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Neither rain nor sleet nor snow — not even ankle-deep mud — would keep Douglas Mayo and his 1938 teammates from recording the only perfect season in University of Memphis football history.

With Memphis sporting a 9-0 record going into its final game of the season against Delta State in Cleveland, Miss., heavy rains flooded the field. The 1939 school yearbook referred to it as “one of the muddiest games ever played.” But the 93-year-old remembers the play that won the game like it was yesterday.

“There was a play we didn’t use much which was what we called 10-to-the-weak-side, which started out to the right,” says Mayo

(BS ’39). “The one that Skeeter Ellis ran 82 yards on, the play we won the game on, it started out exactly like that. The defense thought we would run another off-tackle play to the right, which was our standard play. But we didn’t — everybody completely reversed. We fooled them. That sprung Skeeter loose and he ran the last 50 yards with nobody around him.”

Touchdown, thanks largely to a downfield block by Mayo. Tigers 8, Delta State 0.

Memphis finished the year perfect and according to The Associated Press, as the highest scoring team in the nation. It was set to play San Jose State in a bowl game in California pitting the two highest scoring teams in the nation — both with perfect records — but SJS lost its final game and the bowl was canceled.

“We were ready to go. We had won 10 and we figured we could have won one more.”

Memphis needed the unblemished season.  Mayo says because of lackluster years, “evil times” as he terms it, the administration was “thinking about telling us to quit.” But according to Mayo, the squad hired former Tennessee standout Allyn McKeen, a local lawyer, to coach the team. He ended up being a master recruiter.

 “He brought in a lot of good players. You need a lot of good players because you are going to have some key people get hurt. Even if you have one or two star players, you need a lot of depth. Our team, somebody could get hurt, but we had other great players to cover for them.”

McKeen left a couple of years later and coached Mississippi State to the SEC championship in 1941.

Games in 1938 were played at Crump Stadium and the Fairgrounds. The team practiced behind Scates Hall, which at the time was a men’s dorm. Mayo says the team was known as the Tigers, though the media referred to them as the “teachers” or “tutors.”

The game then was just as intense as it is now, but with some differences, he says.

“Everybody played on both sides of the ball then. The tailback did pretty much what the quarterback does today, he did nearly all the passing. The quarterback was more of a blocker.”

Other differences?

“Players have facemasks now. We didn’t have any facemasks. You could get your teeth knocked out. In fact, one of our teammates got his tooth knocked out in practice, so they stopped practice so the whole team could look for the tooth, but no one could find it. It was a violent game then like it is now.”

Mayo says of the perfect season, “At the beginning, the games weren’t taken too seriously by the opposition. We won the first four games before the rest of the opposition knew they had somebody to beat.”

Memphis scored 68 points against Cumberland State and the season included wins over Middle Tennessee and Troy.

The only sad note?

Because of the close-knit nature of the team, Mayo has kept a list of the whereabouts of each person on the squad: addresses and phone numbers. Each time one passes away, he puts a notation by the name.

Mayo’s list has lots of checkmarks.

“I may be the last living link to that perfect season,” as he reflects on the 40 or so on the team. Two members remain unaccounted for.

How did the team celebrate after the perfect-season-clinching win over Delta State?

“Some stories are best untold,” says Mayo, with a laugh.

— by Greg Russell

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Last Updated: 5/15/15