USC’s first All-American recounts life in football
The sign on the apartment door calls the occupant “the Cucumber King,” a reference to his successes in the complex’s garden.
A symbol of success? On Louis Sossamon’s door? No surprise there.
Success has been his constant companion on his 97-year march through life, a journey characterized by leadership and changing lives and by triumphs in athletics, business and public service.
Captain of the football team, president of the student body and his fraternity in his days at the University of South Carolina? Check.
The Gamecocks’ first football All-American? Check.
Service in the United States Navy during World War II? Check.
Successful newspaper publisher? Check.
Meritorious contributions to his alma mater during four terms on the USC Board of Trustees? Check.
In the latter role, he — more than anyone — changed the face of Carolina athletics. He — more than anyone — championed the cause of joining an all-sports athletics league, which turned out to be the Southeastern Conference.
Ponder a couple of items on that list, the athletics achievement in football and service to his alma mater, and you know what? Another sign — “One of the Greatest Gamecocks” — on his apartment door would fit nicely.
Love of football. Love and football
Lou Sossamon grew up in Gaffney and, among other things, played football on the high school team. Of course he did; every youngster in Gaffney longs to be part of the school’s enviable gridiron tradition.
He played well. A two-way performer at center and linebacker, he made the Shrine Bowl team, and his prep squad earned the opportunity to play postseason games. Success.
Football led him to Carolina.
Unlike today’s 24/7/365 recruiting world, Sossamon arrived on campus with little fanfare in 1939. His oft-repeated story: He came to Columbia with his family and he visited the football office.
“I talked to coach (Rex) Enright and he asked me, ‘How would you like a scholarship to USC?’ I told him, ‘Yes, sir.’ I had been to games, but I didn’t think (the Gamecocks) were recruiting me.”
The stories he tells provide an unforgettable trip down memory lane.
He laughs at fun-loving neighbors who attach a Tiger Paw to his door. With a twinkle in his eye, he will cup his hand to an ear and pretend he cannot hear if “Clemson” is mentioned.
With fondness in his voice, he talks about his days on military teams with unbelievable talent, about competing in championship games in the All-America Football Conference after World War II, about his playing on the first team to wear plastic helmets about ... the list goes on and on.
Most people with his record would focus on the honors. No so with Lou Sossamon, says Kit Smith, the eldest of his three children.
“Growing up, we didn’t know he had been a Big Man on Campus,” she said. “We didn’t know he made All-American. We didn’t know he was famous.”
Indeed, ask Sossamon about the honors and he talks instead about teammates, acquaintances he made that served him well later in life and the wonderful relationship he developed with Enright. “A luxury I had was I had friends who could help me out,” he said. A Freedom of Information award he earned in his newspaper days might mean more than the All-American certificate.
Eventually, his listeners will revel in the story of his first varsity football game. In those one-platoon days, players played both offenses and defense and, thus, the starters stayed on the field.
Early in that game, Enright called timeout and summoned Sossamon, his center-linebacker, and offered advice that, paraphrased, went like this: Pay attention to the game and not the cheerleaders.
Sossamon smiles at the memory. The cheerleader who had caught his eye, Kathryn “Kat” Edgerton, would become his bride.
Making memories in the pros
Lou Sossamon turned 97 on June 2 and his life’s story deserves the title used by South Carolina statesman James F. Byrnes in his autobiography, “All in One Lifetime.”
Like almost everything else, change is inevitable, and the Carolina in his student days bears little resemblance to today’s sprawling university. “Everybody knew everybody on campus,” he said, recalling 1939-42. “Tuition was about $160 a semester. My father told me that my scholarship allowed him to have money to send my sisters to college.”
Freshmen could not play on the varsity during his career, and his three teams (1940-42) had a combined record of 8-17-1. A highlight: playing powerful Tennessee, a team that won the SEC title and the Sugar Bowl, to a scoreless tie in the 1942 season opener.
“We had four coaches and almost always ran the ball,” he said of the style of the day.
By his final season, with young men entering the military in droves, the Gamecocks were down to five seniors and two coaches. A part of the Navy’s ROTC program, Sossamon entered the service following graduation and at Bainbridge Naval Base in Maryland played on teams loaded with talent — including Heisman Trophy winner Frankie Sinkwich of Georgia.
He served on a destroyer escort and trained for the invasion of Japan at Pearl Harbor before the war ended.
Chosen by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the National Football League draft after college, he instead signed with the New York Yankees of the All-America Football Conference, a league that would be absorbed by the NFL.
A box full of treasures from his past includes a contract that called for an $8,000 salary, a $500 signing bonus and another $500 bonus “if the player has a good year.”
The Yankees, owned by the same men who owned the more famous baseball team of the same name, played for the championship twice. In the first, each player received $655.11 before taxes and in the second $810.38. Sossamon netted $677.38 after the government got its share.
“We rented the same apartment that Yogi Berra rented during baseball season,” Sossamon remembered. “We were the first team to use those plastic helmets, too.”
They played against powerhouses like the Cleveland Browns, led by Otto Graham, and Sossamon scored his only touchdown against Buffalo.
“Returned a fumble about 50 yards,” he said, and awaited cheers and congratulations after reaching the end zone. Instead, he recalled, “The coach said, ‘Get out there and snap the ball for the extra point.’ ”
He also became the centerpiece of an award-winning picture. New York Times photographer Ernest Sisto captured Sossamon turning 49ers back Johnny Strzykalski upside-down in making a tackle.
A blown-up copy of that photo occupies a prominent place in the office in his apartment, another reminder of a lifetime of memories worth keeping.
SEC! SEC! SEC!
The most significant piece of paper in a box full of pictures and brochures and game program contains the words that Sossamon spoke to the USC Board of Trustees in 1990: “I move the Board authorize Dr. Arthur K. Smith, in consultation with the Board Chairman and the Intercollegiate Activities Committee Chairman, to accept an invitation to join an all-sports conference if such an invitation is extended.”
He edited his original in places, deleting references to specific leagues, and scratching out several lines that he considered extraneous.
Beneath the words in his script, he wrote, “My motion leading to SEC membership.”
USC had played an independent football schedule since leaving the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1971, and Sossamon saw the need for change. His conversations with ACC personnel provided little encouragement for the Gamecocks’ return.
“The bottom line was, USC needed to be in an all-sports conference,” he wrote in a message that remains in that box of memories.
And the Gamecocks became a member of the SEC on Sept. 25, 1990.
Arthur Smith, USC’s interim president, wrote a letter of appreciation for “the efforts of so many people who were involved in bringing this opportunity to fruition.”
To Sossamon, he noted, “I want to thank you for all you did to help us secure this bid. Your commitment to this effort meant a great deal to the University community and to me, and we are grateful for your assistance.”
Remember the word “success” mentioned in connection with Lou Sossamon? The name and the word might be synonyms.
A greater triumph might have evolved from that first varsity football game. He became a persistent suitor of the cheerleader — daughter of a physician who, interestingly, had coached the USC football team from 1912-15 — and planned to propose to Kat Edgerton.
How? And where?
“I borrowed a motorcycle from a fraternity brother,” Sossamon said. “I went by the Tri-Delt (sorority) house to pick her up, and she got on behind me. I went slow through some city streets, then picked up speed going out of town. She squeezed me tighter and tighter and told me to slow down. I told her I would — if she would marry me.”
She said, “yes.”
One more success for one of the greatest Gamecocks.