Jerry Stovall's Jersey Hangs as Testament to Hard Work
HE DIDN’T REALIZE why they were laughing.
Jerry Stovall was just one freshman among dozens, standing in front of The Cage, as trainers sized up each new player for his equipment.
What size pants do you need? What size shoes do you wear? What size helmet are you?
And the last question from Jim Smith, the football equipment manager in 1959: What jersey number would you like?
That was easy. Stovall had worn the number in high school, and so, he would wear it in college.
‘“Well,” Stovall told Smith, “I’d like number 20.”
“Dumb me,” Stovall laughs today. “I was a freshman, I wasn’t old enough to know better.”
That number, unfortunately, was taken. Billy Cannon would wear it while winning the Heisman that year, just one year removed from winning the national championship. LSU would retire the number immediately after the ’59 season.
Stovall, the last man signed in his recruiting class, would have to pick another number. He asked Smith which number closest to 20 was available.
“18 and 21,” Smith replied.
“I said, ’21 will do,’” Stovall recalls. “So I got 21 because Billy Cannon had number 20, and he had a priority over me.”
Now, their jerseys hang together in elite company. On Saturday at halftime of the Georgia game, Stovall’s No. 21 will join Cannon’s 20 and Tommy Casanova’s 37 as the only ones retired in LSU football history.
“Good gracious,” Stovall asks, “how lucky can a man be?”
THE FIRST NAME Jerry Stovall can’t remember paved his improbable path to LSU.
A versatile star in all three phrases at West Monroe High School, Stovall had offers from Northeast Louisiana University and Louisiana Tech. He first caught the eye of LSU through Red Swanson, a former Tiger assistant coach turned Board of Supervisors member. Swanson was working at the Louisiana Training Institute when West Monroe and LTI squared off, and Stovall’s do-everything approach jumped out to him.
“Just keep working hard,” Swanson told Stovall, “and good things are probably going to help to you.”
Soon, the two were taking trips to Baton Rouge for LSU home games in Swanson’s black Buick Roadmaster, which Stovall recalls “sounded like a gorilla” when it started up. On the way, they’d talk football, bonding over the sport. The idea of staying close to home at either NLU or Tech had appealed to Stovall, but then he saw Tiger Stadium in person.
“It was like going to the circus,” Stovall recalls. “There were 60,000 people going into the stadium. There were ex-athletes all around, everybody in the world is having a good time. I thought, Man, if this is like this all the time, it’d be a nice place to play.”
Meanwhile, LSU was warming to the idea of Stovall. Assistant coach Abner Wimberly headed up his recruitment, driving to West Monroe to watch Stovall’s high school film.
“It was black and white, grainy film,” Stovall says. “I know he didn’t see anything flashy. You’ve never heard anybody talk about Jerry Stovall’s outstanding speed, great size, great strength. It’s real simple. I didn’t have those things in my tool chest. The only thing I think I had working for me was what my daddy taught me: you’ve got to work as hard as you can, for as long as you can, so you can become the best you can. The only thing I had going for me was that I was going to work hard.”
His hard work paid off, but he needed help. Paul Dietzel had 52 scholarships available for the 1959 class, and all 52 were taken, meaning Stovall had to wait for a window as signing day crept closer and closer. Eventually, one of those 52 changed his mind.
There would be room for Jerry Stovall at LSU, after all.
“I am the runt of the litter,” he says. “I was the last player chosen in that recruiting class. I wish I knew who the individual was that declined to keep the scholarship. I would love to go hug him and thank him.”
THE SECOND NAME Jerry Stovall can’t remember paved his improbable path to the field at LSU.
Tough and hard-working, Stovall was behind the curve athletically when he arrived in Baton Rouge. Swanson had cautioned the LSU beat reporters at the time: “He might not be as far advanced as some of the boys the Tigers have signed, but he is all around and does everything well. Give him a year to get adjusted and he’s going to surprise a lot of people.”
Stovall had no idea if he was ever going to see the field.
“Everybody I saw was always bigger, faster, stronger than me,” he says. “Somebody was going to have to get hurt, somebody was going to have to quit, or I was going to have to do a really good job of working hard to prove to them I want to play.”
Hitting the weight room sure helped. Stovall had never lifted weights in high school, but LSU was ahead of its time in strength and conditioning. Dr. Marty Broussard had installed a weight lifting program that Stovall took to quickly.
“I never lifted weights in high school,” Stovall says. “Marty Broussard demanded work. He demanded excellence. When you give it to him, he responds.”
Stovall’s breakthrough, oddly enough, came on the wrestling mat. The Tigers trained in a padded room twice a week during the offseason as part of their conditioning, and Stovall’s first grapple came against future first round NFL draft pick Wendell Harris. The rules of the match, as explained by then-defensive coordinator Charles McClendon, were simple: no biting, no head-butting, no eye-gouging, and no choking.
“They blow the whistle, and three minutes later, I’ve been humiliated,” Stovall recalls. “Wendell Harris put me upside down, against the wall. He butted me. He put his hands places he wasn’t supposed to. He did a lot of things he wasn’t supposed to. The whistle blew. Thank God I’m alive. I rolled over, sheepishly getting up, and Coach McClendon screamed at me: ‘We don’t walk or roll around at LSU!’”
That night, Stovall made a deal with God: If you let me live until next Thursday, I am going to kill somebody.
The following Thursday, it was back to the wrestling room. This time, the opponent and the outcome were different.
“I can tell you the guy who whipped me so bad in Wendell Harris, but I cannot tell you – this is the second name I wish I had – I cannot tell you who I wrestled the second time,” Stovall says. “But I did to him everything Wendell Harris had done to me. Coach Mac blew the whistle. I popped up like I knew what I was doing. I was strutting back to the place where a week before I’d been rolling around.”
That’s when he caught Broussard’s eye.
“When I went back Doc Broussard, do you know what that guy did to me?” Stovall asks. “He winked at me. Do you know how much strength and devotion and loyalty is in a wink? Whatever Doc Broussard wanted me to do from that point forward was done, as best as I knew how to do it.”
FROM THERE, THE wins flowed, and the accolades followed. After a 5-4-1 record his sophomore season – featuring three losses by three points or less and following the graduation of Cannon and his title-winning classmates – Stovall’s junior and senior squads went a combined 19-2-1. He earned first-team All-SEC honors each year, winning the SEC title in 1961 and the league’s Most Valuable Player honors in 1962, when he also finished runner-up in the Heisman voting and was named a unanimous All-American.
For his career, Stovall tallied 1,081 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground, 452 yards and one touchdown receiving, nearly 700 yards in returns, broke the record for punting average (42.1) in as season, and picked off seven passes.
What turned a self-described “average athlete” into an All-American, first round NFL Draft pick, and two-time all pro? Unwavering belief in a simple motto passed down from his father: “Work as hard as you can, for as long as you can, so you can become the best you can possibly be.”
It’s not complicated, and no one can doubt it worked for Stovall. His jersey – the one he received after a few chuckles and some freshman naïveté – will hang as a testament to its truth.
“Can you believe Jerry Stovall, a no better than average athlete, can come to LSU, and he’s going to be coached by Paul Dietzel and Charlie McClendon, he’s going to be trained by Marty Broussard and Herman Lang, he’s going to have a chance to play with and against some of the very finest college football players ever? That’s not a dream come true, because I never dreamed that dream.”