Memories still fresh for ex-pro Jesse Birchfield

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR Staff
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   In 1956, Elvis Presley scored his first No. 1 hit with "Heartbreak Hotel", man was still 13 years from landing on the moon and George W. Bush was a 10 year-old living in West Texas.
   Still, the memories from that time are as fresh if it were yesterday for ex-Elizabethton High School football star Jesse Birchfield.
   The former Cyclone football and basketball standout had just completed playing college football for Duke, leading the team to a 7-2-1 record as a captain his senior season.
   A versatile lineman, Birchfield had served as both a guard and tackle for the Blue Devils. His talent had not gone unnoticed as Birchfield, a two-time All-ACC selection, remembers getting a special message from Western Union.
   "Here is the telegram where Green Bay drafted me in the fourth round," said Birchfield, who was picked 13 rounds ahead of Packer QB Bart Starr in that year's NFL Draft. "There were only eight teams back then and the starting contract was $8,500. The highest paid player in all of pro football got only $25,000."
   He was also contacted by three other professional teams: the Los Angeles Rams of the NFL, and Toronto and the Ottawa Roughriders from the Canadian Football League.
   The offer from Ottawa proved to be one he couldn't refuse as he signed a rookie contract worth $13,000, an enormous amount in those days.
   "My dad was making about $55 dollars a week here in Elizabethton and he had a good job as a foreman when the Bemberg plants were running," said Birchfield. "Ottawa was a great place back then. It's the capital, but it's not a humongous, big town like Toronto.
   "Everybody knew you. They didn't have a professional baseball team and they had lost their hockey team, so we were all they had. Even as a lineman your picture was in the paper every day or two. When you would go out to a restaurant, people would want to buy you meals. It was a tremendous experience."
   Unfortunately, those good times only lasted one year due to a nagging knee injury Birchfield originally suffered in college.
   "I tore my knee up my sophomore year against Tennessee and had to have it operated on after the end of the season," said Birchfield. "My junior year I was in and out, but still made the coaches' second team All-American team. My rookie season in Ottawa the ball carrier came through the hole from the blind side. It tore up my knee again and ended my career."
   Football had taken a back seat for Birchfield a short time after high school when was drafted into the National Guard. It didn't take long for him to be back on the gridiron, however, as he played on a military team at Fort Devens, Mass. with several other local players.
   "There were about 200 of us from Elizabethton that were activated," said Birchfield. "Charlie Jett, my old line coach at Elizabethton, made me go out for football up there and it was one of the best things he could have done.
   "About half of the team at Fort Devens were players from the Kingsport unit. We had a good team that went undefeated for the 1951 season."
   After his military tour ended, Birchfield ended up at Duke, where he attended medical school. At the time, the Devils were a football powerhouse with future NFL Hall of Famer Sonny Jurgensen, the starting quarterback.
   In Jesse's senior season, the team knocked off No. 1 ranked Ohio State and shut out Tennessee 21-0 in Knoxville en route to an Orange Bowl appearance and subsequent victory over Nebraska.
   However, no win for a Duke player compared to beating arch-rival North Carolina. Birchfield fondly recalls how the Devils easily handled the Tar Heels all four years he was at Durham.
   "We beat Tennessee all four years and never lost an ACC game while I was there," said Birchfield. "We beat Purdue twice, and Ohio State when they had Heisman Trophy winner Hopalong Cassidy. Still, Carolina was the big rival and we beat Carolina to death. I don't even know if they scored on us all four years."
   After his playing days were over, Birchfield served one year as an assistant at Unaka under Lynn Goddard before going to work as a pharmaceutical rep. He became a manager two years later and stayed in the field until his retirement a few years ago.
   The gridiron kept tugging at his heart, leading Birchfield to work part-time for 26 years as a football umpire. As much as he enjoyed recalling his victories as a player, he talked about some of the trails an official has to endure.
   "It somewhat aggravates me to hear people complain about officials, but officials do make mistakes," Birchfield commented. "I've worked high school and college ball. I did cost Greeneville a ball game one year against Morristown. I blew the whistle on mistake when Greeneville had a wide open touchdown.
   "Now, the rule would be an inadvertent whistle, but then it cost them the ballgame. I went to the bench and apologized to the coach, but it bothered me so badly I didn't sleep for weeks. People don't realize there's as much difference officiating different positions as there are playing different positions."
   The game now played is one that barely resembles football during Birchfield's time. It was a rougher atmosphere in the '50s, with no face masks meaning bloody mouths and concussions were commonplace.
   On the other hand, at 6-1, 200-plus pounds, Birchfield, who would be too small to play line for a major college team today, towered over most of his teammates.
   "I was the heaviest man on the line all four years at Duke, and I went anywhere from 207 up to 240 pounds," recalled Birchfield. "I wouldn't even be a big linebacker now. Most of the big men that played then couldn't move like they can now. You have 300 pounders now that could outrun backs when I was playing.
   "Back then, they didn't even want you to lift weights unless it was rehabilitating from an injury. The coaches were afraid it would make you muscle-bound and slow, where it's been proved it's the opposite."
   However, don't expect Jesse to be someone who looks at the evolution of the game as a bad thing.
   "There's as much difference from the game today to the game I played, as there was when I played to the days Knute Rockne was coaching at Notre Dame," said Birchfield. "I like the game better now. I like the wide-open game more than the three yards and a cloud of dust. It's more fun to watch."
   At age 72, Birchfield still shows scars from his football days. Bad knees and a bad hip have made him rely on the assistance of a walker, something he hopes to shed in the upcoming months.
   Still married to his college sweetheart, the former Joyce Pope, Jesse is the proud father of a daughter, Katie Gladstone, an optometrist in Hollywood, Fla.
   "I'm just trying to get my hip better where I can play a little golf," said Birchfield. "But, I can't complain. The Lord has been gracious and good to me. I've got a great family and I've got to meet a lot of people and make a lot of friends over the years."