Thursday, September 3, 2015

Rick Cleveland: Remembering Ole Miss's Bob Priester

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 ( is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.


Anonymous said...

I hate Ole Miss. (I am not a fan of ANY school of "higher education" in MS).

This however, was a great historical and sports read. A sad tale about a man that had a bright future. Very sad.

Thanks for posting.

Anonymous said...

Very well written as always. I worry about this country without newspapers. Newspapers today make so little money that they have to lay off their best talent. Like Rick Cleveland. Cannot afford them. I wonder how they afford not to have them.
The biggest thing to me is that in the past newspapers would investigate all sorts of things, especially political wrong doings. I think they are loosing the ability and the manpower to do that. As a democracy we need watchdogs. Not folks like me who bitch about what they read on the internet, but people who will do some real digging. Interview witnesses, dig up files, spread light in dark corners. This website does some of that, but as a nation we are weaker without good newspapers.

Kingfish said...

Thanks. Mr. Cleveland's column will be a weekly feature as JJ picked up his syndicated column.

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Trollfest '09

Trollfest '07 was such a success that Jackson Jambalaya will once again host Trollfest '09. Catch this great event which will leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Othor Cain and his band, The Black Power Structure headline the night while Sonjay Poontang returns for an encore performance. Former Frank Melton bodyguard Marcus Wright makes his premier appearance at Trollfest singing "I'm a Sweet Transvestite" from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Kamikaze will sing his new hit, “How I sold out to da Man.” Robbie Bell again performs: “Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Bells” and “Any friend of Ed Peters is a friend of mine”. After the show, Ms. Bell will autograph copies of her mug shot photos. In a salute to “Dancing with the Stars”, Ms. Bell and Hinds County District Attorney Robert Smith will dance the Wango Tango.

Wrestling returns, except this time it will be a Battle Royal with Othor Cain, Ben Allen, Kim Wade, Haley Fisackerly, Alan Lange, and “Big Cat” Donna Ladd all in the ring at the same time. The Battle Royal will be in a steel cage, no time limit, no referee, and the losers must leave town. Marshand Crisler will be the honorary referee (as it gives him a title without actually having to do anything).

Meet KIM Waaaaaade at the Entergy Tent. For five pesos, Kim will sell you a chance to win a deed to a crack house on Ridgeway Street stuffed in the Howard Industries pinata. Don't worry if the pinata is beaten to shreds, as Mr. Wade has Jose, Emmanuel, and Carlos, all illegal immigrants, available as replacements for the it. Upon leaving the Entergy tent, fig leaves will be available in case Entergy literally takes everything you have as part of its Trollfest ticket price adjustment charge.

Donna Ladd of The Jackson Free Press will give several classes on learning how to write. Smearing, writing without factchecking, and reporting only one side of a story will be covered. A donation to pay their taxes will be accepted and she will be signing copies of their former federal tax liens. Ms. Ladd will give a dramatic reading of her two award-winning essays (They received The Jackson Free Press "Best Of" awards.) "Why everything is always about me" and "Why I cover murders better than anyone else in Jackson".

In the spirit of helping those who are less fortunate, Trollfest '09 adopts a cause for which a portion of the proceeds and donations will be donated: Keeping Frank Melton in his home. The “Keep Frank Melton From Being Homeless” booth will sell chances for five dollars to pin the tail on the jackass. John Reeves has graciously volunteered to be the jackass for this honorable excursion into saving Frank's ass. What's an ass between two friends after all? If Mr. Reeves is unable to um, perform, Speaker Billy McCoy has also volunteered as when the word “jackass” was mentioned he immediately ran as fast as he could to sign up.

In order to help clean up the legal profession, Adam Kilgore of the Mississippi Bar will be giving away free, round-trip plane tickets to the North Pole where they keep their bar complaint forms (which are NOT available online). If you don't want to go to the North Pole, you can enjoy Brant Brantley's (of the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance) free guided tours of the quicksand field over by High Street where all complaints against judges disappear. If for some reason you are unable to control yourself, never fear; Judge Houston Patton will operate his jail where no lawyers are needed or allowed as you just sit there for minutes... hours.... months...years until he decides he is tired of you sitting in his jail. Do not think Judge Patton is a bad judge however as he plans to serve free Mad Dog 20/20 to all inmates.

Trollfest '09 is a pet-friendly event as well. Feel free to bring your dog with you and do not worry if your pet gets hungry, as employees of the Jackson Zoo will be on hand to provide some of their animals as food when it gets to be feeding time for your little loved one.

Relax at the Fox News Tent. Since there are only three blonde reporters in Jackson (being blonde is a requirement for working at Fox News), Megan and Kathryn from WAPT and Wendy from WLBT will be on loan to Fox. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both and a torn-up Obama yard sign will entitle you to free drinks served by Megan, Wendy, and Kathryn. Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required. Just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '09 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

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Trollfest '07

Jackson Jambalaya is the home of Trollfest '07. Catch this great event which promises to leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Sonjay Poontang and his band headline the night with a special steel cage, no time limit "loser must leave town" bout between Alan Lange and "Big Cat"Donna Ladd following afterwards. Kamikaze will perform his new song F*** Bush, he's still a _____. Did I mention there was no referee? Dr. Heddy Matthias and Lori Gregory will face off in the undercard dueling with dangling participles and other um, devices. Robbie Bell will perform Her two latest songs: My Best Friends are in the Media and Mama's, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be George Bell. Sid Salter of The Clarion-Ledger will host "Pin the Tail on the Trial Lawyer", sponsored by State Farm.

There will be a hugging booth where in exchange for your young son, Frank Melton will give you a loooong hug. Trollfest will have a dunking booth where Muhammed the terrorist will curse you to Allah as you try to hit a target that will drop him into a vat of pig grease. However, in the true spirit of Separate But Equal, Don Imus and someone from NE Jackson will also sit in the dunking booth for an equal amount of time. Tom Head will give a reading for two hours on why he can't figure out who the hell he is. Cliff Cargill will give lessons with his .80 caliber desert eagle, using Frank Melton photos as targets. Tackleberry will be on hand for an autograph session. KIM Waaaaaade will be passing out free titles and deeds to crackhouses formerly owned by The Wood Street Players.

If you get tired come relax at the Fox News Tent. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both will entitle you to free drinks.Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required, just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '07 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

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