Heart of a champion
Bobby Soileau is pictured here in his Sacred heart Boxing uniform. He was a state champion for the Trojans in 1950, 1951, 1952, and 1954. (Photo courtesy of Bobby Soileau)
By: TONY MARKS
It is said that it is the heart of an athlete that makes him a champion. This is certainly true for George Willard Soileau, who had the heart of a champion throughout his career. He was a championship boxer in high school at Sacred Heart as well as a championship boxer during his time at LSU. He then parlayed that championship spirit as an athlete to that of a coach as he led Sacred Heart to a state title in football.
He got the name “Bobby” when he was three weeks old. “My grandmother came see me and said ‘look at that pretty babie,’” he said. “My brother started calling me that, and it stuck for 81 years.”
Soileau, who is better known as “Coach,” began boxing for Sacred Heart in his eighth grade year and boxed throughout high school. He won four state boxing championships and won all his fights but one. “I lost my first fight in 1953 against a guy I had beaten the year before,” he said. “That year I finished second in the state.”
He then joined the boxing team at LSU, and his winning ways followed him from Ville Platte to Baton Rouge. “I won all of my fights that I fought at LSU,” he said. “The only one that I lost was in the Olympic trials when I hurt my shoulder.”
“We had a good boxing team,” he added. “We couldn’t box against people around Louisiana. We had to go thousands of miles away to find people who were still boxing in college. We won most of our boxing matches that we went to out of state.”
One person in the stands at LSU who witnessed Soileau’s raw talent and skill in the boxing ring was a young student named Billy Cannon. “Bobby was a fantastic boxer,” Cannon said as the two reconnected Thursday at the home of John and Susan Saunders in Ville Platte. “People around here, unless they went to the fights, didn’t know how good he was.”
“I followed Bobby’s whole career,” Cannon added. “Being from Baton Rouge, I went out every time LSU had a sporting event. I loved boxing. I was on the fourth grade boxing team at Istrouma High School. By being on the team you could go to practice, and they let you in all of the sporting events. Well I went to see him and all of his boxing matches.”
“I got to know Billy when I was a freshman in college,” Soileau said. “He was a senior in high school, and I went to a track meet that they had. When I saw Billy Cannon run the 100-yard dash, run the 220-yard dash, be the fourth man on the relays, and go and throw the shot put, and finish first on all of these things, I said if I don’t know him I want to know him. Sure enough the next day or so I got to talk to Billy, and it’s been like that ever since.”
Soileau was in the stands in Tiger Stadium for Cannon’s football games as well. One game on Halloween night in 1959 particularly stands out for both friends.
“As you well know we were given our hat in our hand that night,” Cannon recollected. “Ole Miss was a great football team and was well coached. They knew us as well as we knew them. It was just a tremendous game, and it was the first time Tiger Stadium had been sold out with the new addition.”
With his team up 3-0 in the middle of the third quarter, All-American quarterback from Ole Miss Jake Gibbs punted the football. “It wasn’t a great punt,” Cannon continued. “Low and behold it came right to me on the 11-yard line. Of course I’m going to try to get to the wide side of the field. The first person I saw was Larry Grantham. He cut me off from the wide side of the field, and he slipped.”
“I turned up field,” he continued. “They had me at about our 40-yard line, and I was just about to go down. Emil Fournet came and took three right off my hip, and I went to one hand. I came back up running and broke to the outside. At about the hashmark, I’m going up field again. That’s where Terry (Fusilier) got into the act. He didn’t run the first 50, he ran the last 50.”
“I finally broke out, and I was looking Jake Gibbs straight in the eye. He thought I was going to cut back to the wide side of the field. I gave him a little fake to the inside, and he took it. I went to the outside, and he missed the tackle. That’s the only tackle Jake missed in his entire career at Ole Miss, but by the same token that’s the only tackle he ever attempted.”
Soileau also recollected about what happened on that fateful night. “I didn’t realize that was little Terry until all of a sudden I saw him at the goal line,” he said. “He beat Billy to the goal line. Billy also made the final tackle in the ball game to stop their quarterback from going over the end zone. And Billy broke nine tackles while he was running back with the ball. How can you forget that?”
“I remember it in color, but the film is in black and white,” Cannon replied.
After that night, Soileau continued to box at LSU until the university dropped the boxing program after his sophomore year. “When LSU dropped boxing, that’s when I left LSU and went into coaching,” he said. “I was offered a job to go coach girls basketball in Jackson, La. I coached there for one year, and Sacred Heart heard that I was coaching. They asked me if I wanted to come back to Sacred Heart, and I did. I coached over here for 30 years, and the football field is now named after me.”
Over his time coaching the Trojans, he accumulated 159 total victories while only having close to 100 losses and nine ties. “We had some good years,” he said. “We had a couple of bad ones too. One year we didn’t win a game, but the next year we won nine. When you lose some seniors, you got to build up. Sometimes it takes longer than one year to build up, but we did.”
Soileau also coached the Trojans to nine district championships and two state championship game appearances. “We played in the state finals one year against the quarterback that played for LSU,” he said. “They beat us in the finals, so we finished second in the state. That’s not as good as first, but it’s not near as bad as last.”
The other championship game appearance for his Trojans was the infamous “Fog Bowl” of 1967 against Sicily Island. In that game the Trojans made history as they became the only team from Ville Platte to win a state championship in 11-man football.
“The fog was really bad,” Soileau described. “It was like playing in the rain actually, but it wasn’t raining. It was just fog. You couldn’t see more that 10 or 15 yards ahead of you. The field was in bad shape also. It was like somebody had a potato field or something where there wasn’t too much grass.”
“They scored first against us, and we came back and started playing good defense,” he added. Our offense started working a bit, and we were able to score three touchdowns. We held them to their six points that they got in the first quarter. It was a good game, but it would have been such a nicer game if we would have been in a good place instead of having the fog and stuff like that.”
Soileau, before leaving the Saunders’ home, looked back on his lifetime and thought of all the enjoyments it had brought him. “I enjoyed my boxing years in high school, I enjoyed my boxing years at LSU, I enjoyed having a friend like Billy Cannon that was behind me the whole time, and I really enjoyed my coaching career at Sacred Heart for 30 years. If I could do it all over again, I would.”