BREVARD FOOTBALL HISTORY: 1972 Merritt Island Mustangs Considered Space Coast’s GOAT Prep Football Team
By Peter Kerasotis // August 21, 2023
BREVARD COUNTY SPORTS HISTORY SPOTLIGHT
SPACE COAST SPORTS HALL OF FAME LEGACY TEAM: The 1972 state champion Merritt Island Mustangs, which is considered to be the greatest prep football team of all time on the Space Coast, went 13-0 en route to a state championship.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Space Coast Sports Hall of Fame member Peter Kerasotis wrote this column after attending the 40th Anniversary celebration in 2012 of the 1972 state champion Merritt Island Mustangs, which is considered to be the greatest prep football team of all time on the Space Coast. This Merritt Island Mustang legendary team went 13-0 en route to a state championship.
The entire backfield – quarterback Jimmy Black, fullback Waldo Williams and tailback “Neon” Leon Bright, 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.
MERRITT ISLAND, FLORIDA – Forty years? Has it really been 40 years?
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.
’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.
‘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?
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 tells 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.
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.
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.”
ABOVE VIDEO: Peter Kerasotis talks with Leon Bright and Gerald Hodgin in 2012 during the 40th-anniversary celebration of the Merritt Island Mustang’s legendary football season in 1972.
‘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, breakthrough, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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