His signature collection: Clemson fan Byron Vaigneur has footballs autographed by more than 150 coaches or players

08/23/2014 9:00 PM

08/23/2014 9:31 PM

It is not the 150 or so footballs or the autographs on them that make this collection so unique. Rather, it is the story behind each one, as told by 83-year-old Byron Vaigneur, whose memory remains much sharper than the ink on those footballs.

Vaigneur, who lives with his wife Margaret in Jackson, recently passed his autographed football collection on to his daughter, Connie DeVore, in Greenville. Yet Vaigneur still retains possession of all the stories behind collecting the balls.

"It is an unbelievable collection," Vaigneur (pronounced Vuh-NAY) says, rather modestly. "The historical background of that collection is just unbelievable. I've had a lot of people come through for me."

Vaigneur came through in collecting the autographs on the balls with dogged determination. He simply would not accept "no" to any request he made of anyone, regardless of their name or their status in the football world.

Many of his requests for autographed footballs were answered with a signed photograph of the coach, college or pro. Each time, Vaigneur would pen a hand-written letter back to the coach, saying time and again, "Coach, I know what you look like, but I want that game ball."

More often than not, Vaigneur got the ball.

Perhaps the most treasured autographed footballs came from Paul "Bear" Bryant, the legendary former Alabama head coach.

After Bryant's Alabama team defeated Auburn, 28-17, in the 1981 regular-season finale, Vaigneur wrote to request a ball that added to Bryant's all-time best win total.

"Lord, I'd love to have a football from this game," Vaigneur recalled thinking. "This would be one football that I'd cherish."

It took two hand-written letters before a football arrived at Vaigneur's home with the signed inscription: "Win No. 322, 28-17. Best wishes to Byron, Coach Paul 'Bear' Bryant."

"I said, 'How in the world could I top this?' " Vaigneur said. "Well, I topped it."

When Bryant retired following his next victory, a 21-15 decision over Illinois, in the Liberty Bowl, Vaigneur went to work again. Vaigneur mailed the request in early January of 1983. Bryant died on Jan. 26.

Not to be detoured, Vaigneur wrote a letter to the Alabama athletics director and explained that Bryant had probably signed the ball, but because of his death it had never been delivered.

Sure enough, a couple of weeks later, the ball autographed by Bryant, arrived.

"And, he was in the grave," Vaigneur said. "That is unbelievable."

Vaigneur's collection got started when he first requested an autographed ball from Pete Reynolds, who coached at Vaigneur's high school, Ridgeland High in Jasper County. Once he got a couple of balls from Reynolds, Vaigneur had the itch to get more.

He graduated from Clemson and, of course, became a huge Tigers fan. So, he collected autograph footballs from every coach starting with Frank Howard and concluding with Dabo Swinney. In many cases, he wrote to the coaches when they were gone from Clemson and coaching at other schools.

After getting an autographed football from Danny Ford following Clemson's 1981 championship season, Vaigneur set about getting an autographed ball from the Super Bowl champions of that same season. Vaigneur wanted the autograph on a ball of San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh, and each of the three former Clemson players on that team -- Dwight Clark, Archie Resse and Jim Stuckey.

The 49ers initially rejected the request and informed Vaigneur that he needed to send along a football. Vaigneur purchased a "Duke" football from Service Merchandise in Augusta, and mailed it off to San Francisco. Then the NFL embarked on a nine-week players' strike, and Vaigneur never expected to see the ball.

The day before Thanksgiving, Vaigneur received a package with an NFL ball signed by Walsh, Clark and Stuckey. (Reese had been traded by the 49ers). An accompanying letter informed Vaigneur that his "Duke" football had been misplaced, so the club sent along an official game ball, amazingly enough, just like the one he had requested in the first place.

Vaigneur did not restrict his collection to Clemson, although he never could secure an autographed ball from Lou Holtz during his South Carolina coaching career. Determined to get Steve Spurrier's autograph on a ball, Vaigneur traveled to Columbia a few years ago.

He first stopped by the old Roundhouse, only to be told that Spurrier's office was located at Williams-Brice Stadium. On the way to his car, Vaigneur happened upon Puggy Blackmon, USC's director of golf operations. By chance, Vaigneur and Blackmon learned that they both hailed from the same hometown of Ridgeland.

Vaigneur then ushered Blackmon to his car where he showed off some of his collection, and informed the golf coach of his mission. Blackmon returned to his office in the roundhouse and produced a Holtz autographed football for Vaigneur, then offered to get one from Spurrier.

A few weeks later, Vaigneur and his wife again drove to Columbia to collect another prize. With it, Vaigneur had yet one more unbelievable tale about how he got an autographed football.

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