Commentary by Dr. Lucas G. Boyd: Johnny Oneal: actor and athlete
By Dr. Lucas Boyd, Columnist
Except for one which old-time football fans will recognize, the names in this piece have been changed to protect the guilty. They are probably all dead by now but you just never know who’s going to read the newspaper and I’m too old to get involved in a legal matter with a descendent who thinks I’ve besmirched their great-grandfather’s good name even though it’s hard to besmirch with the truth. Anyway Johnny Oneal played end on the Ole Miss football team in the mid-1940s. He was a pretty good player but he was better at practical jokes and putting people on.
William Faulkner’s novel, “Intruder in the Dust,” was made into a movie at that time and was shot in and around Oxford, Miss. Many local folk got bit parts in the movie. The opening scene was shot in a barbershop located in the northwest corner of the town square. It was one of those old-time shops which had a bathtub in the back where you could get a towel, soap, and tub of hot water for 75 cents. Johnny comes in, pays for a bath, and disappears into the back. A couple of minutes later there are sounds of loud sirens.
People rush from the stores to see what’s going on. A couple of police cars come roaring into the square from the south at a high rate of speed with their sirens blasting. One is running on a smoking flat tire. They race around the courthouse, which is in the center, and out the north and stop at the jail located a half block away. The camera then turns back to the barbershop. Johnny walks out with a towel wrapped around his waist and asks just what the heck is going on. That’s his only appearance in the movie but he did have a line. This was the beginning—and end—of his career as a professional thespian.
Oxford’s town square had a hotel that sat at the corner of its north exit. It sat a few feet back from the street and had a high privet hedge along the sidewalk. The owners were preparing to do some remodeling and had workers removing the furniture. Suddenly, Johnny appeared at a third floor window (it only had three floors) and began to shout that he was going to “end it all.” A crowd soon gathered and Johnny gave a moving “farewell to life” speech. Apparently, acting had gotten into his blood after his movie debut.
The crowd pleaded with him not to jump but he was not to be dissuaded and flung himself out in space in a plunge of death. The crowd rushed around the end of the hedge expecting to pick up his body only to find Johnny lying atop a pile of cotton mattresses which had been screened from their view by the hedge. I understand they wanted to kill him at that point but he managed to survive.
Back in those days it was not uncommon for a sports writer to travel with a college football team with the team picking up some part if not all of his tab. It was sort of a symbiotic relationship. Many schools did not have much in the way of Sports Information Departments (SID). Ole Miss’ consisted of a bare room, one man and a typewriter. So it was a good way for the school to feed stories to the press. On the other hand, it was a good opportunity for a sports writer to get “up close and personal” views of teams, players, and coaches—to gather writing material.
One fall when Johnny Oneal was playing, Ole Miss was scheduled to play LSU in Baton Rouge. The trip was made by train and Wally Stone, sports writer for the Memphis Commercial Appeal, went with the team. Stone was a good writer but sometimes he was too friendly with John Barleycorn and lost track of things. LSU had a talented tailback named Y. A. Tittle. Some might remember him later in his career as the quarterback for the New York Giants.
Well, Tittle had a great game and Ole Miss was soundly defeated. On the train ride back north, Oneal shared a seat with Stone and regaled him with accounts of how he had kept Tittle bottled up on his end of the line, of how Ole Miss would have won had his teammates been as effective as he. Apparently, Stone had watched the game through a haze of bourbon so he wrote the account of the game using Oneal’s twist on it.
In those days, game film had to be developed and put on reels. Sometimes it was Tuesday before they got back for study. Of course, the film and the newspaper story didn’t match. The film showed that Oneal was just as inept in dealing with Tittle as everyone else. But the opposite story was in the paper and the public didn’t see the film.
I don’t know what happened to Johnny Oneal after Ole Miss. He did not play pro football and never appeared in another movie – but I’ll wager he had an interesting life.
Dr. Lucas G. (Luke) Boyd is the retired principal of Battle Ground Academy. He lives in Franklin and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted on: 7/27/2013