St. Mary's 1972 state championship football team surprises coach Bill Cox at 49th anniversary reunion
“Legend,” “second father,” “big brother” and “best friend” were a few of the accolades lavished on former St. Mary's High School football coach Bill Cox, who in 1972 led the Trojans to a perfect 11-0 mark.
They capped the season with an improbable 6-0 win over St. Louis Country Day, as running back Johnnie Luteran, behind a block from his 140-pound fullback Bill Roach, scored the game's lone touchdown in the third quarter for the now closed Independence Catholic high school.
Cox was honored by his former players in a surprise 49th anniversary reunion Saturday night at V's Italiano Ristorante, under the guise that he and his wife Janis were going to celebrate Luteran's birthday at the Independence restaurant.
As Cox walked down the stairs to V's banquet room, he thought something was a bit off.
"I get downstairs and start seeing all my former players lined up," said Cox, who was inducted into the Greater Kansas City Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2016. "And here I am, thinking I'm going to have a birthday dinner with Johnnie. It didn't take long for me to feel pretty silly carrying the gift."
Soon, Cox was shaking hands and hugging 26 of the 32 former Trojans who came from as far away as Oklahoma, South Carolina and Boston to honor their coach.
"Coach Cox was my second father, even though he was just 12 years older than I was when I played for him," said Luteran, one of the ringleaders of the surprise celebration. "Today, he's like my older brother, my best friend. My God, that man has done so much for the men in this room – so much for me, so much for everyone who ever played for him.
"What a night! What a great night to honor a great man – a coaching legend."
Cox's coaching career spanned nearly four decades. Over a 39-year career, he coached at St. Mary’s, Fort Osage and Pleasant Hill. He was also an assistant coach at Lillis, Southwest, Park Hill, Oak Grove, Grandview and Blue Valley North.
He finished with a 141-129-2 record that included the state championship, two conference championships and two district titles.
"I am totally, utterly stunned and surprised by all of this," Cox said as he continued to shake hands and greet each of his former players. "I haven't seen some of these guys since they graduated, and here, they come from all over the country to honor me. It's just unbelievable – so humbling. What a tremendous honor."
As the night went on, the stories got bigger and more colorful.
"I know I scored the winning touchdown in the state championship game," Luteran said, "but I don't remember when I scored or how long the run was. In fact, after the game, I was told Bill (Roach), our fullback, scored the game-winner, and I didn't care. I was just happy we had 6 points and Country Day didn't have any."
For the record book, Luteran scored on a 13-yard run with 2:38 left in the third quarter.
His 140-pound fullback, Roach, threw the biggest block of his life, to spring his teammate for the most memorable touchdown in Trojans' history.
"I don't remember a lot about the game, except that we won," said Roach, who made the trip from Grove, Oklahoma, to honor his coach. "I knew I threw the block, but that's all I remember about the game. I know this, we loved Coach Cox like he was our father. And he was a second father to a lot of us."
Lathrom, who came in from Myrtle Beach, S.C., had clippings from The Examiner, and was able to answer most of the questions about the big game.
"Johnnie ran for 100 yards in the game and had 1,300 for the season," Lathrom said. "We wanted to win for Coach Cox. We loved that man – still do! He wasn't much older than most of us, and we would have done anything he said. We respected him that much."
Ray Myers, a freshman on that championship team, attended the reunion wearing his 40-year-old letterman's jacket – and it still fit.
"Damn right it still fits," joked Myers as he visited with his teammates. "I didn't play in that game, and it was a mud bath – rained all night, muddy field. So I'm walking off the field in this snow white uniform and I dive into the mud to get all dirty and make it look like I at least got in on one play."
Tight end Don Golden was one of the event's organizers, and he said the turnout included more than 140 former players and members of their families.
"It all started a few years ago," Golden said. "A bunch of us got together and said we need to do it soon, so we decided to start getting in contact with everyone and we are thrilled with the turnout. We've lost a couple of guys, and some just couldn't make it. But the turnout is just amazing. What a great night for Coach Cox and everyone who was a part of that team."