Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.
-A.E. Housman, To an Athlete Dying Young
This was the last day of August, 1965, 50 years ago. The Ole Miss Rebels had gathered for their first official practice. Hopes were sky-high. The Rebels were a season removed from a Southeastern Conference championship and had begun the previous season ranked No.1 in the country.
They were talented and they were deep. This was at a time when John Vaught red-shirted most players between their freshman and sophomore seasons. Only the most special of talents played as true sophomores. Robert “Bob” Priester of Natchez was one of those special ones.
Robert Khayat, who needs no introduction here, had coached Priester the year before on the freshman team when Khayat was studying law and coaching on the side. “Bob Priester was everything you look for in an end and a student,” Khayat remembers. “He was tall, lanky, strong, fast. He had good hands. He was smart and he was determined. He was going to be a great player at Ole Miss and a great success in life.”
Priester had played both ways and kicked for the undefeated 1964 Ole Miss freshman team. Vaught had promoted him to the varsity. There would be no red-shirt for Priester.
Hugh Shelton from Baton Rouge had spurned LSU offers to attend Ole Miss as a fullback and linebacker. Like most Ole Miss sophomores he was going to get the red-shirt. He and Priester were roommates and close pals.
“We were the odd couple,” Shelton says, laughing. “Bob was neat and organized. I was a mess. He finally took a piece of chalk and drew a line across the dorm room, and said, 'That's your side. Keep your stuff over there.' “We were different in so many ways,” Shelton continues. “Bob was serious about everything. I wasn't. He made straight A's. I didn't. School came easy for Bob. Everything came easy for Bob.”
Still, nobody worked harder than Bob Priester, especially when it came to football.
“Back then, everybody had to run a 6-minute mile, even the linemen,” Shelton says. “It may sound easy, but it wasn't. Bob and I ran twice a day preparing for the fall. We'd run that mile and he'd always make it easy and he'd turn around and laugh at me the last 30 yards running backwards while I struggled. He was 6 foot 3 and weighed 215 and could run like a deer.”
The Ole Miss players got their flu shots on the morning of the first practice. Hugh Shelton always has wondered whether that contributed. . . .
Shelton was watching as Priester ran his required mile on the track around the practice field. When Priester made the last turn, Shelton knew something was wrong.
“Bob was struggling,” Shelton says. “This was something he could do so easily but you could tell he was really struggling.”
And then, just like that, Priester collapsed.
Trainers and coaches tried, without success, to revive him. He was rushed to the hospital.
Not long afterward, Priester's teammates got the news: “Bob didn't make it.”
The autopsy simply said: “Heart failure.” The doctor, who performed the autopsy reportedly said he had never examined such a fine physical specimen.
“Tragic, just tragic,” Robert Khayat says. “Bob Priester was going to be a great player, a great success in life.”
“Such a waste, such a terrible waste,” says Shelton, the roommate, who lost interest in football, left Ole Miss and never played the sport again.
Janice Priester, Bob's older sister, lives in Natchez where there is still an unopened trunk of Bob's things and all the cards and letters that arrived in the days and weeks afterward.
“It's been 50 years,” she says, “I still can't bring myself to go through that trunk.”Fast forward 50 years: Everybody is undefeated. Hopes are sky-high, as they should be. It is a time of such promise, such unbridled optimism, but also time to pause and remember Bob Priester and such promise never realized.
Rick Cleveland (email@example.com) is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.