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Gerald Keller: Football is a Friday night tradition

MICHAEL KIRAL / L’Observateur / November 4, 1998

Few things match Friday night football in the River Parishes.

Over the years, teams from St. Charles, St. James and St. John the Baptistparishes have combined to make 33 state championship appearances and have won 17 championships. And it is not uncommon for crowds of 3,000to 5,000 to attend a game on any given Friday night.

Gerald Keller has been involved with River Parishes football for over four decades. Over that time he has seen many changes and many great playersand coaches.

Keller, a former superintendent of the St. John Parish School System andnow a school board member, recently sat down with L’Observateur to talk about his experiences.

RC: How many years have you been involved in River Parishes football? GK: Actually, it started back about my senior year in high school when Joe Keller asked me to keep statistics. So, in 1957, I basically began to keepstatistics for the high school. It was then Leon Godchaux, but it went bythe athletic term as Reserve High School. Later on when I went to collegeand finished, Joe Keller asked me again in the mid ’60s to keep stats again and I kept stats until I went to work for WCKW.

RC: Over those 40-plus years, what changes have you seen in Friday night football? GK: Well, the players are much bigger and stronger. I think the talent hasnot changed any, it’s just the size of the athlete. You take the ’50s andeven the ’60s, a 190-pound football player was a large player. A 190- to200-pound player was a giant on the field. Your guards were about 160 andyour backfield, your running backs, were about 160, 170. So the size andthe strength of the athlete has changed dramatically.

The other thing I consider is that football is more wide open now. Youknow the pass, the forward pass, was not a major item in the ’50s and ’60s. It was the power run. The powerful back came into play and thestrong line. Here and now, you have more of the pro-style type of offense.The forward pass plays much as important a role as the run.

The pass was only a desperation play (in the ’50s and ’60s). You might seea quarterback throw 40 passes in a year. Today you see a quarterbackthrow 40 passes in a game. Quarterbacks would pass for a season, thestatistics would show, maybe 250-300 yards was a good year for quarterbacks. The run was big. Another thing that changed is that you see players going both ways back in the old days. They played offense and defense. Now you are specializing inoffensive players and defensive players. Whereas in the olden days, to givean example, (Leroy) Labat was probably as great a linebacker as a running back and Peter Clement was as great a quarterback as a cornerback. Thoseguys went two ways and played as long as they could play.

A lot more players got into the game. You would see coaches empty thebench. You would not see 50 to 60 points scored in a game. You would seeafter about 30 points, they would pull the first string out and insert the second string, the third string and you might even get to the fourth string.

So there was a continuing building basis where now I think you can stick with your starting 22 and you might find yourself next year with an inexperienced team.

Another thing that was a very strong point, I know it was at the high school, was that players practiced during the school day so there wasn’t any interference. Most schedules would call for four classes, phys-ed anda study hall. So the scheduling of the last two periods of the day wasathletics. The study hall and the phys-ed was where the athletespracticed. So you didn’t have the problem of an athlete having to run home.They practiced during the day and were able to leave on the school bus with the other students. That was an important factor. You didn’t have as much competition commercially. Today, they can go andwork 40 hours in a week at some of the fast food places. Back then,athletics was it. Now you are competing with students wanting to buycars and new shoes and certain things. So that has changed football. A lotof athletes who could be playing football or be involved in athletics are not going out because they’d rather earn money. They don’t want tosacrifice as the older ones did.

But size was a big, big difference. To see an athlete weighing 270, youmight have seen one or two in a year. Today, you have the whole line at270. You very seldom saw a player weigh 270 and when you did, he couldn’tmove.

RC: The River Parishes has had a tradition of excellence in football.

Almost every year you can see a team in the Superdome. Can you talk aboutthat? GK: You take the period of the postwar from 1946-50, any one of the River Parishes teams could have won a state championship. I think that wasprobably the best period of River Parishes football, from 1946-50, ’51. Itended up in 1949 with Destrehan and Hahnville winning the state championships. But Godchaux could have won it every year. Lutcher couldhave won it every year and so could Destrehan. That was probably the mosttalented period of River Parishes football. You have probably 25 to 30athletes during that period who went major college from Destrehan, Lutcher and Godchaux and also Hahnville, which begin its program in ’46 and within four years in Class B was winning the state championship. Butthat was the richest period. You had some great athletes. You had another period in the early ’70s with Destrehan and Lutcher. Thosewere two powerhouses. And of course, Hahnville came in later on. And Iguess the 1990s with Hahnville going undefeated and Destrehan. It haskind of shifted back and forth to where the powerhouses played. Thosewere the probably the eras that were the strongest. And it always has arich history, rich tradition, good following.

RC: Why have they been so good for so long? GK: I don’t know if it is motivation or tradition. I would think in the caseof Godchaux, it was tradition. It was expected. And confidence. That has anawful lot to do with it. Maybe you just feel that you are going to win. Inother words, you can’t be beaten. And I think that has played a majorfactor in some of the winning seasons for Godchaux, which played teams far greater than them, but in the end they would come through with the win.

It is probably pride and tradition that are the two biggest factors that has continued River Parishes football to where it has some of the top teams in the area.

And coaching has a lot to do with it. The recruiting of athletes. The oldsaying is that they want to be with a winner so that if you are winning, you are going to get the athletes. If you don’t win, the athletes will eithernot go out or go elsewhere.

I think pride is a big factor. You are just expected to win.RC: You talked about Joe Keller. What kind of coach was he, what kind ofman was he? GK: Joe Keller was very stern. He demanded perfection but he wassympathetic. He liked the underdog. He was very impatient if you were anathlete that did not play up to your potential. As a teacher, if we had aproblem with an athlete, we would say we would go tell coach Keller and that was the end of our discipline problems because Joe would make them run track, make them do different things.

He had a tremendous amount of respect, that’s basically what it was. Hewas a go-getter. He was competitive and he loved a challenge and heproduced. But his players much liked him and many of them played abovetheir heads, they had that much respect for him. He always got the mostout of an athlete.

He was rough. Of course, his style wouldn’t fit in today. It’s likeeverything else, the athlete is pampered more today. His style was yelling.Especially if they were losing or lackluster, the halftime speech was inspiring. And every time it worked. They would come out a different ballclub. So his halftime speeches were the Knute Rockne type but a littlestronger, probably. If they had a lackluster type performance or they weredown, they would come back. He would motivate them. And he wasn’t afraid to pull an athlete and put another one in. If an athletewasn’t performing, he would pull them. In other words, you are secondstring now and work your way back up.

RC: Of the players you have seen, which ones come to mind? GK: Well, I know of the Labats and the Peter Clements. When we were kidswe would play sandlot football and we would yell out, I am Leroy Labat, I am Peter Clement. We knew of those guys and we would see them incollege. As a Boy Scout, I had a lot of opportunities to go to TulaneStadium and usher, so I saw a lot of Peter in college. But those were ouridols. I don’t remember them because I was a little too young to rememberthem.

But as far as an athlete, a name like Robert “Bobby” Millet comes to mind.

He was the back on the state football team of ’58. Jerry Clement comes tomind as far as a great back. Some linemen like Tom Reno who also playedon the ’55 South Louisiana football team stands out. A guard by the nameof Mike Trafficano who played on the ’54 team. And Curtis Vicknair whowas a defensive end/fullback. Curtis went around 230-235. Huge at thattime. Defensively he was strong. Michael Madere, Carl Daigle, Larry Martin.And of course, Timmy Byrd was a charismatic type of back. He could get itdone. And Louis Lipps. I say Lipps rates with Joe Keller as the twogreatest athletes to come out of Godchaux. They could do it all. Not onlycould they do it on the football field, they were baseball players, basketball players. Those athletes I think stood out. And A.J. Duhe andThomas Pittman. Those were the ones that I can remember that I saw.RC: Do you see the excitement of Friday Night Football continuing into the future? GK: Oh, yeah. As long as there is a football season, you are going to seefans wanting it. Because it is like part of life. It is expected that youfollow the team. You are going to see grandmas and grandpas come in. Aslong as there is Friday night football, fans in the River Parishes will follow football. Whether it is Riverside or Destrehan, Lutcher, anyone ofthem, they will follow football. You see the flags out in the neighborhoods. And it is also, I think, as adults began to unwind, it is a departure from everyday life. They can come into this imaginative world called footballand be part of it. Especially with this global society we have today, it is away of releasing.