Share “Mildren still talk of town”

By Jake Trotter Modified: May 24, 2008 at 12:19 am •  Published: May 24, 2008
Forty years later in Abilene, Texas, they still talk about the touchdown that wasn't.

Cooper High School, led by blue-chip senior quarterback Jack Mildren, rolled into the state championship game unscathed against Austin Reagan.

"We built our team around Jack,” said Merrill Green, his high school coach. "I would describe him as a thoroughbred. He was everything you could ever expect athletically and academically.”

College recruiters from across the country descended on Fort Worth for the title game, since recruiting season those days began immediately after the final high school game.

They were all there to watch Mildren. He had become such a huge prospect by then that Sports Illustrated's Dan Jenkins profiled him in a 10-plus page article, which ran long before Mildren perfected the wishbone at Oklahoma.

Thursday, Jack Mildren passed away at age 58 in Oklahoma City after a two-year fight with stomach cancer.

In Oklahoma, he will be remembered as a quarterback, a successful businessman and politician and an affable sports talk show host.

But in Abilene, Mildren will forever be known as the small-town hero who could throw with either hand and led the Cougars as close to a state championship as they've ever been.

"When we were freshmen, he was rolling to his left but got his right arm caught by a defender,” said Randy Allen, a halfback at Cooper the same year as Mildren. "So he switched the ball to his left hand and threw a game-winning 30-yard touchdown pass.”

For that reason, Mildren would later become the perfect instrument to orchestrate the Sooner wishbone option offense, which required its quarterback to pitch the ball with both the right and left hands.

"Can you imagine a better deal running the option than to have a guy who was ambidextrous?” Green said. "That's why he was so great running down the line with the option. He could go either way.”

Besides being able to use either hand, Mildren was an incredible all-around athlete. He could've been the starting catcher for the baseball team, but he was too busy setting a state record in the 300-meter hurdles.

But Mildren excelled in the classroom as much as he did in athletics.

"He was a straight-A student, a ‘Yes sir, no sir' kid,” said Henry Colwell, a former Cooper assistant football coach and history teacher. "Jack was a super football player, but he was also an outstanding person and a great student.”

Allen recalls how Mildren grew up always studying in his room with music blaring in the background.

"I couldn't understand how he could focus,” Allen said. "But he was always reading and that helped him have a great vocabulary.”

That not only helped Mildren as a speaker when he later ran for public office, but it also helped him on the football field, too.

"He knew every one's assignments,” said Allen, who coached at Cooper and is now the coach at Highland Park in Dallas. "If a guy forgot his assignment, Jack would tell them in the huddle, whether it was an offensive lineman or a receiver.

"He was very intelligent.”

The blend of athleticism and acumen made him a perfect quarterback in the eyes of the more than 100 colleges that recruited him.

The summer before Mildren's senior year, Green knew the recruiters would be coming in droves. He suggested to Larry Mildren, Jack's father and a coach before becoming a salesman for a cable TV company, that he take his son to see some college campuses without the frills that come with official visits.

With his father, Jack Mildren visited several schools that summer, including Arkansas, Texas A&M and TCU. But everyone, including Mustangs coach Hayden Fry, figured that he would sign with SMU, Mildren's favorite team growing up thanks to stars like Doak Walker and Don Meredith.

That's where five of his closest friends, including Allen, would later sign. But Mildren, a free thinker, ran into another free thinker.

On the way back from visiting Arkansas, the Mildrens made a stop in Norman.

"Jack was just destined to go to SMU,” said Green, who played for the Sooners.

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