The phone call came from area code 503, Oregon, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. What a pleasant surprise: The caller was Hall of Famer Art Davis, the great Mississippi State football star from the 1950s.
“You’ve got one of the greatest college football players in history who has lived in Mississippi for decades, and nobody down there even knows who he is,” Art Davis told me. “People need to know about Duke Carlisle. See what you can do.”
Art Davis turns 80 later this year. I do as my mama taught; I obey my elders.
Emmett August Carlisle III, better known as Duke, was born 72 years ago in the east Texas town of Athens. He became a high school football standout there, recruited heavily by legends Darrell Royal at Texas and Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma. He chose Texas and that’s where he came to know Art Davis.
Davis had starred for Royal at Mississippi State and had joined his coaching staff at Texas, coaching the defensive backs. This was 1963, and Carlisle, who had been mostly a defensive back as an underclassman, had become the team’s quarterback and best player.
“We had a great team,” Davis said. “Duke Carlisle was the best player on a great team. He put our team on his shoulders and carried us is what he did.”
Texas was No. 2 and Oklahoma No. 1 when the two teams met in October in the annual Dallas showdown. Carlisle threw for a touchdown and ran for a touchdown and Texas won with shocking ease, 28-7. Days later, Carlisle graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. “Seemingly nerveless,” is how the magazine described Carlisle. “A cool operator,” he was called.
A few weeks later, Texas led Baylor and All American Don Trull 7-0 in the final moments when Baylor threatened to score. For the first and only time that season, defensive coordinator Mike Campbell used Carlisle at safety. Naturally, Duke intercepted Trull’s pass in the end zone to save the game.
Then, in the Cotton Bowl it was No. 1 Texas and Carlisle against No. 2 Navy and All-Everything Roger Staubach, the Heisman Trophy winner that season. Old-timers will remember it was Darrell Royal, who first said of the forward pass, “Three things can happen and two of those are bad.”
Not with Duke Carlisle, however, Royal apparently decided. Carlisle threw for two touchdowns and well over 200 yards and ran for another touchdown. Texas walloped Navy 28-6 for the undisputed national championship. The Longhorns were undefeated, untied. Duke Carlisle was selected the game’s most outstanding player.
Said not-so-Jolly Roger Staubach after the game, “I hope I never see this place again.”
The irony: Staubach years later became the Dallas Cowboys All-Pro quarterback, and the Cotton Bowl was his home stadium. You should also know he and Duke Carlisle became friends.
Meanwhile, Carlisle spent a year on the Cowboys’ practice squad before going back to the University of Texas to get his M.B.A. He took that business degree and put it to good use in McComb, where his parents had moved in 1960 and where he had worked the summer before his sophomore season at Texas. And there’s a story there. In McComb, Carlisle worked out with Ole Miss Rebels Louis Guy and Billy Ray Adams. They became friends.
“At the end of the summer we said good-bye and wished each other luck on the season,” Carlisle said. “Little did we realize that season would end with Texas and Ole Miss playing in the Cotton Bowl.”
With Carlisle starting at safety, Texas beat Ole Miss 12-7 in that 1962 Cotton Bowl. Texas was 30-2-1 in Carlisle’s three varsity seasons.
Carlisle – “the most modest man you will ever meet,” Davis says – has raised a family (two daughters, five granddaughters) in McComb, his home for nearly 40 years. His nephew, Cooper Carlisle, starred at McComb, at Florida and in the NFL.
Duke Carlisle’s work in the oil business often takes him to Texas, where he is still a hero, especially to older fans. Still, he says he feels as much a Mississippian as a Texan now.
Said Carlisle, “I would say I’ve had the best of both worlds.”
Those would be stardom and anonymity, in Texas and Mississippi.
Rick Cleveland (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.