Sports

November 16, 2008

Questions survive even after Lamb dies

In four decades since Ronnie Lamb starred for the McCormick Panthers (now Chiefs), his high school sports achievements have attained mythic proportions here. His legend is more than touchdowns and points, though.

McCORMICK— It was, everyone said afterward, a fitting day for a funeral. Overcast, gloomy, suiting their moods.

They came to Overbrook Cemetery, on a rise overlooking U.S. 221: perhaps 70 friends and former high school classmates and teammates, a handful of South Carolina athletes from the 1960s led by Columbia attorney Ed “Punky” Holler, and a young man who wore a “C” charm on a necklace, a memento he said the deceased gave him 30 years earlier while with the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals.

The mourners listened as the Rev. Doug Kauffman, chaplain of the John de la Howe School, conducted a brief graveside service. Then Ronnie Lamb — high school sports star, college and professional football player, the most famous athlete to come out of McCormick — was laid to rest near the large white memorial for Dr. Sumner W. Brown, former McCormick High team doctor.

Brown’s son Steve had allowed Lamb to be buried in the family plot — because there was no where else to inter him, no money to purchase a space.

When he died June 20, 2000 at age 57, of congestive heart failure and liver complications that doctors said were due to alcoholism, Lamb was all but penniless, having lived off the charity of others his final few years. Lamb’s “estate,” probate judge Ronnie Kidd said, was contained in an old pillow case: old sports trophies, “just a few keepsakes.”

“He really had a rough life,” said Butch Mattison, a former teammate of Lamb’s. “But he brought most of that on himself.”

Then Mattison chuckled. “But he was a good one (athlete).”

After the funeral, several of Lamb’s friends — Mattison, brothers Reid and Pat Creswell, Tony Warren — met with the USC contingent in a bar to decide how to mark Lamb’s resting place (they would chip in to pay for it).

Today, a two foot-by-one foot white stone marker over his grave, where the grass has not grown since, reads: “Ronnie Lamb, Feb. 3, 1944-June 20, 2000: I Did It My Way.”

“That couldn’t fit anyone any better,” Mattison said.

In four decades since Lamb starred for the McCormick Panthers (now Chiefs), his high school sports achievements have attained mythic proportions here. His legend is more than touchdowns and points, though; he represented hopes and dreams of many in his adopted hometown, especially fellow residents at the de la Howe School where he grew to manhood.

“Just the mention of his name evokes powerful emotions with alumni who knew him,” said school superintendent Mark Williamson..

Lamb was the quintessential small-town sports hero: bigger, stronger, faster. Yet, his phobias of snakes, insects and the dark made him “loveable” — especially to young women. At 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, he was a handsome youngster who exuded a powerful charm. That didn’t hurt, either.

“He knew how to use that,” said Jerry Faulkner, a teammate and later a legendary basketball coach at Charlotte (N.C.) Latin School. “He could be very pleasant, or he could be a little cruel.

“He thought a lot of himself. Things came so easy for him. But once the glory was gone, he had nothing to hang onto.”

Still, the legend remains. Yes, Lamb had his faults, but who wouldn’t? After all, friends say, he was sent from Charleston to de la Howe after, as a boy, witnessing his father bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat.

Lamb remains a paradox: a hometown hero who left behind vivid memories but few truly close friendships. The boy everyone knew ... and no one really knew.

UNBELIEVABLE ATHLETE

The John de la Howe School sits on 1,200 acres between the Little River and Long Cane Creek, eight miles north of McCormick on U.S. 28. Opened in 1796, the facility houses about 70 children who, as Williamson puts it, need “help to develop skills to be strong families.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, de la Howe was home to upwards of 400 youngsters. Families unable to cope with behavioral or learning problems dispatched their offspring there for school — and to labor in de la Howes’ dairy farm and its kitchens.

In 1959, Betty Carol Wilkes was a student at de la Howe when she met a tall, strapping boy from Charleston.

“We were sweethearts. He was very special,” the 64-year-old teacher’s assistant at the school said.

She tells how she and Lamb would walk, holding hands, from the administration building to classes. Later, she married Bobby McKinney, another McCormick football player, but her affection for Lamb remains obvious.

“He had a good personality, devilish, a joker,” she said. “He was somewhat private about his family, a proud person. And he talked a lot about sports. That was his way of excelling — his niche.”

Most De la Howe children “mainstreamed” into McCormick High in the 11th grade. School superintendent E.F. “Red” Gettys, a former Clemson football player, allowed top athletes to go in the 10th grade. In the fall of 1959, Lamb, a 6-1, 185-pound sophomore, played halfback for the football team, and basketball center on a team that lost to St. George in the Class C state finals.

In 1960, football coach Grover Davis led the Panthers to a 9-0 season. McCormick outscored its opponents 273-39; Lamb, often taking direct snaps in a single-wing or T-formation, scored 141 of the team’s points.

“I’d hike the ball to him and he was gone,” said Jennings McAbee, McCormick’s center and later a 23-year S.C. House member. “He was unbelievable.”

The powerful runner and kick returner continued to dominate in 1961 with 144 points in a 7-1 season. “Ronnie was a man among boys,” said Frank Hill, retired coach at Greenwood’s Emerald High.

In basketball, Lamb helped the Panthers win their only Central Savannah River Area (CSRA) title in 1961-62. In the title game, against Hephzibah, Ga., he scored the winning basket in a 64-62 decision when the other team double-teamed Mattison.

Lamb also played American Legion baseball in Greenwood, batting well over .300. Dutifully recording all his sports feats in scrapbooks was Ann Davis, the football coach’s younger sister. Though she and Lamb were never romantically involved, she became his confidant.

“I wasn’t in awe (of Lamb),” Davis, now Ann Seymour, said. Others were, though. Stories abound of adults slipping Lamb money after games.

In his junior year, he moved from de la Howe to live with Butch Mattison and his grandmother. No longer did Lamb have to rise at 4 a.m. to carry milk from the dairy to the kitchen.

“Because he was big physically, he hung out with the older group,” Faulkner said. “He had been through tough times, and he was street-wise. He always dated older girls, and they were crazy about him. He could turn that charm on.”

Lamb also discovered alcohol. Warren, another de la Howe student from Charleston, said “we accepted that you’d have a few drinks. But I never foresaw his problems until he retired from football.”

Drinking brought out Lamb’s dark side: “Ronnie had a real short fuse when he’d had a couple of drinks,” Mattison said.

One night on a double-date to Greenwood, Mattison watched as Lamb leapt from the car when two men yelled at him. “He whipped them both, right there at the red light,” Mattison said.

Looking back, Lamb probably reached his pinnacle in those heady days of high school. Afterward, the world outside McCormick would show him, time and again, how harsh life could be.

FOOTBALL CAREER

McCormick native Bob Bentley, retired after a long career in newspapers, was attending USC and working at The State in 1962. He said he tipped off USC coach Marvin Bass as to how good Lamb was.

Lamb wanted to go to Clemson against the advice of Grover Davis, who suggested a smaller school, but Mattison said a Clemson recruiter showed up at his grandmother’s home “drunk as Cooter Brown,” which did not sit well with Mattison’s family. Later, Bass came recruiting, and Lamb became a Gamecock.

In three varsity seasons, Lamb played halfback, defensive back and on return teams. His career totals — 85 yards rushing, 240 yards on receptions — reflect his backup status behind players such as Benny Galloway and Ben Garnto.

On kickoffs he showed some of his old form, leading USC with 11 returns for 254 yards as a sophomore. Lamb also lettered twice in baseball and was a second-team All-ACC first baseman.

Lamb also was popular with his USC teammates. Quarterback Dan Reeves asked Lamb to be in his wedding, and called him “an exceptional football player, good running back who could run like a deer.” Holler called him “a good athlete, a good all-around guy.”

Butch Reeves, Dan’s younger brother and a sophomore during Lamb’s senior season, saw something else.

“He was a (heckuva) athlete, and if he’d had dedication and a work ethic, he’d be in the (USC) hall of fame,” Reeves said. “He didn’t work at it real hard. Things came so easy for him, he never had to work at it.” Ann Seymour knew that. She moved to Columbia after nursing school, and said Lamb appeared at her apartment door whenever he had a school paper due.

“I got the education and Ronnie got the degree,” she said.

In fact, Lamb did not earn a diploma. When his eligibility ended, he was drafted in the 13th round of the 1966 NFL draft by the Dallas Cowboys. Clyde Burris, a childhood friend from Charleston, said Lamb showed up there soon after.

“He had a Corvette, a cowboy hat and boots,” bought, Burris said, with his $10,000 bonus.When the Cowboys cut him, though, Lamb headed to Canada, where Bass was coaching the Montreal Beavers of the short-lived Continental Football League. After two seasons, Lamb landed in Denver, then finished the 1968 season with the expansion Bengals. He played through 1971 in Cincinnati, and spent the 1972 season with the Atlanta Falcons.

Lamb’s career NFL numbers (163 yards rushing, 97 yards receiving, 147 yards on kick returns) are, as at USC, journeyman statistics. Yet he found a way to stick, filling roles in the Bengals’ wild-and-woolly expansion days.

“An outstanding pass protector,” said Sam Wyche, who played quarterback and later was the Bengals’ coach. Now a Pickens County councilman, Wyche recounted a film session with iconic coach Paul Brown after a game vs. Kansas City.

“Bobby Bell (was) coming from the outside, and Ronnie had him on the blitz,” Wyche said.“Ronnie put his head right in his sternum, lifted him off his feet. Brown ran the film of that play over and over, saying, ‘Here’s how you pick up the blitz.’”

At age 31, Lamb played his final pro season in 1974 with the World Football League’s Jacksonville Sharks, and retired. Not just from football, either.

“He played in the NFL five years to get his pension,” Benny Galloway said. “Then he developed an attitude that he was through working.”

NEVER MOVED ON

That “attitude” typified the next 20 years of Lamb’s life. He lived for a time in Cincinnati, marrying — and divorcing, within six months — a singer, and working a string of jobs: running a bar in Birmingham, a restaurant in Atlanta and, in the late 1980s, being in charge of maintenance supplies at Dearborn County Hospital in Lawrenceburg, Ind., near Cincinnati .

Lamb also returned from time to time to South Carolina, where friends would try to set him up in jobs, a mostly frustrating affair.Galloway says his experience with Lamb was typical.

“You’d get him interviews for jobs, put your name on the line, but (Lamb) wanted to start at the top rather than the bottom,” Galloway said.

Back in McCormick, friends saw something worse. Sometime between 1985 and 1986, Ann Seymour said, Lamb showed up, his body swollen to 300 pounds from alcohol abuse and fluid buildup caused by heart disease and liver problems. At one point, Lamb lived a couple of weeks out of the back seat of his car.

“Then he checked into a (run-down) motel and called to get in touch with me,” Seymour said. “Ronnie was in dire straits. With all the fluid in him, it was like you could see through his skin.”

Seymour and a friend, Harvey Bandy, helped check Lamb into Greenwood’s Self Memorial Hospital. Then she called Lamb’s mother, who was living in Florida. Eleanor Rousseau (formerly Lamb, Burmester and Trexler) came to take Lamb back to Florida “to dry him out,” Seymour said.

There was one other troubling Lamb sighting during those years. McCormick High’s Class of 1962 organized a reunion, with golf at nearby Hickory Knob State Park and dinner, and plans for a get-together the next day.

That Friday, Lamb and Mattison played golf, and “he didn’t drink a drop, which surprised me,” Mattison said. But during the night, Lamb left town, skipping the next day’s reunion.

Seymour said she took a phone call that week from Lamb’s boss in Terre Haute, Ind. “He wanted to know about ‘Ronnie Lamb Day,’” she said.

“He said, ‘I understand there’s a big parade to honor him, etc.’ I said, ‘Uh, no, we’re having a class reunion, but there’s no Ronnie Lamb Day to it.’”

In fact, there was no Ronnie Lamb in the town that still worshipped him. Not until the end.

BITTER END

Sometime after 1996 — Betty Carol McKinney is not sure exactly — Ronnie Lamb again turned up. This time, though his health was failing, he had a mission, she said: to give back to the John de la Howe School that was the only “home” he knew.

“He would come by the school occasionally to visit,” McKinney said. Soon he was working as an volunteer “mentor” to de la Howe youngsters, visiting twice a week after moving into a garage apartment on Augusta Street.

John Shiflett, the school’s superintendent from 1969-99 (now head of Episcopal Children’s Home in York), had heard about Lamb, “how proud everyone was of him,” and welcomed him.

“He was worshipped there — by his peers, literally,” Shiflett said. “He said it was important to him to come back and spend time there. With his health problems, I think he felt that was a good way to spend his last days.”

Lamb would sit in McKinney’s classrooms, telling students about places he had been, or shoot baskets in the gym and talk about his playing days. Students’ favorite times were when Lamb would remove “his NFL ring,” McKinney said, and let them wear it.

“There was a certain sadness over the choices he’d made in life, but he was very happy to come back where he was most loved,” Shiflett said. “He was at peace.”

That didn’t last, though.

Bentley said that during that time, “Ronnie was bitter that no one would give him a job. He felt like the town ‘owed’ him, that he had put McCormick on the map.”

McAbee, with his connections in the S.C. House, still tried to help him find jobs. “Ronnie had made some poor investments” with his NFL salaries, he said. “He had a little pension from football and his Social Security disability.”

In early 2000, Lamb’s health worsened. At Augusta’s University Hospital, a doctor told Seymour the area around his heart was “crystallized” — possibly, she said, from steroids use he had told her and others about.

Lamb was in and out of hospitals in Greenwood, Aiken and Columbia for months, then he moved to a nursing home in Augusta. “But he became abusive and violent, kicked the windows out of his room,” Seymour said.

On June 20, Tommy Lindley, a friend who had taken in Lamb for a time, helped move him to a nursing home in Aiken. Around 7 p.m., he got a call: Lamb had been found unconscious. Lindley rushed to Aiken Regional Hospital — too late.

Afterward, his friends reflected on how their hero fell so far.

“He was a big guy in a little fish bowl here, and he couldn’t adjust,” Seymour said. “Ronnie wouldn’t believe that; when he faced it, he never really got over it.

“We all moved on. He didn’t.”

But did they move on? Some of Lamb’s friends still suggest he was not to blame for his life. After all, to have your father murdered before your eyes — who would not be affected by that?

Who, indeed?

FINAL EPITAPH

Clyde Burris last week talked on the phone about his friend, about their delinquency and youthful hijinks in the 1950s. And he re-told the story of Ronnie’s father.

The killing occured, he said, when Lamb’s family lived in North Charleston. Burris did not know about it first-hand, he said, but Ronnie told him the story many times.

Then, in mid-conversation, Burris noticed, next to an oldphoto of him and Lamb, a phone number from a cousin of Lamb’s who had called once.

“Try this guy,” he suggested.

That led to a call to Larry Beerman in Virginia, who listened to the bat story — and laughed.

Never happened, he said.

Beerman had researched his and Lamb’s family tree, and has the birth and death certificates. Eleanor, Ronnie’s mother, who died in 2006, divorced Charles Lamb when their son was about a year old. Charles died in 1984 in a nursing home; according to Beerman, he had a long string of arrests during his life. He looked a lot like his son, too.

Fred Burmester, Ronnie’s stepfather in Charleston, also avoided a bat-inflicted death. He later divorced Eleanor and died in 1998. Her third husband? He died on a golf course.

So: no brutally murdered father. No childhood trauma. A tough life, yes. Otherwise, a lie.

“I have no idea why (Lamb) would make up such a story,” Beerman said via e-mail. “But it seems fitting, huh?”

For the final epitaph of a hometown hero everyone knew, and no one knew, fitting, indeed.

Reach senior writer Bob Gillespie at (803) 771-8304.

Related content

Comments

Videos

Sports Videos