By Dana Delgado
Gilbert Vickers is not of those legendary athletes that is immortalized in record books, remembered for unforgettable sporting feats or whose name has lived eternally in Liberty Hill High School lore for unbelievable athleticism.
Although, playing during some lean athletic years in the early 1960’s with only 12 teammates on a winless Panther football squad spanning his three varsity seasons, Quarterback Vickers would pilot his team to a much celebrated win ending the school’s 55-game losing streak.
Vickers’ distinction far exceeds any game performance or accolades. He has touched lives, hundreds of them and a hundred times over with unyielding, selfless commitment and at great sacrifice of time and effort.
“That’s his character,” said Vickers’ son, Shawn Vickers, who currently is serving on the LHISD school board. “He’s always been a positive role model and has gone the extra mile and given lots of time to the community, but especially to youth. He means a lot to our family and others. Everyone in the community was treated like family.”
As a trained and experienced U.S. Navy medical corpsman, Gilbert Vickers was involved in the early days of the town’s volunteer fire department as it was getting organized. He taught Red Cross classes and assisted with automobile accident victims as a volunteer. Realizing that treating accident victims triggered horrific war memories from his experiences in Vietnam, he set his sights on assisting athletes with their injuries and was willing to do whatever was need to support students.
Vickers began studying sports medicine with the intent of volunteering at LHHS. He attended several sports clinics including one conducted by then athletic trainer at the University of Texas Spanky Stevens, and others at San Antonio and Texas Tech University. In 1972, he began taping athletes, males and females, in a variety of sports, as well as organized a much-needed community football league for students in second through sixth grade with only two teams.
His involvement in the youth league ended after five years after it had been established and expanded into a regional program, but Vickers would continue his duties as volunteer manager and volunteer “trainer” for the next 21 years along with a host of other duties including driving the bus and assisting with building maintenance.
Whatever the school needed, he was there for the kids while holding down a regular job at various places including Meridell Achievement Center, a Liberty Hill residential treatment center where he also coached football.
“I just wanted to do something for the kids,” he said.
But Vickers wasn’t just teaching football skills, taping ankles or helping athletes work through their various injuries, he was nurturing athletes, encouraging students and shaping lives.
Charlie Braun, one of the high school’s time-honored and successful football coaches, remembers the impact Vickers had on the program.
“He was a vital part of building the football program at Liberty Hill,” said Coach Braun. “He worked tirelessly, mostly on a volunteer basis, doing whatever needed to be done including in the summer, and never asked for a penny. He was our volunteer trainer while I was coaching, using his background as a medic, to keep the athletes healthy. He was great with the kids and the kids loved him.”
“Hopefully, I was a positive influence,” Vickers said.
Coach Braun added that Vickers “provided the program with his sons who not only were great athletes and extremely smart, but also had exceptional work ethic that Gilbert had instilled in them and provided excellent leadership for the teams.”
Vickers’ oldest son Trevor, a 1985 graduate, played fullback for the Panthers, while Shawn from the class of 1989 was the LHHS quarterback and went on to play at Concordia University. Twins Kenneth and Kevin followed playing tight-end/defensive end and quarterback respectively. Kevin continued his football career at Tarleton State University winning All-America honors as a quarterback and was subsequently named to the Tarleton Athletic Hall of Fame. Tragically, Kenneth suffered a massive heart attack and died in 2012. Bryan, the youngest son, excelled at free safety and wide receiver.
“I coached them all when they were young,” Vickers said of his sons. “They would sleep in their uniforms when they first started in second grade and put their helmets on as we were going out the door to the game. Watching them play has been my greatest reward.”
Now come the grandchildren, all 10 of them, who continue to keep him happily busy running from sporting venue to activity venue virtually every day of the week. Grandchildren from Shawn and Kaylene Vickers include Kelsie, Mikayla and Tyler who is the current Panther varsity quarterback.
Reese is a grandson from Kenneth and Julie Vickers while Shaylin, Carissa, and Reese are all grandchildren from Kevin and Shayla Vickers. Also, grandchildren Madison, Ella, and Julia are from Bryan and Mandy Vickers.
“My wife and I have been blessed with a great family,” Vickers said. “And we are all real close. Somehow my sons and I got real lucky because we all married up.”
“He’s been amazing,” said son Shawn Vickers. “We are the way we are because of them (his parents).”
Born in 1943 in Taylor, which had the nearest hospital to his parents’ and grandparents’ farm on the North Gabriel, Gilbert Vickers was just a regular country kid, the youngest of six siblings, playing serious marbles in first grade during recess. In second grade, he was shining the shoes of rich oilmen in West Texas charging 50 cents a shine and raking in $50 a week when his family relocated there.
In junior high, he developed what would become a life-long love for football on the playing fields of Cypress-Fairbanks outside of Houston. He was a fullback in a system that had a long storied winning tradition.
“Those coaches really wanted to be successful so they stayed after you,” said Vickers. “They cared and were always checking on you.”
When his grandmother died, he found himself back in Liberty Hill for his sophomore, junior, and senior years. Instead of playing on a Houston area team that hadn’t lost a game in three years, he ended up playing on a roster-thin Liberty Hill team. He would experience victory only once in his final three years against some tough teams from Florence, Hutto, Leander and powerhouse Pflugerville who had a 55- game winning streak.
“It was not frustrating to lose,” Vickers said. “I just learned to love winning by losing.”
That lone win came in Cherokee in his final game as a senior.
Vickers scored on a wild 65-yard scamper and teammate Douglas McCleod added the extra point for an 8-6 decision ending a 55-game losing streak.
“I was quick, but not fast,” said Vickers. “Everyone said I ran like I was running for my life. I was. It sure was fun to participate.”
A year later in 1963, he married his high school sweetheart, Cleo Cox, class valedictorian and a standout basketball scorer who is often considered among the elite Panther athletes of all time.
“Our boys’ teams weren’t very good back then, but our girls’ basketball teams were outstanding,” recalls Vickers. “Cleo was a great scorer, unstoppable.”
This year, the couple celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
In 1965 in only their second year of marriage, Vickers entered the Navy at the height of the Vietnam War. After completing basic training and extensive medical instruction in surgical techniques, Corpsman Vickers received his orders to Vietnam. His September 3, 1967 arrival is very clear.
On his second night, his base was bombarded. Over the next two years, he would be a part of 220 helicopter missions to assist and evacuate injured soldiers.
“I cheated death many a time as a corpsman,” recalls Vickers whose missions frequently came under fire.
One mission in particular sticks in his mind and was documented by Scripps-Howard Staff Writer Don Tate and published on the front page of the Memphis Press-Scimitar newspaper in Memphis, Tenn., on Dec. 12, 1967.
Responding to a desperate call for help from a trapped reconnaissance patrol in Vietnam, Vickers dangled from a spinning cable from a helicopter in search of the wounded. Under fire, the tree-top flying chopper dropped him in the middle of the fire-fight far removed from friendly forces. Wounded and surrounded by hostile forces and in the midst of a fierce bombardment from offshore U.S. gunships, he evaded capture and dragged and pushed himself some 38 miles through the jungle including crawling along the bank of a mucky river filled with slime and leeches until he reached help. The event would earn him a Purple Heart.
Corpsman Vickers was all too happy to return home to Liberty Hill in 1969, but Vietnam would haunt him for “a long while.” With the help of his wife, Cleo, he worked through the seemingly unending nightmares.
“My wife was real patient,” said Vickers. “We sat and talked about it and talked about it until I felt better.”
Vickers may have cheated death in Vietnam, but in Liberty Hill he and the town have been rewarded with the riches of community and the blessings of family because of his sacrifice and willingness to serve. For that, he is champion.