It was his first semester at Ole Miss when he earned the nickname “Possum.”
Richard “Possum” Price, a member of the Ole Miss Sports Hall of Fame, laughs about it now as he remembers the freshman football coach calling him in to his office.
“He told me, ‘Sonny, we’re going to have to change your major,’” Price recalls. In those days, his waking and sleeping habits had an uncanny resemblance to a possum’s, up all night and in bed all day. And while the nickname suited him just fine, the engineering major didn’t. So he switched into something a bit easier, and the rest is Ole Miss football history.
Over the summer, Price got his act together and caught up on coursework. By his sophomore year in 1958, he was a starter on the Rebel team, going on to earn letters each year until 1960, during some of the golden years of Ole Miss football. Legendary Coach Johnny Vaught whipped his team into shape and out into the national spotlight, winning the national championship in 1959 and 1960.
But while Price started on both the offensive and defensive line-ups, helping the Rebels attain a 29-3-1 record with three bowl wins, it was his influence off the field, as well, that branded “Possum” into the hearts of friends and teammates.
Over thirty years after Price’s time at Ole Miss, former teammates and friends decided to establish an award in his honor. In 1998, Chancellor Robert Khayat announced the Richard Price Courage and Compassion award.
“That’s a long name for an award,” Khayat said. “But those two words describe him more than one.”
Price grew up in Vicksburg in a very poor family, Khayat said. But he worked hard and became a successful businessman after graduating from Ole Miss. He had an insurance agency and developed different businesses, like a furniture store, through the years.
He never kept his wealth to himself, though, Khayat said. “He was as generous as anybody I’ve ever known.”
Khayat gives the example of the furniture company Price and two other people owned in Columbia, Miss. The company never made any profits as a business, but Price insisted on keeping it open in order to keep the 400 people who worked there employed. He also had a deal with the grocery store that if anyone ever came and could not pay for their food, he would pick up the bill.
“That’s the kind of generosity I’m talking about. He really reached out and helped people. And still does,” Khayat said.
Price never claimed any credit for the philanthropy in which he was involved, though. So the Richard Price Courage and Compassion Award was established. Every year, Ole Miss football coaches bestow the award on the rising senior lineman who has shown true courage and unusual compassion on the team.
The friends and teammates of Price also funded a scholarship to be awarded along with the plaque given to the senior lineman. Even after decades during which the players on the 1958-1960 football teams went their own ways, they stayed connected. They were very special years at Ole Miss, and the bond remains strong.
“It was like Camelot,” Price said. Ole Miss had only about 3,000 students, but the campus was full of good men and beautiful women. Oxford was a small town with only a few establishments, so most students simply stayed on campus for lodging and eating. It created a camaraderie and spirit he has a hard time describing.
“It was the best time of our lives,” Price said. “Sometimes I forget I actually played football in those years.”
One football memory in particular, though, is hard to forget. In 1959, the Rebel team lost only one game, he said. But they never should have lost it.
It was Halloween night, and No. 3 Ole Miss was playing No. 1 Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. With 10 minutes left in the game, LSU player Billy Cannon caught a punt on a bounce on the LSU 11-yardline and ran the remaining 89 yards to score. The Rebels were unable to get back down the field and lost 7-3.
While Ole Miss later gained vengeance against the Tigers by winning 21-0 in the Sugar Bowl that year, Cannon went on to win the Heisman, and what might have been voted the no. 1 team of the century became the no. 3 team of the century.
The memory still haunts him to this day, Price said. He was the first person to miss tackling Cannon on the legendary Halloween Night Run. However, it’s still just a memory, and he can remember it with a laugh. Family comes, children and grandchildren come, and life happens.
Price is father to two girls and now grandfather to two boys. It’s his family and God that come first in his life, he said. Ole Miss comes next. But it’s the order of his priorities that set him apart in his friends’ minds.
“(Price) demonstrated an extraordinary courage, commitment, dedication, and loyalty,” Khayat said of Price when announcing the Courage and Compassion Award. “As an adult, he is a successful business person, a leader in his church, a loyal alumnus of Ole Miss, and a friend to thousands. He and his wife, Leigh, live their faith by generously and compassionately caring for others.”
Story by Natalie Richardson // Photo by Daniel & Steph Photography