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‘It’s too many this year’: Barry Switzer pained by recent deaths of his former OU football players

Berry Tramel
Former OU defensive lineman and head coach John Blake, right, is one of at least nine former Sooners to play for coach Barry Switzer, left, who died in 2020. “When you recruit ‘em, you have ‘em for life,” Switzer said. “It’s too many this year.” [OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVES]

Barry Switzer took the stage at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, dozens of his players among the mourners at Grant Burget’s memorial service Saturday, and urged them to stop meeting like this.

“Hey, I don’t want to do this anymore,” Switzer said of speaking at yet another funeral for one of the men who once roamed Owen Field. “I’ve done this too many times.”

Saturday was a long day. A morning graveside service in Chandler for Burget, a starting halfback in Switzer’s first game as a head coach, back in 1973. Then the afternoon memorial service in Oklahoma City.

A long day and a long life. Switzer is 83. One of the downsides to living so long is burying so many people who mean so much to you.

Switzer brought up Methuselah, the Hebrew patriarch who Genesis reports lived to be 969. Switzer, who never claimed to be a Bible scholar, guessed 500, but it’s all the same.

“Think about the loss of relationships,” Switzer said Saturday night, resting after that long day. “Let’s cut this crap out.”

We are losing them fast, the players off those grand old Sooner teams. That happens when time flies, and time does fly. It’s been 48 years since that night in Waco, when the Switzer era began and Burget, a young halfback from Stroud, suffered a major knee injury.

Switzer counts his players starting with the 1966 season, when he first arrived in Norman as part of Jim Mackenzie’s staff. And in 2020 alone, at least nine Switzer Sooners fell.

Derland Moore. Jerry Arnold. Zac Henderson. John Blake. Bill Earthman. Chuck Johnson. Rickey Dixon. Tony Woods. Barry Joyner.

“When you recruit ‘em, you have ‘em for life,” Switzer said. “It’s too many this year.”

Jerry Pettibone called me awhile back. Pettibone played for Bud Wilkinson, coached for Switzer and now, at age 81, helps run the Sooners Helping Sooners program.

Pettibone had been talking with Switzer, and they were looking for help in determining how many of his players had passed. We all put our heads together, along with OU historian Mike Brooks, and tried to come up with a number. Somewhere around 50, although it could be more.

That’s the kind of thing you wonder about when the past grows long and the future grows short.

“It takes its toll on you,” Switzer said. “Give me a few more years before we do this again,” he told his players.

Switzer seems to be growing more and more emotional, although he points out he’s always been emotional, especially about his players.

“Fifty years old, I was emotional,” Switzer said. “I always would rather be around the players than anybody else.”

As much as he hates the circumstances, Switzer enjoys seeing his players. At St. Luke’s, Switzer saw Wayne Hoffman, his 1973 and 1974 tight end, for the first time in years.

“Hell of a player,” Switzer said.

“Hell of a tight end. ‘Wayne,’” Switzer told him. “‘I don’t think you’d play tight end today. We’d move you closer to the center.’”

Switzer loves talking about the old days with his players. Loves talking about those players.

He and Pettibone, who carpooled to Chandler and St. Luke’s, marveled Saturday at the players who made OU football great. Switzer even made a confession.

“A lot of times, we took for granted too much of the superstars,” Switzer said. “The Joe Washingtons and Tony Casillases.”

Switzer mentioned players like Hoffman and Kyle Davis, an excellent center from Altus. Defensive tackles like John Goodman, Keith Gary and David Hudgens.

“You look at ‘em, you know they’re good players, but they’re not Lee Roy Selmon,” Switzer said. “They’re still good enough.”

Hudgens became a third-round NFL draft pick. Goodman was a second-round pick and played five years for the Steelers. Gary was a first-round pick and played six years for the Steelers.

Burget never played pro football. That knee injury was too much to overcome, though he came back in 1974 to start for Switzer’s national championship team.

Burget was beset by a variety of serious illnesses over the years. He was in hospice care in Chandler a month ago when Switzer stopped by to spend an hour and say what proved to be a farewell.

“So glad I did that,” Switzer said.

Switzer is close with almost all his players. But Joe Washington, Keith Jackson and Burget stand out. “I’ve done so much with ‘em,” Switzer said.

Burget was his stockbroker. They would talk often.

“I hate to lose good ones like Grant,” said the coach who hasn’t lived as long as Methusaleh but shares a kinship through a sense of loss.

Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.