The next former Abilene Christian University player to be claimed this week by an NFL team will make headlines, but this particular Wildcat tradition really goes back 69 years.
Players wore leather helmets when halfback Tipp Mooney became the first of 40 Wildcats to play in the NFL. The native of Shamrock, Texas, was lucky – and good – enough to play from 1942-46 with the Chicago Bears.
He was followed by Dick “Moose” Stovall, a former Abilene High School star who played three seasons (1947-49) for the Detroit Lions and Washington Redskins as a linebacker and “defensive center.” Stovall was one of six Texans on the Redskins, including future charter NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Samuel “Slingin’ Sammy” Baugh, the player who revolutionized the forward passing game.
Stovall was looking forward to a 1950 exhibition game in the Cotton Bowl between the Redskins and Lions – his pro debut back in his home state – when he decided to retire rather than rehabiliate a serious knee injury. He was one of nine brothers in the Stovall family, eight of whom served in World War II. Stovall went on to a 20-year career as a football official in the Southwest Conference, and was chosen for crews working Cotton Bowl, Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl games.
Vitamin T. Smith was the first Wildcat to be named first-team all-America. He played five seasons as a running back, receiver and kick-returner for the Los Angeles Rams (1949-53), earning a starting role on a team quarterbacked by future NFL Hall of Famer Norm Van Brocklin. The Rams reached the NFL championship game in each of Smith’s first three seasons, finally winning the league’s crown in 1951. He led the NFL in kickoff returns for TDs in 1950 with three, a mark that stood for 27 seasons.
Former Wildcats have played for 21 NFL franchises since 1942. Grant Feasel had the longest playing tenure, a 10-year career as a center for the Baltimore Colts, Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks. Offensive tackle Dan Remsberg played in two Super Bowls for the Denver Broncos (1986 and 1987). Two brothers – Wilbert and Cle Montgomery – were double trouble for ACU opponents when they last played together as collegians in 1976.
Cle, a former member of ACU’s Board of Trustees, became the only Wildcat to play on a winning Super Bowl team when his Los Angeles Raiders won the 1983 championship. A wide receiver, he helped ACU win the 1977 NAIA Division I national title and played seven years in the NFL with the Raiders, Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns.
Wilbert is the elder statesman of former Wildcats in the NFL with 23 years as a player and coach to his credit. A sixth-round draft choice in 1977 after becoming college football’s career scoring leader for ACU, he went on to set six career rushing records for the Philadelphia Eagles (1977-84) and finished his playing career in 1985 with Detroit. He was all-pro and led the Eagles to the 1985 Super Bowl. His 14-year career as an assistant coach includes tutelage of some of the NFL’s top running backs for the St. Louis Rams and Baltimore Ravens. He will begin his fourth year with the Ravens in 2011.
Silky-smooth wide receiver Johnny Perkins is the highest NFL draft choice in ACU history. The New York Giants chose him in the second round in 1977 (the 32nd player chosen overall), and he starred for them for seven seasons.
Defensive back Danieal Manning was the 42nd player chosen in the 2006 NFL Draft, selected in the second round by the Chicago Bears as their first overall pick. A rookie starter on the Bears’ Super Bowl team and still one of the league’s most respected kick-return specialists, he is one of three former ACU stars currently playing in the NFL. The other two are Manning’s teammate, wide receiver Johnny Knox, and Cincinnati Bengals running back Bernard Scott. Knox and Scott are dangerous kick-return performers as well. Knox played in the Pro Bowl following his rookie season.
The 2011 NFL Draft begins tonight, with two senior standouts from ACU’s 2010 team as prospects: wide receiver Edmond Gates and offensive lineman Trevis Turner.