Jerry Stovall listened to the voice on the other line.
He paused. Then he asked: “Joe, could you tell me that one more time?”
Joe Alleva, LSU’s athletic director, repeated: Stovall’s No. 21 jersey was going to be retired in Tiger Stadium.
The former LSU halfback, runner-up for the 1962 Heisman Trophy, will join Billy Cannon and Tommy Casanova on Saturday as the only football players in LSU history to receive that honor.
The ceremony will be held during halftime of LSU’s game against Georgia.
“Jerry is one of the all-time greats at LSU,” Alleva said. “He did it all on the field of play, but his contribution to this community and the LSU family goes well beyond football. His jersey in Tiger Stadium will forever be a tribute to that contribution.”
The LSU Athletic Hall of Fame Committee’s decision in May was unanimous — bolstered by the recommendation of Stovall’s teammate and former LSU quarterback, Jimmy Field, who also advocated for the construction of Cannon’s statue, which was unveiled in September.
“It was easy,” said Field, 78. “I just told them what kind of teammate (Stovall) was. How he hustled. How he never came out of the game."
Can't see video below? Click here.
Stovall was a consensus All-American for the Tigers — a two-time All-SEC first-team selection who helped LSU win the 1961 Southeastern Conference championship and consecutive major bowl wins (1961 Orange Bowl, 1962 Cotton Bowl) for the first time in program history.
Stovall was the No. 2 overall pick in the 1963 NFL draft, and he played nine seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals before he began a career in college coaching. He stepped in as LSU’s head coach in 1980 in the midst of tragedy — an emergency hire when Bo Rein died in a plane crash.
Stovall coached LSU for four seasons, which included a 1982 Orange Bowl appearance, before he was fired following a 4-7 season in 1983 when the Tigers went 0-6 in SEC play.
During his playing days, Stovall contributed to a golden era of LSU football, which began with the 1958 national championship and Cannon’s Heisman-winning season in 1959.
“Cannon and all of those guys graduated and left, and we then, the leftovers, we had to play everyone they beat!” said Stovall, 77. “Those guys made them mad, and now we had to come back and play them.”
The “leftovers” did fairly well.
Stovall led a backfield made up of two other NFL first-rounders — Wendell Harris (New York Giants), Earl Gros (Green Bay Packers) — that averaged 215.3 rushing yards per game in 1961, under LSU coach Paul Dietzel’s Wing-T offense.
Quarterbacks generally called their own plays then, said Field who said the team’s “bread-and-butter” play was a standard pitch to Stovall where even Field would run through the line of scrimmage and find a linebacker to block.
Stovall was second on the team that season with 405 rushing yards — one yard short of Gros — and he averaged 6.2 yards per carry.
“I guess I didn’t hand the ball off to him enough,” Field said.
Stovall, who had grown up in small-town West Monroe, was known for his gritty, hard-nosed running style.
“You have never in your life had anyone talk to you about my speed, my size nor my quickness have you?” Stovall said.
Said Field: “He wasn’t blessed with great speed. He really wasn’t. Still, he was just so hard to bring down. He’d try and run over you, spin, put his shoulder down and run into safeties. He just ran so hard that you didn’t know he wasn’t fast until he ran into the open and a defensive back would run him down. And that was after 50 yards or so.”
Such a run came in LSU’s 1961 game against Ole Miss — a game that both Stovall and Field said is much like LSU’s game against Georgia on Saturday. The Tigers had only lost one game — to Rice in the season opener — and Ole Miss entered Tiger Stadium undefeated and ranked No. 2 in the country.
In fact, Field remembered, No. 1 Michigan State had lost to Minnesota earlier that day, and the Ole Miss cheerleaders brought out a banner that said: “We’re No. 1.” The crowd was so loud, Field said, the teams “couldn’t even hear” before the game began.
By the fourth quarter, Ole Miss led 7-3. Then, Field handed the ball off to Stovall, who ran for more than 50 yards, deep into Rebels territory. A few plays later, LSU scored a touchdown to win 10-7 and the Tigers never lost again that season.
The streak continued into the 1962 season, when LSU only lost to Ole Miss on its way to a 13-0 win over Texas in the Cotton Bowl. Stovall led the team that season in both rushing (368 yards) and receiving (213 yards) and finished second in the Heisman voting to Oregon State quarterback Terry Baker.
“He should have won it,” Field said. “I always wondered if the writers didn’t just want another running back from LSU winning.”
Beyond the game, Field said, Stovall was a “great teammate” and a “great friend.” Stovall was the one sprinting in between drills even when it was egregiously hot outside and the team was dragging.
The teammates were close in college, and both Stovall and his wife, Judy, and Field and his wife, Laura, got married while they were in school. After LSU beat TCU during their senior year, Stovall visited the Field’s in the hospital when they had their first son. When Stovall was fired as LSU’s coach in 1983, Field helped Stovall clean out his office.
“I’m honored to have played with him,” Field said.
It’s an honor that Stovall will reflect upon when his jersey is retired in Tiger Stadium on Saturday night.
“I want everyone to understand this is not one man’s deal,” Stovall said. “There will be a name on the back of a jersey for a moment, but there are dozens upon dozens of ex-players, teammates, head coaches, assistant coaches and athletic directors that were part of the process.”
“When anyone is given an honor, he or she or they cannot avoid the fact that they had something to do with receiving that honor,” he said. “You know that there are individuals that that have influenced you in such a positive way that you’ll never ever forget what they’ve done for you and with you. Then, your accomplishments become theirs; theirs become yours. And you can’t avoid it.”