Bob Shepherd, Central's starting left halfback, departed. Josh McHughes, the
backup who'd had a track scholarship to LSU dangled in front of him, if he
could pare a few tenths of a second off his high hurdles time, went too, tears
streaming as he took one last look around the stadium. At Mabelvale, the school
he transferred to 10 miles away, three football players surrounded him and told
him that Central big shots weren't welcome on their team. His athletic life and
track scholarship dreams were done.
The Tigers got
gut-punched at home by Fort Smith 19--6--their first in-state loss in seven
years. The exodus became a mad scramble, 26 players departing the next week,
most of them too stunned or ashamed to bid farewell ... just disappearing. The
opposite of integration wasn't segregation. It was disintegration.
The diehards, led
by Buddy and fullback Steve Hathcote, dug in and won their last four games with
subs and B-teamers before shriveling crowds. Davis, the senior quarterback
who'd transferred, forsaking the town's dream assignment, watched the
Thanksgiving finale from the stands, crying his eyes out.
The Tigers jumped
and screamed when they won on that bitter-cold Thanksgiving to finish 8-3-1.
"Then it hit us," running back Jack McClain would tell the kids.
"What do we do now? No school, no practice, no games. Can somebody answer
me? Coach Matthews? God? Where do I fit in this world?"
There would be a
hush in that cafeteria now. Sixty-seven teenagers wondering if the answer to
those questions could be read in the furrows on those old faces ... or if it
was better not to lift their eyes and search for it.
Four members of
the '58 team--Buddy, Hathcote, Rath and guard Ken Zini--would receive
scholarships to Arkansas and make the jump in the middle of their twisted
senior year, but none would be prepared academically or emotionally, and none
would last more than three semesters. Many of the others never got high school
diplomas and never knew how to explain that on r�sum�s or job applications.
They'd wince for
the rest of their lives when people asked the most ordinary question: Where you
from? What high school did you go to? "To have people look at you when you
told them," Bubba Crist would say, "like you were damn hatin'
The turning point
would come in '59, when segregationists on the school board fired 44 teachers
at the closed high schools for suspected sympathies with Negroes. At last
Little Rock had had enough. It held another referendum and purged the school
board segregationists, which led to the reopening of schools the following
September and the readmittance of a handful of African-Americans. By then
Faubus had been reelected to a third term--to be followed by a fourth, fifth
and sixth--and had finished No. 10 in a national poll to determine the Most
Admired Men in the World.
The absurdity of
it all avalanched on Hathcote years later when one of his daughters came home
from the military with a black husband and began handing him biracial
grandbabies. "Integration was jammed down our throats," he'd tell
today's team. "It would've happened anyway if they'd just let it
happen." He'd pause. "Then again ... maybe it wouldn't have."
What would the
old-timers have thought if they'd been there when the 2006 team photo was
snapped? If they'd heard the black cornerback telling the darker special-teamer
that he's so damn black that he'd show up in the photo as just a number and a
black dot, telling the Korean-American he looked like a Mexican, then begging
the Iranian's son not to go terrorist and blow the whole roster up. If they'd
heard the blacks busting on the white kids for being crackers, and the crackers
replying, "Don't make us hang you."