Ronnie Cuevas was a sophomore at newly integrated Gulfport High School in 1969 and remembers vividly the scene at the school’s first big pep rally.
“It was the first time we were all together in that big auditorium, the students who had come over from 33rd Avenue School and those of us who were already at Gulfport High,” Cuevas said. “The cheerleaders were cheering and the band was playing and spirits were high, and then …”
And then the band struck up Dixie …
“All the black students got up and started leaving,” Cuevas said. “It was going to be a mass exodus, and then …”
And then Melvin Barkum, a 17-year-old junior quarterback who had been at 33rd Avenue, went to the stage and got the microphone in his hands.
Said Cuevas, “Melvin talked everybody into coming back. I mean, he was a kid at a new school. He got up there and got everybody to come back. It was amazing. We finished the pep rally, won the game, and the rest is history.”
Cuevas said that was the last time Dixie was played at a Gulfport pep rally.
Barkum, who died Monday at age 63, went on to become one of the greatest athletes in Gulfport High history. As a senior he would quarterback the then-Commodores to an 11-0 record, the Big Eight Conference championship and the then-mythical state championship. He was recruited by nearly every college football team in the nation before choosing Mississippi State over Alabama, Notre Dame and Michigan State.
“Melvin was just an unbelievable athlete and a natural leader,” Cuevas said. “He could run it or throw it. What everybody needs to know about Melvin is he was ahead of his time. You put him in the spread offense everyone runs today, nobody could touch him. He was that good.”
Mississippi State, then coached by Charles Shira, recruited two superb athletes to a Mississippi State program that was struggling in 1971 when not a single starting quarterback in the SEC was black. Barkum was the more highly recruited of the two, but Rocky Felker, also recruited by Alabama, Ole Miss and Tennessee out of Brownsville (Tenn.) High, was no slouch. They competed for the quarterback position from day one on campus.
The two roomed together as freshmen. Felker doesn’t know who made the decision, but he does know it was a wise one.
“We were good friends,” Felker said. “Yeah, we competed against each other for the position, but we enjoyed the competition. We got along. Melvin always had a smile on his face, always seemed to be in a great mood. It may sound hokey, but we really were team players and we really did want what was best for Mississippi State.”
It’s hard to have a quarterback controversy when the two quarterbacks are so close. Barkum and Felker alternated as freshmen. They were alternate starters their first two years on the varsity, as well. In 1974, second-year head coach Bob Tyler changed to the split-back veer offense, which featured a lot of option and was perfect for Felker, who remains as good as these eyes have seen at split-second, keep-or-pitch decisions.
“I think the coaches wanted to get the best 11 players on the field and decided to move Melvin to wide receiver,” Felker said. “Melvin gave us a threat we didn’t have at wide receiver. He could really run and he had great hands. His brother (Jerome) was a wide receiver in the pros, so I don’t think Melvin minded the move. Like I say, he was a team player.”
That 1974 Mississippi State season, the senior season for Barkum and Felker, remains one of the school’s most satisfying ever. The Bulldogs finished 9-3, beat North Carolina in the Sun Bowl and finished ranked No. 17 in the country. It marked the first time State had won as many as nine games in a season since 1940.
Those Bulldogs knocked off Kansas State, LSU and Ole Miss, but perhaps the most stirring of the nine victories was over then-Memphis State at the Liberty Bowl. State drove 97 yards against the clock for a 29-28 victory. Most fans remember Felker scoring the winning points, but Felker remembers another play that kept the drive alive.
“Melvin ran a 15- or 20-yard pattern over the middle and I threw it just as I got hit,” Felker said. “The throw was high, but Melvin went up and got it and held on when he got hit. It was a great catch. It would have been on ESPN SportsCenter if they had one back then.”
Barkum and Felker stayed in touch over the years, though maybe not as much as either would have liked. Barkum would come back to State for team reunions and such.
“Melvin loved Mississippi State,” Felker said. “I hadn’t seen him much in recent years and I didn’t know he was that sick.”
Barkum, who worked in parks and recreation for the city of Gulfport after a brief professional football career, suffered from diabetes in his later years. He died due to complications from the disease.
Felker prefers to remember Barkum’s smile and positive attitude – and the friendship that was kindled when two hot-shot freshmen quarterbacks, one white and the other black, roomed together at a time when that rarely was the case.
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