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Billy Vessels
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Refused To Give Up

1952 Heisman winner Billy Vessels

When the University of Oklahoma built a Heisman Park to honor its winners of college football's most famous individual award, it commissioned a sculptor to build statues of Billy Vessels, Steve Owens, Billy Sims and Jason White. A statue of Vessels, the 1952 Heisman Trophy winner, was the first one placed at the park in 2005. When a statue of Owens was added two years later, it was bigger than the statue of Vessels. Instead of building a smaller statue of Owens, the sculptor was told to build a larger version of Vessels. And Oklahoma booster Leon Smith knew exactly what to do with the smaller statue of Vessels. He called Kari Watkins, executive director of the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum. She is a native of Cleveland, Okla., which is also Vessels' hometown. "Leon called me and asked, 'How about bringing Billy back to Cleveland?'" Watkins said. "I told him, 'Let's bring him home.'" The smaller Vessels statue was placed across the street from Cleveland High School. "We thought it would be motivation for the kids if they saw it every day," Watkins said. "People in Cleveland understand Billy was a kid who came from nothing and achieved greatness because he refused to give up." And the folks in Cleveland refused to allow Vessels to fail. When he was attending Cleveland High School in the late 1940s, Vessels was abandoned by his parents. Teachers and classmates didn't even know he was living alone in poverty until he failed to show up for school one day. A classmate was sent to find Vessels, who was living in a dilapidated house. "I think the town decided they weren't going to let him go astray like many in his family," Watkins said. "They just really embraced him that they were going to take care of him." Cleveland residents fostered Vessels while he finished high school. He became a football star at Oklahoma, running for more than 1,000 yards with 18 touchdowns as a senior. When the statue was placed in Cleveland, many of Vessels' former teammates and classmates attended the ceremony. "It was one of the moments where you realized the impact he had on the town," Watkins said.
--Mark Schlabach

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