ABILENE, Texas (KTAB/KRBC) – With Super Bowl LVII quickly approaching, KTAB/KRBC exclusively sat down with former Abilene Christian University football legend, Cleotha Montgomery on his journey to West Texas, and to the top of the football world as Super Bowl XVIII champion.
When you pass by Anthony Field at Wildcat Stadium on the Lunsford Trail or Ambler, the first things that catch your eye are the large, black and white banners featuring some of ACU’s football greats.
On the far left, the first player you’ll see is Wilbert Montgomery, a star running back for the purple and white (1972-1976) whose retired number, 28, can be found on the concrete walls lining the interior of the football stadium.
Wilbert Montgomery played eight seasons in the National Football League for the Philadelphia Eagles and Detroit Lions. He was a 1996 inductee into the College Football Hall of Fame, as well.
However, on the opposite end of the press box, you’ll find another banner. This banner honors his younger brother, Cleotha.
“My brother Wilbert was a year ahead of me, and we made a pact that we were going to go to OU or Nebraska,” Cleotha recalled.
The Mississippi brothers grew up playing sports. In fact, they were high school All-Americans in baseball, track, football, and in basketball.
Pushing one another to be better, Cleotha said that sibling bond even took its place when deciding on where to play college football.
Cleotha was a year behind Wilbert, who had college scholarship offers from Oklahoma, Nebraska, Jackson State, Abilene Christian, and others. While both of their paths led them to West Texas, that was never the goal.
Jackson State wanted Wilbert to sign early his senior year of high school, as per Cleotha. The only kicker, no pun intended, they wanted him to play behind another running back named Walter Payton. Wilbert did not want to be a backup running back and pulled out of his commitment.
As the account goes, Wilbert began making calls and receiving no answers from his other scholarship schools, except Abilene Christian University head coach, Don Smith, who was watching film in his office on a Saturday.
It was that moment that changed the trajectory for the Montgomery brothers for good. Cleotha saw his brother go to Abilene and thought he’d be going to Oklahoma alone, until his mother made other plans.
After some convincing from mom, Cleotha committed to Abilene Christian and the rest is history.
“When I came to Abilene it was one of the best three or four decisions I made in my entire life,” Cleotha said with a small, honest smile.
An All-American receiver and running back, a top five receiver in the country, as well as the fastest guy on the field – if you ask his former teammates. Cleotha Montgomery racked up 2,104 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns in his career as a Wildcat, along with helping lead his team to a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) National Championship in 1977.
By all accounts, Cleotha was on track for greatness, and was considered to be a second or third round NFL draft pick.
“But I was playing intramural basketball, and I twisted my knee pretty bad,” shared Cleotha.
It was just weeks before NFL pro scouts were coming to watch the Mississippi speedster before the draft. While Cleotha’s 40-yard dash times were elite, a bum knee took a significant chunk out of his time.
Regularly running a 4.2 40-yard dash, Cleotha said he ran with a sore knee and slowed down when he hit the 30-yard line. He was clocked at a 4.7 40-yard dash, which is what the scouts put down for the 5-foot-8 wideout.
Cleotha would go undrafted and was close to giving up his dream of playing professional football and pursuing a career in business.
“My college roommate, Johnny Perkins had gotten drafted by the Giants the year before, along with Wilbert. They came to me and convinced me to come in and give football another shot,” Cleotha said. “Meaning, that you can always get back in the business world, but you don’t want to have any regrets four or five years later and you didn’t play professional football.”
“Cle” Montgomery found himself in the National Football League, playing for the Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, as well as the Los Angeles/ Oakland Raiders.
However, Cleotha said he recalls the pre-season when his career finally took off. As he told the story, the Denver Broncos brought him to training camp and he had a preseason, remembering in his last game with Denver returning a punt 75-yards, as well as having an 80-yard run.
Cleotha found out after the game, that he wouldn’t be making the team and wanted out. The Broncos, wanting to keep him on the roster, tried sneaking him through waivers, and was later claimed by the Los Angeles Raiders. He said it was where he was meant to be.
“They said they were going to build the team around me because of my speed,” explained Cleotha. “But when it was our turn to pick, a Heisman trophy winner, Marcus Allen, was still on the board, so they took Marcus.”
Marcus Allen, a future NFL Hall of Famer, took over in the backfield, and slotted in at wide receiver, another Hall of Famer in Cliff Branch.
The Raiders knew they had something special with young Cle and kept him around as a running back-wide receiver hybrid. That decision eventually paid dividends for both parties.
After battling an injury in the 1983-1984 season, all his hard work paid off when the Los Angeles Raiders made Super Bowl XVIII against the Washington Commanders (formerly known as the Washington Redskins). The Raiders came out on top, 38-9, and this is what Cleotha said about playing in the game:
“I couldn’t believe that Nike was going to pay me $35,000 just to wear their shoes for the game,” he laughed. “It was a surreal feeling, and I couldn’t believe we were playing in the game because then, that is mostly every current player former player’s dream is to get to the Super Bowl and win it.”
Alongside football legends like Marcus Aleen, Cliff Branch, Jim Plunkett, and Howie Long, Cleotha Montgomery was able to hoist that trophy.
Now, nearly 40 years later, he said he holds those memories close, remembering the locker room stories and comradery with his teammates like it was yesterday.
However, he never forgot where he came from, and still returns to the campus of Abilene Christian University, where it all started for him, even though the campus is a little bigger and the new stadium is a little flashier.
Even at 66 years old, and with his playing days well behind him, when asked what he thinks his 40-yard time would be now, he smiled and replied, “I’d say probably a 4.8 or 4.9.”
His response showed that there was no doubt in his mind that his wheels are running just fine. Montgomery was later inducted in the ACU Hall of Fame, as well as served on the ACU Board of Trustees.