Ike Peel to be honored Friday night

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Dyersburg High School has had more than its share of athletic champions, but few have the stature of Ike Peel, Jr., 85, who, on Friday night, will be honored for his contributions to that school's long sports tradition.

He is being singled out for the contributions that he made to University of Tennessee intercollegiate sports during the Tradition of Champions program that will take place on Seniors Night at the DHS home game against Memphis Craigmont.

Raised in the Ayers community, now called Everett Lake, Peel enrolled at DHS in 1934 and graduated in 1937.

He wanted to be a baseball player. Peel recalled that as a youth, he had a dream of playing third base for the St. Louis Cardinals. But DHS didn't have a baseball program back then, and a Dyersburg attorney, Rocky Palmer, who was the acting football coach for the school, recognized Peel's potential as a running and blocking back in the old single-wing formation.

Peel said that he and his high school teammates didn't know much about football when he started playing at DHS, but he recalled, "They knew what a day's work was."

They played mostly regional teams like Ridgely, Ripley, Brownsville and Covington. During his sophomore year Dyersburg won the All West Tennessee title.

Peel had promised his parents, who ran a small grocery store in Ayers, that he would go to college and received an offer to play baseball for Louisiana State University and another for football at UT Knoxville.

"My dad asked me, 'Where are you going to spend your life,' and I said I didn't know," Peel recalled. "He said if I was going to live in Tennessee, I should go to UT and make friends with everybody I met up there. He said you never know when someone will be able to help you later in life."

Peel decided he was most likely to live in Tennessee and went to UTK to play for the legendary coach Gen. Robert Neyland for whom the present-day stadium is named. During his freshman year, the Volunteers went 11-0 and won a national championship. He saw playing time in his sophomore year, 1939, when the Vols were undefeated and went to the Rose Bowl. In fact, they weren't even scored upon by an opponent that year. He remembered that Vanderbilt got to the six-inch line and four plays later were 17 yards back and had to try a field goal that was blocked. However, the Volunteers were beaten by the University of Southern California for the national title that year.

In 1940, UT went 10-1 and got a berth at the Sugar Bowl, and during his senior year, the Vols were 8-2.

During Peel's career as a player at UT, the Volunteers went 39-4 with 27 wins that were shutouts. They scored 1,009 points compared to 140 for all opponents.

The final football game of his career was in December of 1941 and a month later he was hired to work as a coach with offensive and defensive backfield players. Then, World War II interrupted his coaching career as he was called into service with the 4th Infantry Division that went ashore at Normandy in France during the first wave of the Allied invasion of Europe.

In 1944, he was mustered out of the service having received two Purple Hearts. The athletic office at UT quickly took him back as a coach where he had a 16-year career. He not only worked in football, he coached baseball and wrestling at UTK.

He recruited the great Doug Atkins, a defensive end who would later play for the Chicago Bears. Atkins was an All-American player, All-Pro and All-World. Peel also recruited the renowned Johnny Majors who would be a runner-up for the Heisman Trophy and, later, head coach of the UT Vols.

To this day he proudly wears the National Championship Ring the Volunteers won in 1951.

But Peel's coaching career ended with the death of his mother. While he was entrenched at Knoxville and had a job he loved, he could not leave his father alone in Dyer County and opted to come home with his wife, Judy and their children Ike, the third, and Becky.

"I said I would never farm, but that is what I ended up doing," Peel said.

For many years he both farmed and rented out agricultural land in Dyer County. Judy became Register of Deeds, a position she held for many years. She died in 1992, the same year Peel was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame.

Naturally, Peel has remained an avid UT fan, but in recent years, his health has kept him from attending many games; so, he watches as many games as he can in his apartment at Briarwood along Parr Avenue close to the high school.

Other than the loss of his beloved wife, there is little of his life Peel said he would change. He was able to play and coach for one of the best college football teams in the nation. He was friends with legendary sports figures like Gen. Neyland and "Bear" Bryant of Alabama. He saw his children grow to adulthood and his grandchildren.

"I've had a wonderful life," Peel said simply.

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