan. 4. Fonseca and former teammate Charles Ochello began lobbying for the field at Memtsas Stadium to bear Latoof’s name, and their cause was taken up by School Board member Ray St. Pierre.
St. Pierre coached under Latoof at West Jefferson after the championship season and was then assisted by him at Ehret. At a meeting Thursday, he offered a proposal to name the playing surface at Memtsas Stadium after Latoof, and the board unanimously approved it.
Angela Latoof Cagle, one of Latoof’s daughters, said she knew her father was smiling at the thought of being commemorated on grounds dedicated to the memory of Memtsas.
After all, she said, Memtsas had been Latoof’s best friend and Cagle’s godfather.
“It’s an honor beyond belief,” she said. “My daddy … earned it.”