ENGSTER: LSU has history of pugilistic running backs

The return of Jeremy Hill, the top rusher for LSU in 2012, stirs memories of the leading rusher on LSU’s 1970 SEC Championship team. Junior tailback Art Cantrelle was a punishing runner who gained a school-record 892 yards in 1970, breaking a 37-year-old LSU record for one season established by Steve Van Buren in 1943.

Cantrelle was not a big man, maybe six-feet and 200 pounds. But his fists were legendary in watering holes that populated the vicinity of the LSU campus in the early ’70s. One teammate said of Cantrelle, who had been a prep boxing champ, “He would knock out a man with the first punch and pop the guy two more times before he hit the floor.”

Cantrell once allegedly took care of business in a hail of fisticuffs at an establishment known as The Keg. By the time I arrived as a freshman at LSU in 1977, that fracas rivaled the Rusty Domingue stabbing story as the most prominent LSU fights since Crowe Peele left the boxing ring at the Ole War Skule as the NCAA heavyweight boxing king of 1955.

A former patron of the Keg said that Art lifted a pinball machine and hurled it at four deputies who were approaching him with batons and wearing head gear. And somehow the account never received the publicity of Jeremy Hill’s sucker punch against a fellow LSU student at closing time in Tigerland a few months ago.

At LSU, the football team once had a ritual of shaving a groom’s pubic hair on the eve of his wedding. When they confronted Cantrelle, he was waiting for them, dead-eyed and icy-toned. He reportedly said: “I know what you guys are here for and I’m gonna let you do it. But before you do, I want you all to know that I see the face of everybody in this room, and I guarantee you that I will get every one of you, one at a time.”

Cantrelle was married the next day with all hair intact.

Cantrelle played professionally with the Ottawa Rough Riders of the Canadian Football League and with the Birmingham Americans of the World Football League. His coach, Jack Gotta with Ottawa and Birmingham, said Cantrelle was the toughest player he ever coached. In Ottawa, it was reported that Cantrelle lost a memorable fight to teammate Tom Laputka, a defensive lineman, who had played with the San Francisco 49ers.

Earl McRae, a writer for the Ottawa Sun recalls the LSU import this way: “What nasty, scary piece of work he was.” McRae called on defensive back John Kruspe to recount Cantrelle’s bout with Laputka.

“They got into arm wrestling,” Kruspe said. “For his size, Art was strong as hell. He was beating everybody no matter how big they were.

“Tom Laputka was watching from across the room. His arms were bigger than my thighs…He went over, they locked hands, but they couldn’t decide on the grip. Cantrelle kept mouthing away at him.

“Laptutka had enough. He swung a haymaker, nailed Art in the face, knocked him flat on his back, out cold. When Art came to, he shot out of the building. Five minutes later I was outside on the sidewalk when I saw him coming…He was in a rage. His eyes were on fire. In his hand, he was waving a pistol. He was looking for Laputka.”

Kruspe said Cantrelle fired a shot into a door and disappeared with a teammate. Coach Gotta then started referring to his feisty back as “Gunner.”

The 65-year-old Cantrelle has been out of the news for decades, but LSU might benefit by finding him in Biloxi, Ms. and arranging a meeting with Jeremy Hill about the risks of being a perennial trouble seeker. Forty-two years after Art left TigerTown, it is common to hear stories about the most pugnacious player Charlie McClendon ever mentored.

If Cantrelle had stayed in Baton Rouge, his only job offers would have been as a bouncer. To make matters worse, indiscretions of today are retained as evidence and for future generations with recording devices that were not around in 1970.

Cantrelle can say his exploits were exaggerated. Hill must live with video evidence of his latest transgression.

Remembering Earl Gros

An underrated LSU standout died last month. Houma’s Earl Gros, a 6-3, 220-pound running back who was bigger than most lineman of his day, was 72. Between 1956 and 1962, the LSU rushing leaders were in this order.

1956: Jimmy Taylor

1957: Jimmy Taylor

1958: Billy Cannon

1959: Billy Cannnon

1960: Jerry Stovall

1961: Earl Gros

1962: Jerry Stovall

A Heisman winner and runner-up, a Pro Football Hall of Famer, two College Hall of Famers and Earl Gros.

Gros lived in Prairieville after his retirement from the NFL. Gros was a first round pick of the Green Bay Packers, where he joined LSU great Jim Taylor. In a nine-year professional career, Gros rushed for 3,157 yards and 28 touchdowns and caught 142 pases for 1,255 yards and ten touchdowns.

Gros narrowly missed winning a national title in his senior year at LSU and an NFL title in his rookie season with the Packers. Green Bay, led by NFL Most Valuable Player Jim Taylor, beat the New York Giants, directed by Y.A. Tittle, 16-7, before 64, 892 fans on Dec. 30, 1962 at Yankee Stadium.

The year of 1962 started with Gros and LSU whipping Colorado 25-7 in the Orange Bowl to complete a 10-1 season with a No. 3 national ranking, marred only by an opening loss to Rice. The Jan. 1, 1962 game at Miami was the last at LSU for Gros and Coach Paul Dietzel. Gros the game’s leading rusher with 55 yards as LSU outgained the Buffaloes on the ground, 206 to 24.

Gros played for the Packers in 1962 and ‘63, with Philadelphia (1964-66), Pittsburgh (1967-69) and with the Saints in 1970. He returned in uniform to Tiger Stadium as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who played a pre-season game at Death Valley against New Orleans.

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Jim Engster | President, Tiger Rag

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