Tony Byrne fought injury in high school, played at MSU

Published 3:05 pm Saturday, May 22, 2021

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NATCHEZ — Former Natchez Mayor Tony Byrne was once a standout athlete for Natchez High School. He played football and basketball beginning in 1950 before playing basketball at Mississippi State University in 1956-57.

At the time, Natchez football was led by head coach Rex Rexinger, former owner of Rex Sporting Goods, had a Varsity team and a “B” team. In ninth grade, Byrne said he was on the “B” team.

“I was fast when I was in high school,” Byrne said. “Because I was so fast, coach Rexinger had me holding for extra points and running back punts or kickoffs. In the last game of the year, I got hit running a kickoff back. It tore something in my leg.’

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He pointed to his thigh and explained the tear was between his thigh and tailbone. Today the injury may have been treated with a shot, he said. A local doctor checked on him at halftime of the game.

“He told coach Rexinger,  ‘This boy is not going to play football again.’ I didn’t (play football) my sophomore or junior year,” Byrne said. “I went to an orthopedist in Jackson. It must have been the only one we had in the state at the time. He suggested I sit on a pillow to heal. I walked around high school carrying a pillow for the next two years, which was great for me because those seats were so doggone hard I think everybody else wished they had one.”

Byrne served as a manager the next two football seasons. His job as a manager was to get the football team out onto the field. He would then go to the basketball gym and shoot for two hours. The doctors let him play basketball, he said.

“Every spring, I would try to play football despite it, but my leg would give away,” Byrne said. “My senior year, I did get to play (football), and we had a good team. My leg finally started giving away the last couple of ball games. I found out I had a chance at some football scholarships, but I knew I couldn’t take the beating.”

Byrne said he had signed with MSU on a basketball scholarship with head coach Paul Gregory. A former MLB pitcher, Gregory was the Bulldog’s basketball coach from 1947 to 1955 before he became the baseball coach.

Baldwyn native James Harrison “Babe” McCarthy became the coach for Mississippi State Basketball in 1955. Babe brought a different lifestyle to MSU and did not like people from big cities, Byrne said.

“I did not sign under Babe McCarthy,” Byrne said. “He and I did not have the same philosophy on how you play basketball. I was more run and gun, and he was more pass it around. We didn’t get along real well. Most of the guys (at MSU) loved Babe McCarthy.”

He went to the football office to talk to head coach Darrell Royal about trying to play football again. McCarthy found out and nearly cut him from the team, Byrne said. Luckily for Byrne, he was not cut from the team ahead of the 1956 season.

Pick up Wednesday’s issue of the paper for Tony Byrne’s account of one of the most trying times in Mississippi State athletic history.