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Granted, that is quite a statement – “most improbable ever” – but what else can you say about an athlete who did not play one meaningful moment of high school football until the playoffs of his senior season – because until then Robert Brunet had served as the team’s manager.
In fact, had the team’s top two running backs not been injured in the final regular season game, Brunet likely would have never played at Louisiana Tech or in the NFL because he would never have gotten a chance to play in high school.
And in that case, the odds are obviously very great that he would not have been included in Tech’s 2015 Hall of Fame class.
The reason this story seems so unimaginable for Louisiana Tech fans to grasp is that they all remember Brunet as the swift, slashing running back who made all-Gulf States Conference in 1967 after running for a school record 224 yards against Lamar – and then went on to produce an outstanding 10-year NFL career for the Washington Redskins as the league’s premier special teams player.
So just how did this football Cinderella story ever happen?
It started deep in south Louisiana at Larose-Cutoff where Robert grew up loving football but never even played enough to letter on any team. And, it ended at mid-field of Irving Stadium in 1977 where Brunet lay temporarily paralyzed following a collision with Dallas Cowboys all-pro lineman Randy White – finishing the Cajun’s NFL career and almost ending his chance at a normal life.
Amazingly, Brunet’s journey to collegiate and NFL stardom began with a bewildering set of circumstances that saw him rejected from football for five straight years as a youngster.
“They started a Pee Wee League when I was in the sixth grade,” recalled Brunet. “They had so many kids come out that they chose players for the teams by running a race. I was always fast and would have made the team but I had been very ill for a week and when I tried to run I couldn’t do it – and I didn’t make the team.”
As for the next year (7th grade), “I needed to work after school (sweeping classrooms) so I couldn’t play. The next year I was going to play but injured my knee before practice started.
“Another preseason injury (bruised kidney) kept me out of the ninth grade and in the 10th grade we had a new coach and he wouldn’t let me play because I had missed spring training (because of after-school work). Also, I think it may have been a little bit because I was only 5-5 and weighed 135.
“Finally, in the 11th grade Lynn LeBlanc became our coach and he let me be on the team but I didn’t make the traveling squad,” Brunet recalled. “Then I had a good spring training practice heading into my senior season and I was going to get some playing time, but I suffered a slipped disc before the season began.
“Coach LeBlanc let me stay on as the equipment manager. We had a good season and made the playoffs but in our last regular season game our two top running backs were injured. By this time I was fully recovered and Coach asked if I thought I could play. I said I would try and I did pretty good – we went all the way to the state championship game with me in the starting lineup,” he said.
It was at this point that Louisiana Tech entered the picture and changed Brunet’s life forever. Although Larose-Cutoff lost the state title game to Minden 28-21, Brunet had a strong performance and a Tech coach, the late George Doherty, was there to see it.
Years later Doherty recalled that night. “I was really there to watch two other players but when I saw Robert I knew I was watching a unique and gifted young man. I didn’t know anything about his athletic background (or lack of it) but I could see he had all the moves, the speed and the instincts of an outstanding athlete.”
After the game Doherty asked Coach LeBlanc about No. 23 and the coach couldn’t recall even having a No. 23. Finally, he said, “Oh, that’s my manager. We lost our starter to injury so Robert was filling in for us.”
Doherty offered Brunet a scholarship to Tech that night and Robert accepted it – even though he admitted he had never heard of Louisiana Tech.
The Tech coach then laughed and recalled telling Tech head coach Joe Aillet the next day that “I just recruited a manager.” He said Coach Aillet looked at him and asked, “Well, is he a good one?”
Brunet arrived at Tech in 1964 and -- as if to prove this miracle just might work -- he came into camp standing 6-feet tall and weighing 190-pounds – up over 50 pounds and two inches taller than he was as a high school senior.
And, sure enough, this kid could really run.
He went on to become one of Tech’s most outstanding running backs ever, finishing with 1,222 yards rushing, eighth best in Tech history at that point, and his efforts were rewarded with a phone call from the Washington Redskins, saying “We have just drafted you in the seventh round.”
Fighting off injuries many times, Brunet had a solid 10-year reign in the NFL that included a Super Bowl appearance in 1972 when Washington lost 14-7 to the perfect (17-0) Miami Dolphins.
Following one season, the former Bulldog was rated as the No. 1 Special Teams Player in the NFL. It’s no wonder he was a favorite of all his pro head coaches, which included Otto Graham, Vince Lombardi, Bill Austin and finally George Allen, for whom he played his last seven years.
Brunet realizes the NFL provided him with many opportunities that might not otherwise have come his way and he quickly says, “God has been good to me. I have been blessed.”
He also knows that he was tremendously lucky that the injury in 1977 against the Cowboys was not permanent. “I will never forget laying there, realizing that I was paralyzed and thinking that I would never be able to hold my children again or live a normal life.”
But the feeling did return to his body that night even though he did require neck surgery. Dallas doctors told him, “It isn’t often that someone recovers fully after taking that kind of hit to the head and neck.”
Brunet added, “Now it is hard for me to believe that it ever happened. I sometimes wonder if I would do it all over again, but the answer is that I probably would. In fact, for years I would have a reoccurring dream that George (Allen) called me and pleaded with me to come back for one more game. Every time I would say, ‘Yes, George, I will be there,’” laughed Brunet.
Today it is obvious that Robert Brunet won’t be suiting up for any more football games, but he will soon have one more moment of athletic glory when he is deservedly enshrined into the Louisiana Tech Hall of Fame.
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