Ron Kantowski:

Members of UNLV’s 1984 football team converge for reunion

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Las Vegas Sun File

Running back Kirk Jones is among seven members of the 1984 team to have passed away.

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At a little before 7 on Friday night the old Rebels began to congregate in the banquet area at South Point. The hallway in the banquet area in which they were congregating was extra wide. This was a good thing, and not only because some of the old Rebels were extra wide, too. It was a good thing because they kept congregating and congregating and it took an extra wide hallway to accommodate them all.

The UNLV types who worked behind the scenes to throw this little shindig for the 1984 UNLV football team, the best Division I-A football team in UNLV history, the team that went 11-2 and defeated Toledo 30-13 in the California Bowl for the Rebels’ first bowl game victory a quarter-century ago, were stunned by the response. They said it would have been easier finding a needle in Amy Winehouse’s hairdo than finding some of these old Rebels.

For instance, Aaron Moog, the defensive end named the Pacific Coast Athletic Association’s defensive player of the year in 1984, lives on a boat near Portland, Ore. It’s hard enough finding guys who live in gated communities 25 years after they were Rebels. Try finding a free spirit who wears his hair in a flowing gray ponytail and drove 20 hours straight through to get here.

Before you knew it there were close to 50 old Rebels in the extra wide hallway, telling tall stories of athletes’ feats and maybe even one or two that were true. Steve Stallworth, a backup quarterback on the 1984 team (principally because Randall Cunningham was its starting quarterback) now runs the Equestrian and Events Center at South Point for Michael Gaughan — which isn’t a bad job, although it’s not as cool as living on a boat. Stallworth told me he counted 54 of his former teammates, and this was before they started pulling open cases of beer.

“Heck, we couldn’t get 54 guys to practice,” Stallworth said.

Of course, not all of the 1984 Rebels made it to the reception. Cunningham, the most exalted one, initially said he wouldn't attend, "because there would be beer" according to one of the old Rebels. Cunningham is an ordained minister and said he would catch his old teammates at Sam Boyd Stadium the next night, where they would be honored after halftime of the Rebels’ game against Utah. But as it turned out, he couldn't stay away. He arrived late, after another speaking engagement across campus.

Elburt L. Woods wasn’t there. You probably know him as Ickey. Years before he would turn the Ickey Shuffle into a Super Bowl phenomenon with the Cincinnati Bengals, Elburt L. “Ickey” Woods was a freshman running back for the 1984 Rebels. A few years ago Ickey, his NFL career cut short by injuries, was selling frozen meat out of a truck in Cincinnati. It would have been nice, said some of his old teammates, had he been able to make it.

Sadly, George Alonzo wasn’t there, either. Nor Andre Horn. Nor Keith London, Mike McDade, Joey Digiovanna or Bill Operin.

Nor Kirk Jones.

All of them, dead and gone. All of them at ages far too young to be dead and gone.

The 1984 Rebels were a star-crossed, rough-around-the-edges bunch. They were forced to forfeit the California Bowl victory for using ineligible players who didn’t even dress out for the game. Only the 1984 Rebels could manage that. There were brushes with the law, just like at the big schools. But losing seven guys to health reasons and other causes before some of them even turned 40? That just doesn’t seem right.

They held a moment of silence for those seven old Rebels. There was an easel with a poster of their photos when they were young Rebels, like you might see at a wake.

Most of those guys were good football players and good teammates but none was as celebrated as Jones, still considered the greatest recruit in UNLV history.

Maybe Cunningham put the Rebels on the football map and Woods shuffled the topography for a brief spell, but neither one chose UNLV over Texas or UCLA out of high school, which is what Jones did.

“Kirk is where we broke through the barrier,” said Harvey Hyde, the colorful coach of the 1984 Rebels who turned down a trip to Indiana for the USC-Notre Dame game — he hosts the Trojans’ pregame radio show — to hang with his old players. “Kirk’s the one who made it happen for us at UNLV.”

One of the most sought-after running backs in the country at Long Beach Poly High, Jones made his announcement over the public address system after the California Interscholastic Federation championship game, back in the day when such declarations were almost always made quietly in Mom and Dad’s living room. That’s what a big deal it was.

UNLV? That basketball school out in the desert? Hyde said you could practically hear jaws dropping all around the Pac-10.

“You could not believe the Texas coaches, the UCLA coaches,” he said. “They thought we gave him the MGM Grand. All we gave him was a chance to graduate early, get his master’s degree and move on.”

Yes, contrary to perception, the 1984 Rebels did have guys who went to class and got their degrees and went on to became productive members of society. Jones, who still ranks third on UNLV’s career rushing chart, was foremost among them. He graduated in just three years. He had gone back to teaching and coaching at Long Beach Poly when he suffered a massive heart attack in 2001 at age 36. His son, Chris, is a sophomore defensive back for the current Rebels.

At some point in the evening, most of the old Rebels wandered past the easel with the poster and the photos of their teammates in their forever young poses. Most shared a story or anecdote about one or more of them when asked. Some didn’t have to be asked. Some, on the other hand, had to be told.

“Some of them, I didn’t even know they were gone,” said Moog, the free spirit. “We were just talking about that. I mean, how did they go? Massive heart attacks? We didn’t even know ...”

Sometimes, word travels slowly when you live on a boat.

Sometimes, that’s not a bad thing.

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  1. 1984 Rebel football team was special and fun to watch play at The Old Silver Bowl.

    The Silver Bowl name should be returned

  2. Beating out Texas and UCLA for a high school recruit??!!

    No wonder the NCAA hit us with the hammer and Harvey Hyde lost his job!!

    How DARE we??!! Who do we think we are?? Good thing the NCAA stepped in right away and put a stop to it!!

    If I ever am the AD at UNLV, Ron, and we're ever good enough for the NCAA to care about Rebel football again, the NCAA's days of selective enforcing penalties against UNLV while letting the BCS slide will be over.

    The minute they try sanctioning UNLV for non-existent violations while USC marches on to Rose Bowl after Rose Bowl with the best players money can buy, I'll slap 'em with a breach of contract and covenant of good faith and fair dealing suit faster than Mike Sanford can say "I don't want to comment any further on that play because ... I might want to run it again someday ...."

  3. --- nyr: I believe there are statistics that show the NCAA blows the whistle hardest when the mid-majors get caught doing what everybody else does. When it's one of the big boys, they use the dog whistle. Nobody can hear it.