The 1980 football season in Commerce was eagerly anticipated. After a lackluster 4-7 season in 1978, 1979 showed promise despite an average looking 5-5 record. They had shut out the defending NAIA champions in Texas A&I, and were in the hunt for a conference title until the very end of the season.
The Wizard of the Blacklands, Ernest Hawkins, had reason to be excited. The 1980 Lions were loaded with talent. Wade Wilson was an NFL caliber quarterback. The offensive line, anchored by David Midolo and Blake Cooper, were big and talented. There was a perfect blend of power and speed in the backfield in the form of Cary Noiel and fullback Ted Sample. Ron Trammell and Randy Smith were big play threats in the passing game.
That wasn’t all, though. Bobby Fox’s Blue Gang was as tough as nails. Led by names such as Curtis Ray, Jimmy Buster, Brian Barnes, and Gary Matthews, the defense played every play like it was a street fight. Danny Kirk was an intimidating force at linebacker. The secondary was manned by such talent as Anthony Freeman, Chris Flynn, Darren Smith, and Ben Boston. It was treacherous for a receiver to go across the middle of this group.
Going into fall camp, the Lions were further toughened by a record setting heat wave that saw daily temperatures well over 100 degrees. That, combined with demanding pace set by Hawkins, prepared the Lions for the road ahead.
The Lions came out of the gate hot and stayed that way. After a 35-20 victory over Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma, the Lions returned to Commerce and defeated the Muleriders from Southern Arkansas, 21-14.
In the first big test of the season, the Lions traveled to Edmond, Oklahoma, and left town with a 33-7 win over the 1979 NAIA finalist. The Lions were rolling.
Three more straight wins over Sam Houston State, Howard Payne, and Abilene Christian followed. Every cylinder in the Lions engine was firing. Then came a rough stretch of the season. They fought hard, but came up short in San Marcos, as Southwest Texas pulled out a 37-26 victory. The next week, Texas A&I defeated the Lions, 14-7, in a game very similar to the previous season.
The next week saw the Lions travel to Nacogdoches, and soundly defeat the Lumberjacks of Stephen F. Austin, 44-7. The season finale in Commerce saw a hard fought battle with Angelo State end in a 13-13 tie.
The tension in and around the campus the following Sunday was palpable. Would the Lions be among the eight teams selected for the playoffs? Fortunately, things broke the Lions way. Southwest Texas, the eventual conference champion, was transitioning to Division 2, and received an NCAA bid, The Lions and Angelo State were awarded NAIA bids.
The Lions, in traditional fashion, took to the road in Conway, Arkansas for a first round match up with number one ranked Central Arkansas, and left with a 27-21 shocker. Everything was coming together. Wade Wilson was sharp. Cary Noiel was money around the goal line. The Blue Gang was dominant going into the semifinal against Elon College. For once, the Lions would be hosting a playoff game.
Then, heartbreak. Before a packed house at Memorial Stadium on a beautiful, sun splashed day in northeast Texas, the Lions, who were expected to win, could not overcome the turnover bug, and fell to Elon, 14-6, despite a heroic defensive effort in which they shut down the NAIA’s leading rusher. Just like that, the dream was over. No finger pointing, no anger, just sadness about the thought of what might have been.
Flash forward to December, 2017. Another huge semifinal playoff game, another packed house. Everything on the line. This time, heartbreak was replaced by pure joy in a 31-17 Lions win. In a moment, that sadness was gone. Taking in the scene on the field after the game, I ran into Blake Cooper, the center of that team. No words, just huge smiles and a hug that said,”Finally”.
On the the 40th anniversary of that magical season, let’s take a look back and see just how good this team really was.
Cary Noiel-5th all time leading rusher, 5th all purpose yardage, 11th scoring
Wade Wilson-7th all time leading passer, 6th total offense
Danny Kirk-All time leader in tackles
Glenn Blackard-7th all time leader in tackles
Brian Barnes-7th all time leader in sacks
Curtis Ray-14th all time leader in sacks
Ron Trammell-All time leader in Punt Return yardage
Anthony Freeman-5th all time interceptions
Chris Flynn-15th all time interceptions
Chuck Jaggers-3rd all time Punting
Post Season Awards
Wade Wilson-First Team NAIA All American, LSC Outstanding Back of the Year, First Team All LSC, Honorable Mention AP Little All American
Danny Kirk-Second Team NAIA All American, Honorable Mention AP Little All American, First Team All LSC
Cary Noiel-First Team All LSC
Curtis Ray-First Team All LSC
Ron Trammell-First Team All LSC
Jimmy Buster-Second Team All LSC
Blake Cooper-Second Team All LSC
Anthony Freeman-Second Team All LSC
David Midolo-Second Team All LSC
Randy Smith-Second Team All LSC
Vic Combs-Honorable Mention All LSC
Dennis Hagen-Honorable Mention All LSC
David Lowe-Honorable Mention All LSC
Bishop Spencer-Honorable Mention All LSC
Simply put, the 1980 East Texas State Lions were the best team in school history not to win a title. They were my heroes. They are my friends.