Photo: Former Opelousas High head coach Mike Ortego talks about a game during his Saturday players’ reunion as ex-OHS player Rickey Aggison looks on.
Photo by BOBBY ARDOIN
They arrived with beards and hair peppered in grey, looking quite heavier and generally unlike the Opelousas High football players that once arrived at Donald Gardner Stadium just steps away from where they now stood.
The coach who once brought them in yellow buses for those long ago games and crafted strategies which decided outcomes was again for a few brief hours channeling backward in time with his players inside the huddles, reliving memories they seemed all eager to share.
Standing in the middle of it all on this hot and sunny Saturday was Mike Ortego — Mike the Tiger — the head coach his players came back to remember and apparently thank for providing them with memories some have taped in scrapbooks.
There was much talk of touchdowns and tackles, practices and fumbles after the Tigers of 40 years ago hugged, shook hands and discussed what occurred and could have been.
Some players even gave a nod to current reality.
Steve Nezat, a former fullback and whose explosive blocks provided room for Ortego’s Wing-I- formation running game perhaps put the afternoon reunion into proper perspective for him and his former teammates.
“If they gave me the ball right now, I would have to hand it back and say give it to somebody else,” Nezat said.
Ortego’s nine-seasons from 1976-84 featured teams that displayed hard-nosed intensity and physicality. Those teams also won considerably more games than they lost.
And around Louisiana back then Ortego recalled, other high school football programs began to take notice of what it meant to play his Tigers.
“You know, there weren’t many teams outside of our district who wanted to schedule us. We had to call around a lot and travel all over even into Texas sometimes to play non-district games,” Ortego said.
Opelousas’ district games during those seasons featured legendary contests against powerful opponents like Acadiana, New Iberia, Lafayette High, Comeaux, Franklin and Morgan City.
In those district contests Ortego and his staff matched strategy against some of the state’s best coaches like Bill Dotson at Acadiana, Bobby Keasler and Gordon King from New Iberia, Lafayette High’s Bob Mahfouz and Bobby Banna of Comeaux.
Ortego remembered a game against Lafayette High when he chose to punt four straight times on first down against Lafayette High, each time pinning the Lions further inside their own 10-yard line.
The maneuver finally forced Lafayette to fumble inside the five. After the Tigers recovered they were in the end zone several plays later with the winning touchdown.
“Comeaux came to play us one time and I remember they lined up in the Wishbone at the start and finished in a split backfield after Brian Forsythe took most of their starting backfield out of the game,” Ortego said.
The players recalled many of their nicknames such as Idi Amin, Squat and Noc-A-Homa given to them by the coaches.
Only one of Ortego’s Tigers — strong safety Rickey Aggison – was bold enough to nickname himself as the team’s Star Child.
The players admitted to Ortego as they probably did four decades ago that he could be difficult or obstinate at times, but any issue they may have had with that approach has seemingly melted away with time.
Aggison perhaps captured that sentiment best.
“Coach, you were pretty hard on us. But you know what, it was a good kind of hard,” Aggison said.