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Growing up a fan of Texas high school football, Ken Hall's name was one always treated with legendary status. In 1999, I set out to interview the man I'd always heard about. At the time, Hall's name was popping up in end-of-the-centuray retrospectives. His feats were well known, but I wanted to learn more about Ken Hall the man, and then introduce him to our readers. Near the end of one story I read on Hall, I noted one sentence that indicated his desire to work with youth. That was the angle I explored with him, and he responded positively to an interview asking about a topic he considered more important than what he accomplished on a football field. During our interview, he mentioned that our newspaper's competitor had recently interviewed him for an article. I phoned that intel back to our office and was instructed to return home immediately and start writing. I interviewed my secondary sources by phone, and this story published ahead of our competitor's. And, yes, that story focused on his football days. Mr. Hall is a legend and a true gentleman. I was proud to learn that until he sold his barbecue restaurant, this article was prominently displayed for all guests to read. That's why it remains one of my favorite articles I've ever written. This article appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on Tuesday, November 16, 1999.

A Sweet Life

The Sugar Land Express would rather talk about his passions for barbecue and helping young people than his fabled football exploits.

By David Thomas

Star-Telegram Staff Writer

 

FREDERICKSBURG – Ken Hall doesn’t hide his disappointment.

 

Forty-six years after completing one of the most successful high school football careers ever recorded, Hall sits in a corner of his Fredericksburg restaurant talking about his playing days, his barbecue and his desire to help teen-agers.

 

The latter prompts this show of disappointment.

 

When one of his national records is broken, he says, he tries to find that player’s address and write him a letter of encouragement. He has mailed off “three or four” of those letters.

 

“Never heard back from any of them,” Hall, 63, said with a what-can-you-do shrug. “Not a dang one. Which is surprising.”

 

Much has changed since “The Sugar Land Express” dominated Texas school football in the early 1950s.

Try to find a team running the vaunted “Notre Dame Box” offense employed by those Sugar Land Gators. (It was a variant of the single-wing.) Try to find Sugar Land High School, for that matter. (It consolidated with Missouri City in 1959 to form the Fort Bend school district.) Or the Gators’ trophies from their Class B regional championship seasons. (Hall doesn’t even know where they are.)

Ken Hall.jpg

But if you want to find the star of that era, all you have to do is head south of downtown Fredericksburg on U.S. 87 toward San Antonio. “Ken Hall and Company” will be down on the left, not far from the high school football field. And there’s a good chance Hall and wife Gloria, his high school sweetheart, will be there.

 

They still come from miles around to meet the man who two generations ago every true Texas high school football fan followed, like a recent visitor who waited in the Sulphur Springs Café for newspaper accounts on Monday morning.

 

They still come from miles around to meet the Sugar Land Express, the man whose records dwarf the legends of Earl Campbell, Billy Sims and Eric Dickerson, even if his fame doesn’t.

 

11,232 career rushing yards. 4,405 yards rushing in 1953.

3,458 yards rushing in 1952. 3,160 yards rushing in 1951.

 

The numbers are overwhelming. At some point during the listing of Hall’s career statistics, the “Wows” give way to simple head shakes.

 

The National Federation of State High School Associations’ record book credits Hall with setting 17 national offensive records. Five still stand. Then consider that Hall missed a lot of second halves of games because of lopsided scores. Or that there are no statistics for his returns of kickoffs, punts and interceptions.

 

He is, without question, one of the greatest high school football players to come from Texas.

 

“He set a standard that all high school running backs are trying to reach,” said Dave Campbell, a retired sportswriter and founder and editor-in-chief of Dave Campbell’s Texas Football magazine. “He certainly would have to rank with the great high school running backs.”

 

The standard is the career rushing yardage record, the one Hall says most people bring up first. No one has come within 2,000 yards of Hall’s mark of 11,232 yards.

 

Fourth on the all-time list is a running back from Pensacola (Fla.) Escambia High School. His name? Emmitt Smith. In seventh place is Rodney Thomas, the former Groveton and Texas A&M back who plays for the Tennessee Titans. On down the list are names like Billy Sims, David Overstreet and Terry Kirby.

 

Those players’ accomplishments after high school and the time passed since Hall played are conspiring to make Hall one of Texas’ lesser-known legends.

 

Hall says most of the people he hears from are his age or children of fathers his age who were told of his feats.

 

Missing from that group is today’s generation of high school football players.

 

“As time passes, things fade,”  said Austin Westlake coach Ron Schroeder, who said it was “a special treat” when he met Hall for the first time in August. “Just like you might say ‘Roy Rogers’ to this generation, and they don’t know who you’re talking about.”

 

14,558 career yards of total offense. 5,146 total yards and 428.8 total yards per game in 1953.

 

The road most traveled is to turn Ken Hall into a history lesson, to measure his accomplishments with yard lines. But that’s the Sugar Land Express. Ken Hall was made when the yards didn’t come so easily.

 

“The ups and downs he had in his career,” said Fredericksburg football coach Jerald Klett, “is what makes him such an influential individual.”

 

After graduating from Sugar Land as a 6-foot-1, 200-pound bruising speedster in 1954, Hall went to Texas A&M to play for first-year coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. But Hall and Bryant had their problems.

 

Today, Hall calls it a “chemistry” problem.

 

“A young coach with a job to do. A young kid with talent who knew how to run the ball,” Hall said. “Sometimes two goods don’t make a right. And perhaps that’s what happened.”

 

Hall left A&M in the spring of 1956. You won’t find Hall’s name on the A&M media guide’s list of letterwinners. (Although you will find it under Aggies in the professional draft, all-time Aggies professionals and Aggies in the Texas Sports Hall of Fame.)

 

Hall played two seasons for Edmonton of the Canadian Football League because he had to wait until his college class graduated before he could play professionally in the United States. In 1958, while playing for the Baltimore Colts in an exhibition game, his back was broken on a tackle by Sam Huff. He played the next season for the Chicago Cardinals, played for the Houston Oilers in 1960 and with the Oilers and St. Louis Cardinals in 1961.

 

He still holds Oilers/Titans franchise records for best kickoff return average in a season (31.3 yards) and longest kickoff return (104 yards). But he’s not even the best-known Texas running back to play for the Oilers.

 

“He didn’t go like, say, Earl Campbell and have a great college career and a great pro career,” Dave Campbell said. “If he had, he would have stamped his name more indelibly in memory.”

 

899 career points. 395 total points and 32.9 points per game in 1953.

 

Hall returned to the Houston area in 1962 to work for Imperial Sugar in Sugar Land. In 1970, he, Gloria and their sons Chuck and Mike moved to California. In 1986, Hall returned to Texas. He was tired of the corporate world. Barbecue, he decided, was what he really wanted to do.

 

Hall loves to talk about barbecue. When asked why he’s in the barbecue business, he responds with three one-word sentences: “Passion. Love. Creativity.”

 

But soon, his answer leads to teen-agers.

 

“This young man right here,” Hall says, pointing to a teen-ager cleaning up after another busy lunch session, “and many before him and several more now. I employ high school kids. And the reason I do is that I feel like there are certain things that they’re not going to get in high school that they’re going to learn later.

 

“If I can preempt that a little bit and bring them out here, let them make a little money. They can help me. They can learn a little something about discipline, how to get along with people, how to work with other people, how to take rejection, how to understand how it is to make a small living, and teach them how to get along even with themselves.

 

“Most of the kids that have ever worked here, at some time almost every year, they’ll come back and we’ll stand out there and hug for a while.”

 

Then Hall tells of two of his former employees. One, Hall would wake up about once a week at 3 a.m. so he would get out of bed and go to work. The second Hall got out of trouble one night, gave him a lecture and took him to work. The pace in Hall’s voice quickens as he tells of how they would become successful in the business world.

 

Then he realizes he has ventured off the original subject of barbecue. “And there’s a few more stories like that,” he says.

 

Hall remembers those stories better than his records.

 

“They’re more important,” he says.

 

127 career touchdowns. 57 total touchdowns and 4.8 touchdowns per game in 1953.

 

You’ll often find Hall doing something for teen-agers. He holds an annual celebrity golf tournament that supports a $5,000 college scholarship and a $2,000 scholarship for a vocational student.

 

“We’ve been doing that three years, and next year,” he boasts, “we will have eight kids in college. That’s rewarding.”

 

You’ll also find him around Fredericksburg High School, although he says he wants to stay out of the way because sometimes he can “feel like I’m imposing.” He does color commentary on radio broadcasts of the Battlin’ Billies football games. Last Thursday night, he was helping cook at a pre-playoff game get-together.

 

It’s not so much the high school sports that Hall enjoys these days as it is the kids who play them.

 

“He’s real involved in high school kids,” Klett said. “He loves being around athletes. He’s a great motivator. Having been through the things he’s been through, he kind of tells the kids how it is. They look forward to seeing him.”

 

11 carries for 520 yards – 47.3 yards per carry – with seven total touchdowns

in a 1953 game vs. Houston Lutheran. 38 career 100-yard rushing games.

 

Ken Hall is in the second half of life. But unlike most of the high school games he played in, he’s not content to watch from the sideline.

 

He has considered that some of his records may still be around when he no longer is.

 

Even Westlake’s Schroeder admitted that until this summer, he “didn’t know if he was still around. I just knew he existed as a legend.”

 

Yes, the accomplishments of the Sugar Land Express live on. And so do the accomplishments of Ken Hall. But you won’t find them in any record books.

 

Yet it is those football accomplishments, a visitor to Hall’s restaurant tells him, for which he will most be remembered. Is he OK with that?

 

“Yeah,” he said, then smile. “Yeah.

 

“If the kids can get something out of it, that’s what it’s all about. I’m not sure they do.”

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