Dennis has seen it all in college, pro football
Some of Ole Miss’ greatest ambassadors are the football players who were coached by the legendary Johnny Vaught.
Jake Gibbs has lived in Oxford for years and years now. He once was the Rebels’ head baseball coach, and even though that role ended almost 25 years ago, he has remained in Oxford, making this a better community by doing so.
Another former Rebel who played under Vaught is now calling Oxford home. Mike Dennis was a starting fullback on the last Ole Miss team (1963) to win an SEC Championship in football.
The Jackson native was so talented, so highly coveted coming out of Murrah High that Alabama coach Bear Bryant let him, and Jackie Sherrill, drive his Cadillac around town during a visit. Dennis, who made Oxford his home a little over a year ago, said that particular maneuver impressed him greatly.
“At one point, I thought I was going to Alabama. Bear sent his son, Paul Jr., over to all my home games my senior year,” Dennis recalled. “But I had always been an Ole Miss fan. I grew up a fan of Jimmy Lear, who quarterbacked the team to the big win over Maryland in 1952. And then quarterback Eagle Day, who became one of my very good friends back in Jackson. When I was little, I would go into the backyard and throw the football to myself and I would pretend I was Eagle Day and go down and catch it. I had Ole Miss running through my blood.”
Dennis was still very, very close to picking Alabama despite the fact he grew up an Ole Miss fan, and Vaught must have felt that uncertainty in his gut. That’s why he sent his top assistant coach, Bruiser Kinard, down to Jackson to make sure Dennis didn’t sign on with the Crimson Tide.
Kinard arrived at Murrah first, early in the morning before signing day. Kinard told Dennis’ high school coach, Jack Carlisle, that he was checking the fullback out of school, and off the two went to the King Edward Hotel to lay low.
“I hadn’t made an announcement. In fact, I hadn’t committed, so to speak,” Dennis said. “There wasn’t a lot of committing back then, it was more word of mouth. Coach Bruiser came to my school and I had already told him I was going to Ole Miss, but I hadn’t told Bear that. Mississippi State was also on me pretty hard, too. Bruiser came to school, got me out and then my mother and daddy met us at the hotel. I stayed there until just after midnight. Coach Vaught had come down from Oxford and signed me. Billy Clay, another guy that played with me, we were both at the King Edward.”
Of course those type of recruiting escapades can’t happen like that now. And a player can’t be drafted by an organization in the NFL or AFL like Dennis was in 1966, when the Atlanta Falcons, and the Buffalo Bills, a member of the AFL, both selected him.
Dennis was set to sign with the Bills, who were coming off an AFL Championship, but he was traded by the expansion Falcons to the Los Angeles Rams, the team that Dennis thought he was going to be drafted by in the first place.
While training to earn a starting nod with the Rams in training camp, Dennis suffered a knee injury that prevented him from playing his rookie season.
“I was never injured when I played at Ole Miss and in high school, I ran the ball 30 times a game, and never got hurt,” Dennis said. “They kept me out for about four or five weeks. They kept me on the active roster and then I went out to a catch a pass and it just went out again. I tore both cartilages in that knee. They opened me up and cleaned all the cartilage. Since 1966, this leg has been bone on bone. It’s OK.”
The injury ultimately led Dennis to start dental school at the University of Tennessee that following January. After six months in dental school, he went back to the Rams in 1967. Dennis played in all six preseason games at what he called “70 percent” before the Rams put him on the injured list. That’s when he got a phone call from another legendary coach, Vince Lombardi, of the Green Bay Packers.
“He asked me if I wanted to come up there and play for the Packers and I said, ‘Yes, sir, but I’m under a three-year contract with the Rams,’” Dennis said. “He said he was aware of it and that he had talked with the owner and he said they would continue to pay me and that he was going to pay me. Then I told him I had one problem; my wife was about to have a baby. He said, ‘Well when can she have it?’ I said, ‘I guess tomorrow.’ He then said, ‘Well can you be up here in a week?’
Lori was born and at four days old, my wife and I drove to Jackson to get them situated with my mother and daddy so that I could get up and get situated with Green Bay. I remember we stopped at the Grand Canyon, and I’ve got a picture of us holding Lori, and I remember people asking how old that baby was and we said four days, and them looking at us like we were criminals.”
Dennis worked out with a Packers squad that went on to defeat the Dallas Cowboys in the Ice Bowl, and then beat the Oakland Raiders in the second Super Bowl. It also turned out to be Lombardi’s last season with the Packers. Dennis never played for the Packers because Lombardi was unable to get his contract completely worked out.
He went back to the Rams, won Rookie of the Year in 1968, and then wrapped up his time in the professional ranks a few years later. He became a successful dentist and father to three children – Lori, Jeff and Michael (the two sons are both doctors in Oxford) – but those years in the NFL, being around the likes of George Allen and Lombardi, were simply glorious.
“Those really were the best of times, really when the NFL started to blossom,” Dennis said. “The pension has just doubled, tripled. Just amazing when you think about it all.”
John Davis is the Oxford Citizen sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow him on Twitter at @oxfordcitizenjd.