BREVARD COUNTY SPORTS HISTORY: Mustangs 1972 Champs Set Benchmark For Excellence

By  //  September 1, 2016

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FLASHBACK: '72 Mustangs among best ever

EDITOR’S NOTE: With the 2016 prep football regular season over, and playoff season underway, we though it appropriate to republish this Peter Kerasotis story about the Merritt Island Mustang’s legendary 1972 team that went 13-0 en route  to a state championship. 

MERRITT ISLAND, FLORIDA – Forty years? Has it really been 40 years?

Information, newspaper clippings and mementos was on display at a special 40-tear reunion and gathering of Merritt Island’s High School’s 1972 state championship team last year at Mustangs Stadium. (Image by Roger Scruggs)

The thinning hairlines and thickening waistlines say it’s true. The mind’s eye, though, says it was just yesterday when magic danced on a Merritt Island High football team; a team that made history.

But could that history have really happened 40 years ago?

“Someone told me we were having a 40-year reunion of that 1972 state championship football team,” said Barry Black, a burly and bruising defensive lineman on that team who gathered with fellow former players and coaches to be honored last year before a Mustangs game against Rockledge High. “I thought to myself was, has it really been 40 years?”

Where does the time go?

But, oh, what a time that was. I should know. I was there.

I saw every football game the Merritt Island Mustangs played that ’72 season, when they went 13-0 en route to the Class 4A state championship, which at the time was the state’s biggest division. In fact, I saw every game from the season before, too, when the ’71 Mustangs lost just one game, 27-25, to eventual state champion Fort Pierce Central.

Former coaches Gerald Odom, Gerald Hodgin, Dwight Thomas and Jim Casper joined former players Jimmy Black, Leon Bright, Dave Brady, Billy Caputo, Tommy Cook, Mike Garo, Tony Harasz, Steve Lee, Jay Rutledge, Barry Black, Joey Gayton, Gary Lemmon, Eddie Reid, Danny Sams, Kyle Meyer and Danny Sayger for a group photo honoring the 1972 Merritt Island High state championship football team. (Image by Roger Scruggs)

’72 TEAM WAS THE GREATEST

It was two years of the most dominating high school football I’ve ever seen.

And that ’72 team? In my opinion it was the best high school football team Brevard County has ever known.

Maybe I’m biased. My brother, Mark Kerasotis, played on that team, starting that year and in ’71 at cornerback and backing up at fullback. Saturday mornings saw many of the players at my parents’ house, where they’d wolf down heaping helpings of my mother’s pancakes. Merritt Island High is also my alma mater, my younger brother’s alma mater and where my dad taught electronics during those lean economic years between the Apollo program and the shuttle program, when Kennedy Space Center was as quiet as it is now.

So, yeah, maybe I’m a little biased. Then again, maybe not.

I’ve been in this area for a long, long time. My family moved here in 1966, the year Melbourne High won Brevard County’s first football state championship. I’m familiar with all the state championship football teams we’ve seen, the ones from Palm Bay High, Rockledge High, Cocoa High, Titusville High, as well as the two other state championships Merritt Island won in the ’70s – in 1978 and 1979.

Lots of great, great teams.

But that 1972 Merritt Island High team was the greatest.

But don’t just take my word for it.

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Billy Caputo checks out the team picture for the 1972 Florida high school champion Merritt Island Mustangs. (Image by Roger Scruggs)

‘CLOCK YOUR ASS IN A HEARTBEAT’

Gerald Hodgin, a member of the Space Coast Sports Hall of Fame, has been a head coach or assistant coach in Brevard County just shy of a half century, mostly at Merritt Island. He’s seen it all.

“It’s the best football team I’ve ever seen,” Hodgin said of the ’72 team, which he says was even better than the back-to-back Mustang state championship teams that came later that decade. “Those state championship teams in ’78 and ’79 were a hard, gritty group of kids who hated to lose. They flat refused to give up. But I’ve gotta tell you, that ’72 team would clock your ass in a heartbeat. They were damn good. There hasn’t been another one like it since. Best team I’ve ever seen.”

Gerald Odom, who was the ’72 team’s defensive coordinator, was also an assistant coach on that first state championship team Brevard County produced – the 1966 Melbourne Bulldog squad. He also was Merritt Island’s head coach on the back-to-back state championship teams in 1978-79 and coached high school football in parts of five different decades.

That ’72 team, he said assuredly, was “the best.”

How good was it?

Merritt Island High School 1972 team members gather at a 40th reunion at Mustangs Stadium last year. From left are Mike Garo, Tommy Cook, Steve Lee and Jimmy Black. (Image by Roger Scruggs)

ENTIRE BACKFIELD SIGNED WITH FLORIDA STATE

The entire backfield – quarterback Jimmy Black, fullback Waldo Williams and tailback “Neon” Leon Bright, a member of the Space Coast Sports Hall of Fame – all made the all-state team. It was the first time that’s happened in the history of Florida high school football. And it hasn’t happened since.

The ’72 Mustangs scored 426 points in their 10 regular season games. Simple math tell us that’s a 42.6 point average per game. The defense yielded only 65 points over those same 10 games, a 6.5 average. That means they went 10-0 during the regular season by outscoring opponents by an average of 42.6 to 6.5.

Yeah, they were that good.

Offense, defense, special teams, power, speed, leadership, smarts, character, toughness … they had it all, and they had it in abundance.

The playoffs produced closer scores, but the same results, all the way to the championship game, when the Mustangs thumped Tallahassee Leon, 40-21.

The entire backfield signed with Florida State, first seniors Jimmy Black and Waldo Williams, and then a year later junior Leon Bright.

In 1976, Jimmy Black became the first starting quarterback for the FSU’s rookie head coach that year. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. A guy by the name of Bobby Bowden.

Waldo Williams, after being named the consensus No. 1 player in the state of Florida, signed with the Cincinnati Reds to play baseball, but didn’t like the way his career was headed a couple of years later and decided he wanted to go to college and play football. The NCAA said he wasn’t eligible, that he was now a professional. Williams countered, with an attorney, that he was a professional in baseball, not in football. He won, setting the precedent that has since allowed athletes like John Elway to compete professionally in one sport and as an amateur in another.

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NEVER CALLED A FAIR CATCH

And Leon Bright? He went on to become the Canadian Football League’s Rookie of the Year in 1977, enjoying a stellar career there before heading to the NFL, where he became famous as a punt returner who never called for a fair catch, even if it meant at times being carted off the field in a stretcher. He was that tough, even back in high school, when you might be disarmed by his 5-foot-9, 160-pound frame, or the fact that he had sprinter speed and the ability to cut and change direction quicker than a defender could blink.

Merritt Island 1972 football team members from left: Gary Lemmon, Tommy Cook, and Joey Gayton gather at a reunion to honor the 1972 state champions. (Image by Roger Scruggs)

Dwight Thomas was an assistant coach on that ’72 staff, and he later went on to become the head coach at Pensacola Escambia High School, where he won back-to-back state championships with a running back who went on to have an NFL career of note. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. A guy by the name of Emmitt Smith.

In fact, when Emmitt Smith, who is now the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he mentioned Dwight Thomas not once, not twice, but three times in his acceptance speech.

All these years later, Thomas, who stays involved in high school football as a talent evaluator and recruiting specialist, mentions Emmitt Smith and Leon Bright in the same sentence as the greatest high school running backs he had the privilege of seeing.

“Like Emmitt, you might be able to hold Leon down for a while, but eventually he’s going to get you. Before long, he’s going to be in that end zone. And there’s no question about their toughness. Emmitt once played an NFL game with a dislocated shoulder. Leon had that same type of toughness. You could injure them, but you couldn’t hurt them. You were not going to get them out of the game.”

Merritt Island 1972 coaches and players gather at a special reunion last year at Mustangs Stadium honoring the 1972 state champion football team. (Image by Roger Scruggs)

‘NEON’ WAS ELECTRIC

Hodgin remembers one game, during that ’71 season, when two defensive backs went down with injuries. Desperate, head coach Eddie Feely looked around the sidelines and shouted, “Can anyone play defensive back?”

Earlier in the game, Bright had been hit in the eye, and it was swollen shut, though he never came out of the game. But now the Mustangs needed a defensive player.

“When Coach Feely asked for a defensive back,” Hodgin recalled, “Leon’s hand went right up. ‘I’ll play coach.’ He had one eye swollen shut. I’ve never seen another one like Leon Bright.”

Mostly what you remembered about “Neon” Leon was how electric he was, how he could scamper through the slimmest of openings in the offensive line, break through, juke a few guys in the secondary and seemingly seconds later be standing in the end zone.

“Leon was so explosive,” Thomas said.

In his three years at Merritt Island, Bright rushed for more than 4,000 yards and averaged a touchdown once every five times he touched the ball – a stat that’s nothing short of amazing.

Waldo Williams, though bigger, was almost as fast and a better all-around athlete – a bruising, powerful runner who made it impossible for defenses to game-plan for just one running back. A multisport star, Williams was one of many team leaders the Mustangs had. He and Bright grew up together on Roosevelt Ave., Williams a year older, and he always treated Bright as a younger brother. Whenever he saw defenses trying to wrench a knee or get in a cheap shot on Bright on the bottom of a pile, Williams would make them pay the next time he got the ball.

Players and coaches from the 1972 Merritt Island state championship football squad wait to be introduced at a ceremony honoring the team during the Rockledge at Merritt Island football game last year on Merritt Island. From left are Gerald Hodgin, Dwight Thomas, Jim Casper, Jimmy Black, Dave Brady, Billy Caputo and Tommy Cook. (image by Roger Scruggs)

INCREDIBLY WELL COACHED

Sometimes that happened on the very next play. That’s because Jimmy Black was given the power by the coaching staff to check off at the line of scrimmage, unheard of then, and still now, at the high school level. But Black was that heady as a quarterback. He’d routinely read the defense and change the play.

There were times when Black and the Mustangs’ primary receiver, Mike Garo, would look at each other as Black went under center. Garo would read the defender’s stance and make a little hand signal back to Black, letting him know whether he was going to curl in, or out, and then they’d adjust on the fly, making the play work.

This was not a very big team, and certainly Garo was indicative of that. He stood just a few inches north of 5-feet, but his arms seemed 10-feet long and his hands like Velcro – lunging, diving and catching anything that came his way.

But even though players were given some leeway to improvise, to a man they now realize how incredibly well-coached they were. On that staff were three future hall of fame coaches – the head coach, Eddie Feely, along with assistants Gerald Odom and Dwight Thomas, who also eventually became head coaches.

“I realize now what a great coaching job they did with us, how hard they worked and how well-prepared we always were,” said Jimmy Black, who coaches wide receivers for the current Merritt Island High team.

Tommy Cook, a defensive back, brought binders of clippings and memorabilia to the ceremony honoring the 40-year anniversary of the team. Part of Cook’s memorabilia that he lugged to the event were the detailed scouting reports the coaches prepared them with – page after page of typewritten analysis, along with more pages of detailed diagrams of plays the opposing team ran and tendencies they had.

“We worked non-stop,” Hodgin said.

Several of the defenders from that team recalled that they were so well-prepared that linebacker and defensive captain Greg Pingston would often shout out the opposing’s team’s play as they situated themselves at the line of scrimmage.

Yeah, they were that well-coached … and they were that smart; a team full of leaders, many of whom have had successful careers after football ended.

INTELLIGENT, TALENTED, TOUGH

When the team came together 15 years ago for its 25-year reunion, Feely, a former Florida State quarterback who is now deceased, talked about his 34 years in high school coaching and how that ’72 Mustang team was by far the best he had in terms of academics and senior leadership. That team produced a doctor, a lawyer, a bank president, a leading rocket scientist, a Hollywood screenwriter, business owners, engineers and a host of other professionals.

This was an intelligent, talented, as well as a tough, bunch.

But then again, they needed that, because they weren’t very big.

I remember well that Fort Pierce Central game that championship season. The hype and anticipation was off the charts.

The year before, when the Mustangs were equally dominating – with some still believing it was the better of the two teams; a team that scored 405 points while yielding just 70 over 10 games – they played the Cobras in Fort Pierce. It went down to the last play of the game, with Merritt Island trailing 27-25. A Mustang field goal attempt as time expired hit the crossbar and bounced back. The loss prevented Merritt Island from making the playoffs and it was Fort Pierce Central that went on to win the Class 4A state championship.

In ’72, the game was on Merritt Island, and typical for home games, fans arrived at Mustangs Stadium as early as 2 p.m. You had to. If you didn’t get there early, you didn’t get a seat. Merritt Island was a smaller town back then, and if it seemed as if everyone knew everyone, it was because we did.

It also seemed as if the entire island gathered at Mustangs Stadium on Friday nights. And if it was an away game, we used to say that the last person off the island had to shut out the lights.

From left, Leon Bight, Gerald Hodgin and Peter Kerasotis share stories and memories of the 1972 Merritt island High School state championship football team. (Image by Roger Scruggs)

COMMUNITY PRIDE

There was a lot of pride, too.

The band was big and loud and talented, and the theme song that played again and again was a brassy instrumental piece called “The Horse.” Of course. Search for the tune on YouTube and see if you can keep still while listening to it. Touchdowns were punctuated by one of the kids on the student body, a gymnast, doing backflips all the way down the sideline. “Charming” Harmon Chesser, the assistant principal with the golden voice, added to the evening’s aura with his spirited public address announcing.

If you wanted to play football, and were tough enough to endure two-a-days and the grueling practices, you were on the team. Everyone dressed, and the entire team would walk with a swagger toward midfield for the opening coin toss, ominous in their all-black uniforms with the gold numbers. It was an intimidating sight.

If there was a more exciting place to be on Friday nights, none of us were aware of it. Nor could we even imagine it.

Maybe it was just our bias that made us think that we had the best-looking cheerleaders, the finest marching band and the greatest football team.

Then again, maybe not.

Certainly we had the greatest football team.

But the Mustangs had to prove it in Week 9 against Fort Pierce Central, a game circled in red all season long. Not only did both teams enter the contest with 8-0 records, the Cobras arrived that Friday night riding a 20-game winning streak as defending state champs and the state’s No.1-ranked team. The Mustangs were ranked No.2. The winner would advance to the postseason; and the loser wouldn’t.

From left, Tommy Cook, Peter Kerasotis, Mike Garo and Billy Caputo look over news clippings and memorabilia from Merritt Island High school’s 1972 state championship football team. (Image by Roger Scruggs)

PURE JOY

The entire state of Florida was watching, as were a lot of college scouts.

I too was watching, perched in the absolutely packed stands that night, sitting with my parents and younger brother. The attendance was 8,346, which was not that uncommon for a home game. Goodness, the season-opener against Melbourne High had better than 7,000 fans shoehorned into Mustangs Stadium.

On the first few plays from scrimmage, the bigger Cobras defensive line, led by future NFL players Don Latimer and Dock Luckie, was all over the smaller Mustangs. It looked like a brawl in the trenches, and it looked like the Merritt Island guys were losing.

I had a sickening feeling in my stomach.

Then Leon Bright broke one for a 64-yard touchdown, adding a 96-yard punt return for a touchdown later in the game. Before it was over, Merritt Island trounced Fort Pierce Central, 42-6, avenging their lone loss from the year before. It was pure joy.

In retrospect, the toughest regular-season game came against Vero Beach High, another game I remember vividly, probably because my brother Mark had two open-field, touchdown-saving tackles from his cornerback position, helping the team preserve a 14-0 victory. Overall, it was a game the defense won, scoring one of the only two touchdowns Merritt Island managed, while shutting out the Indians in a nail-biter.

The Vero Beach victory prepared the Mustangs well for the pressure-packed playoffs, especially a close 29-22 semifinals victory against Hollywood Hills, the 7-point margin of victory the narrowest all season.

A week later, on a frigid night in Tallahassee, Merritt Island High was state champions.

It seems like yesterday, but it isn’t.

Time moves on, and times change.

Merritt Island still fields solid, winning football teams, but when the school honored that ’72 state championship squad before a victory against Rockledge High that pushed the current team’s record to 5-1, they did so in front of stands that were less than half full.

If you didn’t think it was really 40 years down the road, that sight alone was a wakeup call.

And it was a reminder, too; a reminder that nothing last forever. Nothing, that is, except for one thing.

Memories.

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18 Comments on "BREVARD COUNTY SPORTS HISTORY: Mustangs 1972 Champs Set Benchmark For Excellence"

  1. Ben Clark October 8, 2012 at 5:43 pm · Reply

    Peter,
    Once again, you managed to capture the true sentiment of the momoent. I was only 12, at the time but as clear as can be I recall those moments that you mentioned. Especially the FT Pierce game. I came to see and honor those men for they started a fire in my age group that allowed us to follow in their footsteps as we realized a seven year dream to become state champs also. I went down to the tent and once again thanked Coach and Mrs. Odom, I saw Dr. David Cowling, and my old neighbor Kyle Myer… it was another one of those remember the titan moments, I missed Waldo Williams… I am glad you are back writing again I look forward to keeping up with your articles.

    Go Mustangs,
    Ben Clark -Class of 1980

  2. Charlie Greene October 8, 2012 at 6:07 pm · Reply

    Peter,
    I was in Miami during the 70’s and I remember The U recruited heavily at Merritt Island High School.
    A defensive back whose name ecapes me now had a stellar career at the U

  3. Tim Reid October 8, 2012 at 6:13 pm · Reply

    GREAT article, Peter K!

    Best backfield in the nation. No doubt. Leon was a phenom – explosive speed, tremendous moves & superb hands, too. Jimmy was a masterful, inspiring leader, with all top tier quarterbacking skills & athletic talent. And Waldo – he was already on the national radar for his amazing abilities – he was a powerhouse, both offensively & defensively. The three of them had to be the greatest backfield in Florida high school history, if not national high school history. They were that good.

    And the surrounding talent was terrific, too – led by unsurpassed coaching – Gerald Odom, Dwight Thomas, Lee Mace & Grald Hodgin, et al – with the brilliant Coach Feeley at the helm.

    What a magificent team!

  4. Susan M. Plymel October 8, 2012 at 7:03 pm · Reply

    Hometown stories/heros are always the the best. I loved it even though I’m “Bulldog Born and Bulldog Bred” – Mel-Hi, of course. And you are our Hometown hero Peter.

    Susan M. Plymel

  5. james wichlacz October 8, 2012 at 9:08 pm · Reply

    Wow, 40 yrs., had just moved to Merritt island from Titusville by way of Saginaw, Michigan. We experienced the community excitement of those teams. It was fun to watch Leon, Jimmy and Waldo, along with the coaches excel. Leon was somehting else returning for the Bucs. Great story, great TEAM.

  6. Charley Hester October 8, 2012 at 9:31 pm · Reply

    I moved to Central FLorida in 1974 and had friends on Merritt Island, so I heard plenty nabout the 1972 team, and it never stopped. This is another great article Peter–thanks!

  7. Charles "Phil" Snith October 9, 2012 at 11:09 am · Reply

    Melbourne HS had a pretty good championship team BUT you are correct. That MIHS 1972 team was the “best” ever. Ed Feely talked with me when he was at Gainesville BHS and I was with the FHSAA. “That was the most talented group of players ever in the State of Florida.” ” I probably could have caoched them by telephone sometimes.” I was Assistant Principla at MIHS when they won back-to-back championships and those were two darn good teams BUT not the best. 1972 was/is the best. I think that the rest of the old timers in Brevard County like me agee. They were awsome.

  8. Debi Rochette October 9, 2012 at 8:10 pm · Reply

    I was there Friday night under the tent and you captured the scene well, Pete. Very good article, so full of the details and feelings of that amazing year. One we will never forget. Thanks for writing it out for us to keep with all of the other memories from those years.
    Debi

  9. Pam Leto Weisbrod October 10, 2012 at 11:36 am · Reply

    Pete,
    Thanks for the memories! You have captured the essence of life on the Island during the glory days of MIHS football. Great writing, as always.
    Pam

  10. Donna Kissiah October 10, 2012 at 9:12 pm · Reply

    I was twelve when this team played at MIHS and used to go to the games with my Dad and brother. I can still vividly remember Leon Bright blazing down the field in black and gold. Your wonderful article captured the magic of Merritt Island High football and the community that supported it. This team set the bar for how I have viewed football my entire life. Thanks for the article. Go Mustangs!

  11. Julie Irby Sannicandro October 11, 2012 at 7:34 am · Reply

    GREAT article!

  12. Anne Knoll October 12, 2012 at 10:54 am · Reply

    That was a great article..thanks for the memories…it was a fun and exciting time..yes the game at Fort Pierce well ..there were lots of talks after watching the game film….but we were all happy for the class of 73 to win a state championship…

  13. Darnell Tramel Peterson October 19, 2012 at 6:50 pm · Reply

    Wonderful article! Thank YOU! I graduated from Merritt Island High School in 73′ and remember all the games! I never missed one – even away games! What a wonderful team we had and a wonderful community spirit!

  14. Patti W November 2, 2012 at 11:59 pm · Reply

    Remember it well. Leon Neon was the most amazingly fast player I ever saw. No one could catch him, I remember that all the kids had black Mustang cars. They’d all gather to drive to the away games together. I remember if you wanted to buy a black mustang there weren’t any available even all the way to Orlando. Every Friday night all the local businesses on the island had their good luck signs to the mustangs. The Friday Nights Lights tv show is pretty much the way it was on the island. It was all about the black and gold. I tell everyone it was the best year of my life. Everything was perfect.

  15. Karen Oakleaf November 9, 2012 at 11:02 pm · Reply

    Peter,

    Nice story, but you got one piece of history wrong. My dad was a coach on the 1972 Eau Gallie team. And that year Merritt Island and Eau Gallie met during Thanksgiving weekend when both teams were 9-0. Of course Merritt Island won that game, and it was a big letdown for Eau Gallie.

    Earlier in the year EG and MI had met during a game that was called. I remember EG coach Bill McCall believed that if the game had not been called because Merritt Island was unable to stop Eau Gallie’s veer offense in the first meeting. In fact when Coach McCall moved to Hardee County High School Coach Feely came and asked Coach McCall to teach him the Veer offense.

  16. Karen Stiffler Cooper November 12, 2012 at 4:19 pm · Reply

    What a great article. My whole family would go to all the games home and away along with everyone that lived on Merritt Island. MIHS football reminded you more of a college atmosphere, so much excitement and support! Those were great memories!!

  17. Melissa December 5, 2012 at 11:14 am · Reply

    Thanks for the great article and the wonderful memories. I was one of the cheerleaders in the MIHS Class of ’72, so saw it all. Waldo and Leon and some of the other guys would often come to our house for steaks before the games. Here’s a secret you probably didn’t know: to get them to “relax” before games, coaches encouraged them to do needlework… which some of ’em did, sitting on our couch in the den, listening to my dad’s stereo and stitching designs on tea towels. True story!

  18. Coach Dwight Thomas April 12, 2015 at 6:23 pm · Reply

    My son Joshua came across this article and forwarded to me today 4/12/2015. I just waned to thank whomever set this reunion up for we Mustangs!! My only only wish here is that Eddie Feely could have been there! I thank Eddie for allowing me to be a small part of our success! That success we earned goes on today and tomorrow. To all the coaches and players that allowed me to be part of our success, which means so much to me…….I love you! Coach Dwight Thomas

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