In his nearly 30 years of coaching offense for East Texas State, Ernest Hawkins coached a lot of Quarterbacks. Some went to the NFL and started games. Some had great college careers and set records that might never be broken, even in today’s passer conducive offenses. However, when Hawkins took over as Head Coach in 1964, there was one player that has gone under the radar. One quarterback that did virtually everything a Hawkins coached quarterback did. He won a conference title, was named all-conference, and defeated hated rivals.
His name……Ben Kirkland.
Like his head coach, Ben Kirkland was the pick of the West Texas crop, and I don’t mean cotton. Kirkland had the opportunity to play at New Mexico State coming out of high school, playing for Big Spring High. Kirkland played his prep ball in the famed “Little Southwest Conference.” That was a district of West Texas High Schools that were the largest in the sparsely populated Permian Basin and Big Country area of the state. Kirkland spent his prep career facing off against legendary Texas programs like Abilene, Odessa Permian, and Midland Lee. It was preparing him for the Big time, but a visit almost completely across the state from the Southwest to the Northeast changed his football career. Kirkland had roughy 30 scholarship offers from Division I schools. He had been named all conference and a High School All-American, so he had his pick of where he could go. However, times were very different back then. Ben had married his high school sweetheart right out of high school, and back then NCAA Division I schools did not allow married student athletes. So, Kirkland’s high school coach R.C. Moore, who had played at East Texas State, sent his quarterback across the state to visit the ETSU campus. The first man he met was a coach many East Texas players know well, CW “Boley” Crawford. “Boley welcomed me, and then I met the rest of the staff and some players.” At that time, Ben Kirkland knew Commerce, America is where he belonged. He moved into the University housing for married couples where his wife Pam stayed, along with their newborn child. “There were a lot of married athletes back then. You met a lot of great people that were in your life situation, going to school, playing sports, but had a family. There were a lot of great people living in that quad.”
Starting his career in the fall of 1965, Kirkland served as the primary backup, and it was only Coach Ernest Hawkins second season which the Lions finished 4-5. 1966 was a totally different situation. It was during this time that Kirkland learned about the offensive innovation and genius of Ernest Hawkins. “I was allowed to call the plays and get us in the best play. Coach Hawkins had this strategy where he forced the defense to get into their set while we got into a base I formation. After the defense made their move, we would adjust and it put defenses in a bind. A QB calling his plays back then was unheard of.”While it was not the prettiest season, Kirkland, along with a cast of characters such as Curtis Guyton, Tom Black, and a young Arthur James notched a 4-1-2 LSC record and 5-3-2 overall for Hawkins’ first LSC title. It was that team that would establish the Hawkins legacy of winning titles. The 1966 team also did something that few teams did, they beat a Gil Stienke coached Texas A&I team. The Javs had come to Commerce hoping to spoil a Homecoming, but it was a late fourth quarter TD pass that Kirkland threw that had the Lions have a happy homecoming. However, it was not all wine and roses as Kirkland admits the tie to Sul Ross State put a damper on that season, as did the season ending loss to Stephen F. Austin. Some might say that despite the title of the 1966 season, it carried into the 1967 season, which resulted in a 4-6 record.
“1967 was a tough year. I was hurt and the ball just didn’t bounce our way a lot of times and we were a young team, but I believe that set us up for what was set to be a special 1968 season.”
Heading into the 1968 season, The Lions had won an LSC title, and had won some big games, but were still not the LSC power they had been in the previous decade. 1968 laid the groundwork for bigger and more dominating wins down the road. The 1968 East Texas State Lions won 7 games, lost 2 and tied 1. Their biggest win came when they defeated the # 1 team in the country and big rival Texas A&I, 35-27. That gave them firm control over the LSC. However, it was that one tie the very next week against Sul Ross once again that cost the Lions a shot to play for the NAIA national title. Had the Lions defeated Sul Ross rather than tie them, it would have given them a tie in the standings for the LSC title. However since they had head to head over A&I, they would have been selected to play in the NAIA playoffs for the first time in school history. A&I went over the Lions due to the Sul Ross tie, and ended up going all the way to the national championship game where they lost to Troy State. Oh, what could have been.
By the time his football career in Commerce was over, Kirkland had become the first winning Hawkins quarterback. Graduating in 1969 with a degree in English, he had many options. He was named all conference in 1968 and had finished his career completing 211 passes out of 469 attempts for 3,278 yards and 25 passing touchdowns. Because of his passing acumen and success, he was invited to sign as an undrafted free agent for the Houston Oilers and the Cincinnati Bengals. He also played semi-professional football for the Texarkana Titans along with ETSU teammates Tom Black and Marv Brown. However, with a wife and a child, Kirkland decided to go into the Commercial and residential glass business, an industry he got into thanks to his father in law. He worked in that industry for 40 years before retiring in 2013. His wife Pam passed away during that time, causing a trying time, however, 6 years later, he remarried and spends his time with his wife traveling, and golfing when time permits in the town of Granbury, Texas.
When Ben Kirkland looks back at his time at East Texas State, he admits it has been a long time since he has been back, but wishes to come back. This fall will be 55 years since the 1966 East Texas State Lions won the Lone Star Conference title, so a return to The Blackland Prairie is possible.
Kirkland may be the lesser known of the Hawkins Quarterbacks, but he knows what role he played in the great tradition of Lion football. Conference Champion, National Title Contender, All Conference, and a record setting passer with NFL potential. Just like Dietz, Cureton, Skinner, Wilson, Mackey, and Briones, he is a Lion football hero.
An Unsung hero, but a Lion hero never the less.