By Sam Blackman
The record book never gives the complete story.
Although a typical record book lists the accomplishments of former greats in various categories, it never tells of an athlete’s character, integrity, leadership, dedication, or his love for the game and Clemson. Those accomplishments are etched in the minds of his family, friends, and those he or she has touched during their lives.
Former Clemson football great O.K. Pressley is listed in the Clemson record book as the Tigers’ first football All-America player in 1928. The Tiger archives also tell of him being All-Southern in 1928 and captain of the first Clemson football team to win eight games in a season (1928). He was a unanimous choice for All-State honors in 1928, and named to the All-Southern team.
But most importantly, according to the records (memories) of family and friends, he was also an All-America honoree in the game of life.
“O.K. Pressley was like his initials—he was O.K.!,” said Henry Asbill, who was an end on the Clemson teams in the late 1920s.
“O.K. was a dedicated player. He played the game because he loved football and his school. He would help his team play better and harder by encouraging us. He would yell to us on defense, ‘Lets go boys, let’s hold them here, we can do better than that,’ or ‘Good play.’ He never complained if he got hurt.”
O.K. Pressley was the starting center and linebacker on the Clemson varsity football team in 1926-28. Back in those days, a player participated on both offense and defense. He was named Third Team All-America, according to Newspaper Enterprise of America, John Heisman and Walter Trumbull teams.
“He was a great player and person. He gave it his all,” said Bob McCarley, who was a running back on the Clemson teams in the late 1920s. “He was an inspiration to all of us. He played clean and was a good sportsman who represented Clemson well. We all admired him.”
“A better center than Captain O.K. Pressley of Clemson is hard to find,” said former South Carolina head coach Billy Laval.
Pressley was a dedicated family man. As his son Kirk explains,“My father was a great father and an All-American in every aspect of his life.”
O.K. Pressley almost did not make it to Clemson, as his brother Tom tried to get him to go to Wofford with him and play football. Tom got off the train at Spartanburg and tried to convince his brother, but O.K. insisted he needed to go to Clemson. After he had gone 10-15 miles up the track towards Clemson, he almost jumped off the train and ran back to Spartanburg, but something inside of him told him to go on and be a Tiger—thus beginning one of the greatest football careers ever at Clemson.
When O.K. arrived at Clemson, he began playing for the local YMCA team. Too modest to tell of his high school exploits, he remained on the YMCA team until he was discovered by the Clemson varsity coaches.
The YMCA team and varsity would scrimmage quite often on Bowman Field in front of Tillman Hall. He was playing defensive tackle in the first scrimmage, and he was an instant star. At first, the varsity put their best blocker on him, and then they started double- and triple-teaming him, and he was still making tackles.
The Clemson varsity team claimed he was stealing their signals, and Pressley challenged the varsity team to have their huddles at Tillman Hall, then come and play. A star had been found, and immediately he was asked to join the Clemson football squad.
Pressley was not only a great football player, but at times served as trainer, publicist, and friend—anything to help the Clemson Tigers win.
As a trainer, Pressley helped team doctor Lee Milford. “It was in the South Carolina game in 1928 on the opening kickoff, that two of our boys ran together and both of them had severe cuts over their eyes,” recalled Pressley in an 1983 interview. “They could barely see out of them. Dr. Milford came running out on the field and said, ‘We got to take these boys out.’ Those were the days when you couldn’t substitute. If you left the game, you were finished for the day. We didn’t have anybody else to put in the game. I told him to give me some tape so I could work on one while he worked on the other. We patched them up so they could see out of their eyes and remain in the game.”
Pressley acted as a publicist when he kept the Winthrop University campus informed of the Tigers’ exploits, expecially his hometown girlfriend and later wife. Still in pads after a ball game, he would walk to the Western Union Office and send a telegram to her at the Winthrop campus and tell of the Clemson fortunes. Several Winthrop students would wait anxiously for the news of the Clemson Tigers (Back in those days, Clemson was the state’s all-male school and Winthrop was the state’s all-female college. Winthrop was consided Clemson’s sister school.)
O.K. loved his teammates and was willing to share with them as any good friend would. The day before an Auburn game, the players went downtown in Auburn, AL. O.K. Pressley had 50 cents for the trip and bought a banana split for 25c. Pressley insisted on 12 spoons so his teammates could share in this special and unusual treat. It must have had some special power, as Clemson upset Auburn, 6-0. It was in this game that Pressley suffered a severe hand injury.
He was in a great deal of pain on the train trip back home, but he never complained. He would miss the next game against N.C. State, and he was being held out of the 1928 South Carolina contest.
In the South Carolina game, the Gamecocks were driving. O.K. Pressley knew he could help his team, but head coach Josh Cody did not want to play him because of his injury. South Carolina kept driving. O.K. went to Cody and begged to be put in and the coach said firmly “no.” South Carolina was on the Tigers’ 10-yard line. O.K. looked at the coach with pleading eyes.
Cody looked at O.K. and then looked at the field with an approving nod of the head as if to say “please go in and stop the Gamecocks.” Pressley charged out onto the field. On the first play, he tackled the South Carolina player for an eight-yard loss. The next play, Pressley tackled the South Carolina ball carrier for a seven-yard loss. The next two plays, Pressley tackled the Gamecocks’ ball runners for a five- and seven-yard loss respectively. It was probably the greatest one-man defensive stand in the history of Clemson football. Pressley must have given the Tigers a charge, as Clemson defeated the favored Gamecocks 32-0. Both teams came into this game with undefeated records of 5-0.
College graduation in 1929 didn’t end Pressley’s football-playing days in that he entered the Marine Corps and served as a player/coach for some seven years. He went on to become a much-decorated military figure before he retired with 20 years of service to his credit in 1949 and returned to his native Chester County. He taught in the public schools there for several years, and retired to his farm near Chester.
He was honored at Clemson in 1983, over 50 years later, by being inducted into the Clemson Hall of Fame, along with other Clemson greats. Pressley died on September 22, 1984.
Clemson’s first All-America football player continued to be an All-America player long after his Clemson career and made his mark in many people’s record books.
April 22, 2021
April 21, 2021