Fred Cone is living proof that recruiting services and all their accompanying hype aren’t what they are cracked up to be. Cone was inducted into Clemson’s Football Ring of Honor in the Fall of 1997, just the fourth Clemson football player in history to receive the honor.
But, he came to Clemson without having played a down of high school football. It is perhaps the most unusual story concerning an athlete’s journey to Clemson. Cone was visiting his sister at Biloxi, MS, far from the haunts of his hometown, an obscure place called Pineapple, AL.
Unbeknown to Clemson Head Coach Frank Howard, Cone’s sister lived next door to Howard’s sister, Hazel, in Biloxi. On years when Clemson would play Tulane in New Orleans, Howard would send Hazel a pair of tickets. “One year she sent the two tickets back,” Howard remembered, “and said she’d like to have four tickets because she wanted to take the next-door neighbor to the game.”
That was in 1946, Cone’s senior year in high school. After Cone graduated, Hazel wrote him a letter. “Brother, I have you a good football player, but he’s never played football.”
Howard recalled that he had told the Clemson registrar to save him 40 beds in the barracks and that Howard would turn in that many names on September 1.
“When Hazel wrote me about Fred Cone, I had 39 names on that list. So I just wrote ‘Fred Cone’ in as the 40th name. And that’s how I got probably the best, if not the best, football player I ever had.”
Cone graduated from Moore Academy in Pineapple and came to Clemson in 1947 as a freshman, but first-year players were not eligible to play then. It was probably best for Cone because he had not played high school football. He needed a year to get aclimated. When Cone became eligible for the varsity in ’48, the football program took on a different air.
In the second game of his career, against N.C. State, Cone had the first of his eight 100-yard career rushing games, leading Clemson to an important victory. He was Clemson’s top rusher (635 yards and seven TDs) that season, a regular season that saw Clemson compile a perfect 10-0 record and an invitation to the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, FL against the Missouri Tigers.
Clemson ended up on the long end of a 24-23 game. Cone rushed for 72 yards and scored twice in the first quarter, but it was his effort on a fourth-down play that was the difference in the game.
Clemson held a one-point lead and faced a fourth-and-three at the Mizzou 45. It was either gamble for a first down, or punt and give Missouri another chance to score. As Howard would say later: “We hadn’t stopped them all day so I took my chance with a running play.”
Cone hit a stone wall at left tackle, but kept digging and slid off a little more to the outside, found a little wiggling room and mustered six yards and a first down at the Missouri 35. Clemson retained possession those few remaining minutes and ran out the clock. Years later Howard said it was the most memorable play of his 30-year career.
Despite a down year in ’49, Cone gained more yards (703) rushing and scored more touchdowns (9) than his sophomore year. But, 1950 was to bring about another, undefeated season.
After the expected win over Presbyterian to start the season, Clemson faced preseason No. 17 Missouri on the road. Cone gained 111 yards in 21 attempts, one of three Tigers over the 100-yard mark that day.
In ’50, Clemson scored 50 points in three games, but Cone saved his best until his last regular season game against Auburn.
Rumor had it that if Clemson scored over a certain number of points on Auburn that the Orange Bowl bid was in its pocket. The South Carolina Tigers took the Alabama Tigers, 41-0. Cone gained 163 yards, two shy of a five-yard average, and scored three touchdowns on the ground, and one on a 28-yard reception.
Icing on the cake this time came against Miami in the Orange Bowl. Although Sterling Smith’s tackle of Frank Smith in the end zone for a safety brought a 15-14 victory Clemson’s way, Cone gained 81 yards on the ground, scored once, punted four times and returned one kickoff. It put a great climax on Cone’s career.
The 1948-50 era is the only time in Clemson history that has seen the Tiger football program record two undefeated seasons in a three-year period. Cone and Ray Mathews were the only common denominators in the starting lineup on those two teams.
Cone’s senior season numbers, 845 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns, were school records at the time. He also set career records for rushing yards (2,183) and touchdowns (31).
A seven-year hitch with the Packers was so impressive that he was inducted into their Hall of Fame in 1974. One year he led the NFL in field goals. He was also a member of the Dallas Cowboys in their first year of existence in 1960. Later he returned to Clemson as its chief recruiter for 10 years beginning in 1961.
After Cone completed his Clemson career, Howard was still stumped as to how his sister could predict that her neighbor’s brother would be such an outstanding football player. “He just looked so athletic jumping off of that diving board,” Hazel said without skipping a beat.
April 18, 2019