HERRIN — The Herrin Tigers have enjoyed great success running the football over the last five decades. The school's record books are dotted with more than a dozen talented backs who rushed for 1,000 yards or more. Guys like Rodney Jones, Chuck Foster, Craig Baumgarte, Brian Deaton, Jake Buchanan, Kyle Walker, David Mallow, Tommie Taylor, Chase Merrill, Brent Milner, Gavyn Gosha and Jase Gosha to name some.
Statistically speaking, the most successful running back tandem at Herrin was Merrill and Milner, who in 2013 and 2014 each rushed for well over 1,000 yards.
The only other duo that came oh so close to matching that feat was a couple of bruisers from the early 1980s and the focus of today's "Awesome Eighties" flashback — Brett Esch and Harold "Boo Boo" Smith.
In '82, Esch, a senior, rumbled for 1,126 yards from his fullback slot. Smith, the tailback, fell just shy of 1,000 with 976 total yards from scrimmage. That said, they were a combined 2,000 yards on the ground.
"Those guys gave us a heck of a one-two punch back in those days," said former Tigers head coach Bruce Jilek. "Both were hard workers and provided us with a strong inside-out game. Both were good high school players and made coaching a pleasure."
Jilek said Esch was the faster of the two backs, but pointed out that either was capable of running through or around an opposing defense.
"We knew we would always be in the game with those guys," Jilek added.
Esch said he only competed with the varsity his junior and senior seasons.
"I remember there was a push my freshman year to put me on the line because I was bigger than a lot of the linemen, but I wanted to play running back, and was allowed to stay there."
Esch said his best individual moment in football was probably his best team moment as the Tigers knocked off a good Marion team at the Wildcats' Homecoming his senior year.
"I ran for over 200 yards that night and we won the game. I was just one missed tackle away from breaking about a 90-yard run that might have helped me get the single-game rushing record held by Rodney Jones," Esch said. "There was nothing like the feeling you got from breaking free on a long run and focusing on the end zone. I loved the game of football and all the time I shared with the guys on the team. Those were great memories. I call them my Al Bundy moments."
Esch, who was listed at 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, said he enjoyed working in the same backfield with Smith (5-foot-11, 190), who was one year his junior.
"We were both pretty much power runners — right into the center of the line or right off tackle. Every once in a while, we'd go outside," Esch said.
Smith said he had all the respect in the world for Esch.
"He was a beast running the ball. He was big, strong and fast. He was a player I always looked up to. I enjoyed running in the backfield with him."
Although his junior season was a strong one, Smith's senior year (1983) was even better. He joined the 1,000-yard club (1,073), including a 200-yard game at home in a loss against Mount Vernon.
"If I remember right, that loss put us out of the playoffs race," Smith said. "And that was tough to take because we had so much talent my junior and senior years (5-4 overall records). We played a tough schedule in the South Seven Conference, but we could only blame ourselves. We lost some very close games to Pinckneyville, West Frankfort and Benton. Nobody blew us out."
Smith also paid tribute to the guys on the offensive line — Steve Meeks, Mike Armstrong, David Vaughn, Jerry Rowland and Brian Swinford, Kevin Thomas and John Yancey among others — who opened up holes for the backs.
"And we had a couple of good quarterbacks those two years I played for the varsity, too, in Stu Ridings and David Revelle."
Smith modestly states that he wasn't nearly as talented as some of Herrin's featured backs in more recent seasons.
"I might have been a little meaner, maybe. But I wasn't as athletic and quick as these younger guys. I think it helped them a lot to play junior high ball. We never had that when I was in grade school. I think it would have definitely made a difference if we had it."
POST HHS: Smith joined the Marine Corps three days after graduating high school. He served six years in all. Afterward, he went to work for the Herrin Maytag plant for three years and was then hired by General Dynamics as a fork lift operator and inspector. He held that position for 20 years before he and his wife, Carrie, moved to Morristown, Tennessee, two years ago. The couple have 11 children from combined marriages and own and operate two Bath and Body Works shops.
"I really miss Herrin Tiger football," Smith said. "There was nothing like it for me."
Esch played one year of college football at Illinois Valley Community College after graduating high school. He then walked onto the SIU football team, but dropped out.
"It's one of my regrets in life," Esch said. "I was third or fourth down the depth chart and never thought I was going to get a chance. Not long after I left, a guy got hurt and another got in trouble or something. I might have had my chance if I had stayed."
Esch and his wife, Patty, reside in Utah. He is a controller and supervisor at a copper mine just outside of Salt Lake City. The couple have four children.
"I haven't made it home much since my mother died nine years ago," Esch said. "As for football, I don't think about my playing days too often, but what I do remember is that they were good times."
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