A Stubborn Mule and Roughshod Rabbit
By Gordon Pynes
I hope the headline got your attention as it leads into one of this year’s Atlanta Athletics Hall of Fame inductees. As a Rabbit football fan this is about an Atlanta High School football player few know about. In fact, I could find no one who could say they had seen him play. Many had heard stories from fathers or grandfathers extolling his talent and achievements carrying the pigskin for the Maroon and White. This is the story of Coulter Hayes “Mule” Kennamer.
According to his younger sister, Carolyn Heldt, an uncle gave Coulter the nickname “Mule” when he felt the toddler was “stubborn as a mule”. The name stuck through his lifetime. It would become very fitting in describing his play as a Rabbit Fullback.
Mule came to Atlanta High School in 1943 as his family moved from Linden. His parents had a grocery store in Linden but in 1942 with World War II ablaze an anti-German sentiment against the family made them decide to move the short distance to Atlanta.
An Atlanta football game program in 1944 lists Mule as a 180 – pound sophomore running back. Although he would get plenty of playing time his major contribution would come in the 1945 and 1946 seasons. Luckily, his Mother kept a scrapbook containing his football feats. Much of what I have learned about his athletic career comes from that source. I also used the 1946 and 1947 Atlanta High Maroon annuals. His daughter Kathy Harper was very helpful and had kept the scrapbook over the years.
As the Rabbits prepared for the 1945 season, World War II was ending with the defeat of Japan. Within days of the first game Atlanta coach Harry Sullivan died. Leonard Cannaday, a new assistant coach was given the Head coaching job. He would remain as the Rabbs head coach for the next 10 years and compile an outstanding record. With Mule Kennamer as the Fullback in the T formation the 1945 team won District before losing to Mount Vernon in the playoffs to end at 8 wins 2 losses. The team was mostly made up of Juniors led by Mule and end Duncan Thompson. Kennamer had established himself as a bruising runner and looking ahead to the 1946 season, Rabbit expectations were high.
Atlanta opened in Texarkana with the Texas High Tigers.and before a huge crowd for that day, lost 14-26. However, the game was much closer as two Rabbit touchdowns were called back. From then on Cannaday’s eleven went to work in what was to be the most productive season before or since in terms of offense and defense. Reeling off nine straight wins, the veteran eleven rolled up a total of 475 points in eleven games and the defense gave up a stingy 66. That total points scored was thought to be the most scored that season by any Texas high school team. Eight of the Rabbit starters had also started in 1945. The offense poured on over 70 points against three opponents and more than 50 on four other foes.
Mule led the way scoring 107 points which included several extra point runs. That means he had probably 16 or more touchdowns. Teammate, Larry Smith, a speedy scatback, accounted for 91 points. His son Stuart Smith has been helpful in passing along Mule stories told to him by his Dad. Quarterback Guy Hughes hooked up with end Duncan Thompson to provide the passing game.
Now for some of Mule’s performances as seen by various sportswriters and the honors he earned. Both the 1945 and 1946 teams won District. Kennamer was an All District choice both years and team Co-Captain with Duncan Thompson. The 1947 annual has him selected as the best Boy Athlete as he also played basketball. Mule punted some and was the kickoff guy. He was described with pile driving power and when hit usually carried his tackler another 3 to 7 yards. Mule’s size was listed at 6 foot one tall with various weights ranging from 190 to 209. For that era in the mid 1940’s he was a big boy. The Rabbit team was said to be massive at an average of 170 pounds per man. (How size has changed).
Now for some tales of Mules’ amazing feats. Best of these is that in a game at old Bivins-Trice stadium Mule received a kickoff, turning up field he quickly ran through the opposing tacklers. Running free downfield a dog on the sideline suddenly joined him and Mule slowed and petted his sudden friend before going on in for the touchdown. (Can you top that one?) Prior to the Bi-District clash with White Oak in Longview a sportswriter felt that there was only one way to stop the Mule – the writer advocated locking the gates and keeping Mule out of the stadium. One scribe described him as a powerhouse who runs roughshod over defenders. Another Mule story says that at times the referees threw penalty flags on him for unnecessary roughness. They seemed to think that he was brutal in running over defenders. He himself was cleated in the face (no facemasks then) late in the season and received numerous stitches. Although it was thought he might be lost for the rest of the season, he missed no time and was back to his smash mouth style,
A Gilmer writer who had seen Mule in the season opener with Texarkana lamented the upcoming game with Atlanta. He predicted the Rabbs would gain revenge over the Buckeyes because Mule seemed unstoppable. He was right as the Rabbits whipped the Buckeyes 33-13.
Writers hailed Mule as one of the greatest runners in Class A East Texas football history. During his three years running for the Rabbs, Atlanta’s record was two District championships with 24 wins, 6 losses and a tie.
Following their senior season in 1946 Mule and Duncan Thompson were sought by several Southwest Conference schools with the Arkansas Razorbacks earning their commitment. Kennamer had been sent two tickets to the 1947 Cotton Bowl game featuring Arkansas and LSU by a Fort Worth banker who was probably a Hog alum. The tickets were worth (including tax $4.40 apiece). I can find no recollection that Mule attended the game which was played in snowy weather and ended in a 0-0 tie.
Mule and Thompson went on to Fayetteville. The Atlanta Citizens Journal headlined their departure with “Hare Today Hog Tomorrow”. Great misfortune happened quickly as the Atlanta Mule went down with a severe knee injury. In 1947 that meant the ruin of a football career. Mule would soon join the Army and serve two years in Germany. Thompson, minus his Rabb teammate, transferred to Tyler Junior College then East Texas State and was a top player at both schools. Kennamer spent most of his adult life working at Lone Star Steel until retirement. He passed away in 1997.
Now over 75 years since Coulter Kennamer “Mule” ran roughshod for the Rabbits he joins other deserving Rabbit athletes as a Hall of Famer class of 2023.