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Ken Hall's life seemed all too perfect on a recent evening as he walked out the front door of his San Marino, Calif. home with his wife, Gloria—his high school sweetheart, of course—at his side. The soft music from the stereo in the family room followed them, and a breeze gently stirred the leaves of elm trees. Indeed, the combination of Southern California weather, this neighborhood, those cars in the drive and the elegance inside can do a lot to smooth life's rough edges. The entire scene was a quintessential testimonial to the fulfillment of the American dream, which is why it seemed incongruous to hear Hall musing, "Failure teaches you one thing. It teaches you you don't want to fail again."
Hall, 46, the upwardly mobile executive vice-president for Sweetener Products Company, a Los Angeles firm that distributes sucrose, relates more to failure than success. All at once, his is a story that is too sweet and too bitter.
Ken Hall, you see, is the best high school football player ever. Period. Nobody else is even close. Billy Sims, Doak Walker, Tony Dorsett, Herschel Walker, Earl Campbell...all you guys sit down and shut up. Today, 29 years-after he finished his career at Sugar Land (Texas) High School, Ken Hall still holds 12 national records.
Playing tailback in the single wing, he rushed for a career 11,232 yards. Second, with a paltry 7,738 yards, is ex-Oklahoma star Sims, now with the Detroit Lions, who amazed everyone as the ultimate back while playing for Hooks (Texas) High. In most yards rushing in a single season. Hall is first with 4,045 in 1953. He is also second with 3,458 in 1952. In his four-year career, Hall scored 899 points; second is Mike Atkinson of Princeton, N.C., who, between 1977 and 1980, scored 672—227 fewer than Hall. That's almost 38 touchdowns. In total career offense, Hall accounted for 14,558 yards, 3,107 more than No. 2, Ron Cuccia, who played quarterback at L.A.'s Wilson High in 1975, 76 and '77.
In addition, according to the Kansas City-based National Federation of State High School Associations, Hall holds national records for most points in a season (395), most touchdowns in a season (57) and in a career (127), total offense in a season (5,146 yards), most 100-yard games in a career (38), most consecutive 100-yard games (21), most average-yards-rushing per game in a season (337.1) and most total offense per game for a season (428.8). Says Hall, 'it was the winning that was fun, not the statistics."
What makes Hall's records even more remarkable is the fact that he generally played little or not at all in the second half of a game, humiliation not usually being a yardstick of prep sportsmanship. Against Houston Lutheran in 1953, Hall set the national single-game rushing record of 520 yards on only 11 carries, a 47.3 yard average. He played only a few minutes in the second half. That mark was broken in 1974 by John Bunch of Elkins, Ark., who ran for 608 yards. But he carried the ball 38 times and played the entire game. Says Bunch, now a law student at the University of Arkansas, "Hall must have been pretty good."
He was the Sugar Land Dandy, the Sugar Land Express, the sugarcoated halfback, one sweet talent. He was junior class president, graduated third in his class of 24, and was voted Most Handsome at Sugar Land High in 1953; Gloria was football sweetheart and valedictorian. On their first date in 1952, they drove to Rosenberg to see the film Golden Girl. They shared a soda (vanilla) at White's Café. "Everything he did was always so right," says Gloria. Hall's coach at Sugar Land, L.V. (Dugan) Hightower, says, "He wouldn't say——if he stepped in it." He sang in the church choir, of course. Can you stand it? Gloria has a sign on her kitchen windowsill in San Marino that says BLOOM WHERE YOU ARE PLANTED. Kenneth Hall bloomed in Sugar Land.
Then he went off to college at Texas A&M. And he failed. He was a spectacular failure, a lights-out failure, a flameout.
He quit midway through his sophomore year, then begged and cried his way back onto the team for his junior season, but then quit again. He never started a game for the Aggies and didn't letter. The coach didn't like the way Hall didn't block and the way he didn't play defense and, truth be told, the way Hall didn't think the moon was hung on football. Hall wasn't amused by the coach's colorful language and abusive manner.
The coach was Bear Bryant, who when asked the other day what went wrong with Ken Hall, responded, "I don't think anything went wrong with him. It was me. I was stupid. You're a fool to think, as I did as a young coach, that you can treat them all alike. He should have been an All-America for me. With him, we'd have won the National Championship in 1957. Without him, we lost it."