One for the Centuries …

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 8, 2000

Tony Byrne had a playground behind his backyard growing up on Pearl Street.

Byrne later made football fields, basketball courts and baseball fields around Mississippi his own playground, setting state records in baseball and basketball at Natchez High School.

Because of his accomplishments in the 1950s, Byrne was voted Miss-Lou Athlete of the Year by The Democrat readers.

Email newsletter signup

Byrne, 63, is the only person to win a scoring title in football and basketball in the former Big Eight Conference, which was comprised of all of the big schools in Mississippi.

In 1953, Byrne tallied 192 points, scoring a record 32 touchdowns as a senior.

In 1954, as a senior, Byrne led Natchez to its second straight league championship, scoring a record 716 points.

In the Athlete of Century voting, Byrne finished with 1,259 points, in voting done with six points going to a first place vote down to one for a sixth place vote.

Of the 214 votes he received, 201 were first place votes.

Claude Porter coached Byrne in bastball and baseball at Natchez High.

&uot;I thought he was the best I had ever seen,&uot; Porter said of Byrne. &uot;His desire was something. He was sort of an easy-going person, but when that whistle blew, he was ready to go. He was some kind of athlete. I saw him leave the floor at the free throw line and lay it in.&uot;

Byrne said growing up he and his friends spent a lot of time on the playground at Carpenter No. 1 school.

&uot;Paul O’Malley kind of supervised it, but Elbert Hilliard of the Department of Archives’ wife was actually over it,&uot; Byrne said. &uot;We played everything from ping pong, court ball, softball and pitching horseshoes. We also had an organized softball league. I came along too early for Dixie Youth.&uot;

When Carpenter No. 1 was expanded, the playground was moved behind Byrne’s backyard.

&uot;My dad (Henry Anthony Byrne Sr.) and Coach (A.I.) Rexinger were big buddies and Coach Rex put me in charge of the playground. There was a basketball goal there and I just practiced for hours.&uot;

Byrne made $12.50 a week as the assistant director when he was about 14 years old.

&uot;That neighborhood we grew up in was actually Eidtville,’&uot; Bryne said. &uot;There were also Junkins and Fergusons. Some of the Junkin girls were as good as the boys. And Billie Ann West Foster outran all of us. Everybody in that neighborhood was always playing something and we were all sports-minded. I rode my bike a lot, and even in high school rode it to school. I think that helped build the muscles in my leg.&uot;

Most of the youngsters in the neighborhood attended Catholic High.

&uot;My mother had been divorced and in those days the Catholic Church did not recognize divorces,&uot; Byrne said.

That turned out to be good fortune for Natchez High.

&uot;I played junior varsity football and Coach Rex moved me up to varsity as a freshman,&uot; Byrne said.

In the final game of his freshman year, Byrne was returning a kickoff when he was hit in the back.

&uot;Dr. (Homer) Whittington told me I wouldn’t play ball again,&uot; Byrne said. &uot;He was pretty close to right.I had to sit on a pillow for two years. It was a calcium deposit, which is something they can correct nowadays. It was typical Coach Rex, he wanted me to run it out. But my legs gave way and I had to go to Jackson to see Dr. Blade. He’s the one who had me sit on a pillow.&uot;

Byrne could still play basketball and baseball. And Rexinger made him a manager on the football team.

&uot;My job was to get the football players on the field,&uot;&160;Byrne said. &uot;Then I would go in the gym for two hours and shoot. I would play like I was taking the last shot and things like that. It was pretty boring playing by yourself. I had to get creative.&uot;

Byrne wore a protective patch where the leg connects to the tailbone. He also used a homemade whirlpool that was built by Ferriday coach Red Robertson and used by the Bulldog football team.

&uot;I didn’t think I would be able to get out of that thing,&uot; Byrne said.

Byrne returned to football his senior year under head coach Red Parker despite the doctor’s warning.

He broke the record for most touchdowns against Vicksburg, scoring four touchdowns before his legs gave way again.

He finished with 32 touchdowns, breaking the 30-touchdown mark of Shorty Williams of Meridian who went on to play football at Mississippi State.

In addition to setting an all-time touchdown record, Byrne copped the season’s scoring crown with 192 points, 82 more than Corinth’s Jackie Simpson, who was second.

Byrne actually scored seven touchdowns in one game that season, but had three called back.

&uot;We ran a pitch play which went 60 yards for a touchdown, but it got called back,&uot; Byrne said. &uot;When I ran back to the huddle, Clyde (Adams) called the same play and it went all the way. When I made it to the goal line, I about fell out.

&uot;We had some good ballplayers,&uot; Byrne said. &uot;I believe 13 got scholarships. And we all played both ways. I also punted.&uot;

Natchez lost the state championsh game to Greenville the following week. The Rebels’ only two losses that season were to Greenville.

Greenville was coached by future LSU coach Carl Maddox.

&uot;When Carl Maddox went down to LSU he stopped by here and offered me a scholarship at LSU,&uot; Byrne said. &uot;But I wanted to play basketball because I didn’t know how long my legs would hold up. Joe Smith and I both went down there. They put us against Bob Pettit. The football coaches led me around, so I wasn’t about to accept a scholarship.

Byrne shattered more records on the hardwood just a few months later.

Byrne started as a sophomore in basketball after being moved up to varsity as a freshman.

&uot;My dad had told Coach Rex he could move me up, but I would have to play,&uot; Byrne said.

Natchez won the Big Eight Conference championship two straight years, which is equilavent to winning the Class 5A title nowadays.

&uot;My junior year we had three all-state players (Byrne, Adams and Louie Brown) and Cathedral had two (Tooley Martello and Joe Smith),&uot;&160;Byrne said.

Natchez defeated Jackson Central 60-49 for the Big Eight title as Byrne scored 29 points as a junior.

In his senior year, Byrne tallied 42 points in the championship game against Jackson Central, breaking another state mark.

&uot;We liked to run the fast break,&uot; he said. &uot;Somebody usually had to pick up my man.&uot;

Byrne was offered a basketball scholarship by Mississippi State coach Paul Gregory.

&uot;My sophomore year Babe McCarthy took over and I knew he didn’t want to play anybody he didn’t sign. I was going to transfer to Delta State, but my father died my sophomore year. I didn’t play ball my senior year.

Byrne actually approached then State football coach Darrell Royal about possibly playing football.

&uot;He told me I would have to give up my basketball scholarship and go out for football,&uot; Byrne said. &uot;I may look dumb, but I’m not that dumb.&uot;

Byrne was elected mayor of Natchez in 1968 and held that office until 1988.

&uot;It was tough at first because of the civil unrest, but then we had the glory years with the oil boom,&uot; Byrne said.

Byrne became co-owner of Ketco in 1991 and he and Rusty Marks still run that business today.

Byrne recently was a part of a Natchez 7.5 Senior Combo team which won the state title.

&uot;I play tennis once a week, but being recently married (to wife Annette), we like to do a lot of things together,&uot; Byrne said. &uot;I tried to take up golf, but I would usually take the scenic route through the woods and I didn’t like a sport where the ball never comes back to you.&uot;

Byrne said he appreciates more now the accomplishments he and his teammates achieved.

&uot;Back then you went from one sport to another and you really didn’t think about it,&uot; he said. &uot;It kind of just rolled off you back. But thanks to people like (Democrat columnist) Glenvall Estes I’m able to look back and say ‘My gosh, did I do that.’&uot;