Goodbye, Bruiser

Published 8:30 am Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Bobby Huell, a Vicksburg native and longtime assistant football coach at Vicksburg High School, died Monday following a battle with cancer. He was 65. (File/The Vicksburg Post)

Bobby Huell, a Vicksburg native and longtime assistant football coach at Vicksburg High School, died Monday following a battle with cancer. He was 65. (File/The Vicksburg Post)

Former players, colleagues reflect fondly on life of VHS coach Huell

Early in his life, back when he was a 5-foot-10, 180-pound running back who could run over and sprint past opponents, Bobby Huell earned the nickname “Bruiser.”

It stuck, as a lot of names do. As the years went on, it became more and more ironic for a man many remembered as being quick with a joke and selfless to a fault.

Huell, who spent the past 25 years as an assistant football coach at Vicksburg High School — and another 16 before that at McCall High School in Tallulah and Hinds AHS in Utica — died Monday following a battle with cancer. He was 65.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

Huell was a favorite of players and his fellow coaches alike, not to mention several generations of students who passed through his physical education classes.

“Without him, I wouldn’t know where I would be. From day one, he was going to be that coach who was loyal to whoever got the job,” said Marcus Rogers, who is heading into his second year as Vicksburg’s head football coach. “He was a glue guy. He had been through all of the coaches that were here. When I first got here, everybody said if you need anything, talk to Bobby. I never called him Bobby. I called him Coach Huell out of respect.”

Most people, however, called Huell “Bruiser.” It was a nickname from his playing days at Rosa A. Temple High School, where he was a standout running back on three consecutive Black Big 8 championship teams.

Huell rushed for 35 touchdowns and caught 12 TD passes from 1967-69 as Temple went 28-2-2 during his varsity career.

“When God made a running back, he had Bobby Huell in mind,” said Alonzo Stevens, who was head coach at Vicksburg High from 2001-11, a friend of Huell’s since childhood and his teammate at Temple. “When we were going to give the ball to Bobby, the coaches would say, ‘Get the kicking tee’” to kick an extra point.

The two losses Huell’s Temple teams suffered were in the first two games of his freshman season in 1967. After the Buccaneers were shut out in both games, coach Houston Markham stuck with his game plan of feeding Huell the ball, and it paid off handsomely.

“We would run what we called a slant trap, and Bobby was made for it,” said Markham, who went on to win 68 games on the college level at Alabama State from 1987-97. “We didn’t score the first two games and the principal, Jim Stirgus, said you’d better start winning or we’ll find someone else. We just kept running (Huell). The P.A. announcer named him ‘Bruisin’ Bobby.’ He was just a tremendous running back.”

No one who saw him could disagree.

Huell went on to star for Alcorn State, and signed a free agent contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1974. The Steelers went on to win the Super Bowl that season, but Huell wasn’t part of the team. He had been cut toward the end of training camp.

While Huell might have had the talent to latch on with another NFL team, he didn’t try. He returned home to Vicksburg and immediately embarked on his teaching and coaching career.

“He never looked back,” Stevens said. “He told me that was it. We went into coaching.”

Huell’s first coaching job was across the Mississippi River, at McCall High School in Tallulah in 1974. He stayed there until 1982, then spent the next eight years at Hinds AHS in Utica. He also coached boys basketball at Hinds AHS.

He finally returned to his hometown in 1990, and spent the next 25 years as Vicksburg’s special teams coordinator, offensive coordinator and running backs coach at various times.

Huell also was head coach of the boys’ track and field team in the early 2000s, and the clock operator for varsity basketball games.

Although those were his official job titles, Huell had a more unofficial position as the Gators’ resident wise man. When players needed a sympathetic ear, he was there. When coaches needed advice about football or life, he was there. When anyone needed a laugh, Huell was on the spot with a joke.

“Coach Huell was always there, regardless of what position you played,” said Maurice Taylor, who played running back for Vicksburg from 2001-03. “When you don’t think he knew something, he’d say something that let you know, that he knew what he was talking about.”

Reginald Wheatley, another Vicksburg running back who played from 1998-2002, said Huell taught him lessons about work ethic that still resonate today. Wheatley is now an information technology professional in Dallas, and said he uses what he learned from Huell in his current career.

“He made sure we worked outside of practice,” Wheatley said. “When I started playing football, I was just playing football. He had me do workouts in the offseason. I started doing that, and started doing better in my position. Now, in my work, I try to do that. I try to educate my brain about different things.”

Besides being a great people person, Stevens said Huell had an incredibly savvy football mind. Stevens credited one of Vicksburg’s biggest wins of the last 20 years, a 28-0 shutout of Madison Central in the 2001 Class 5A quarterfinals, to his friend’s game plan.

The Gators avenged a regular-season loss to their then-region rival by rushing for 255 yards and piling up 418 total yards.

“He had a brilliant coaching game. I wanted to do some things and he made me stick with the running game. It was his game plan,” Stevens said.

Like Rogers, Stevens also credited Huell with being someone who kept things clicking in the fieldhouse as well as on the field.

“Any success I had, he was responsible for. If I got too far off track, he pulled me back,” Stevens said.

Huell’s influence spanned generations. In addition to the fathers and sons he coached over the course of 25 years, he has two nephews and a grandson on this year’s VHS team. Rogers said that when he was first hired, it was Huell who gave him the rundown on Vicksburg’s history and who was who within the school and program.

“The kids on the team, everybody’s fathers and mothers had been impacted by him,” Rogers said.

Rogers said Huell left the team to deal with his illness about midway through the 2014 season. Huell continued to make occasional appearances at practice and in the fieldhouse until his health deteriorated in recent weeks.

Rogers wasn’t yet sure what sort of tribute the team will have for the fallen coach this season. A helmet sticker with the letters “BH” is almost a given. A ceremony before a home game is possible. He was only certain the program would do “something big” to honor Huell.

For a man whose impact on Vicksburg’s program has been incalculable, it’s only fitting.

“When I came up in ninth grade, he touched me and he wasn’t even my (position) coach,” said Stefan Gibbs, who spent one season in 2004 as the Gators’ backup quarterback. “He kept me focused on sticking to the plan. He gave me that drive to want to do better. I’m going to miss him.”

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

email author More by Ernest