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should never have been made. It's a photo of an impossibility: the football
team of a high school that didn't exist. It's the team picture of the '58
It's the best the Tigers could manage that unimaginable year.
Just before school began Governor Faubus got this big idea, the only way he could prevent a second year of integration. He closed Little Rock's public high schools--even the all-black one, Horace Mann--leaving nearly 4,000 kids to fend for themselves. So strong was the segregationists' fear of black people that he and the city's leaders were willing to damage their own children.
Wait a minute.... If you don't have a high school, it dawned on them, you can't have a high school football team. To preserve one sacred way of life--racial separation--they would have to sacrifice another: Friday night football. They'd have to shut down the best team in America and its 33-game winning streak.
Wait another minute.... Who said you can't have a high school football team just because you don't have a high school? Canceling football, Faubus decreed, would be "a cruel and unnecessary blow to the children." O.K., then, everyone agreed: Play ball!
Sure, Buddy would tell the current team, it seemed like a blast, at first. Everyone kept figuring that sanity and school would be back in session any day. Central's teachers began delivering classes on TV, but few players bothered to watch. Most did worksheets for two correspondence courses offered by the University of Arkansas, then went to practice in the shadows of their ghost school.
They won their first two games ugly, stretching the streak to 35. Then the noose tightened. Their friends began melting away, snatching the final vacancies at schools 20, 40, 60 miles away or moving to relatives' homes far away to salvage their school year. Pressure mounted on the players. How could they walk out on each other and the Streak? But how long could they hold out?
On the eve of the city's day of reckoning--a public referendum on integration and the fate of their high schools--the Tigers traveled to the nest of their nemesis: Istrouma of Baton Rouge. Buddy and his boys will never forget that suffocating night on that gumbo of a field, rain-soaked and reeking with chicken-manure fertilizer. The first series, quarterback Fallon Davis sloshed right and threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown. In that flash, it seemed, all that the Tigers had lost finally registered. Their unforgettable coach, Wilson Matthews, had left before the season to take an assistant's job at Arkansas. Their depth had been eroded by the opening of a whites-only school, Hall High. Their support--the bonfires, the pep rallies, the 16 busloads of fans that trailed them on road trips--was gone too. Istrouma humiliated Central 42--0 to end the streak.
Players dropped to the locker room floor, sobbing. As the team slunk back into town the next day, the people of Little Rock were voting nearly 3 to 1 to keep their minds and high schools closed.
The exodus began the following week. Tackle Bubba Crist approached coach Gene Hall alone, determined not to break down. Playing at Central was the finest thing in his life, but he couldn't bear the thought of redoing his senior year. He landed at a hastily opened private school with no football team, his scholarship chances gone, and ended up in a cardboard-box plant for 37 years, tearing up both knees pushing palettes, suffering three crushed vertebrae when stacks of boxes crashed on him, and so full of regret that he'd leave his football letters to gather dust in a closet even after his wife had them framed.