Just then, the
Tigers' legendary coach, Wilson Matthews appeared outside the school.
"Leave them alone!" he barked at the police, motioning toward Bill and
the teammates carpooling with him. "They're my boys!" No cop dared defy
Matthews couldn't protect all his brood. Four blocks away Buford Blackwell--the
affable 6'4" defensive end--was crossing the 14th Street Overpass when the
police flagged him down. From his car they pulled six screwdrivers, three claw
hammers--he was doing carpentry for a neighbor--and a gun. It was only an air
pistol, not even loaded with BBs, but that did it. Buford was spread-eagled,
frisked and hauled off to the federal building, emerging with an FBI
The ol' boys,
taking their seats in the cafeteria, would have the kids' attention now. What
would Bill May tell them that he began learning that year about race in
America? "If I was black," he'd say, "I'd have ended up a Black
So ... the '57
team took the Little Rock 9's side? That's what today's team wants most to ask
the old-timers. "They must've been the leaders in this school, the way we
are now," says lineman Quadel Foreman. "Did they step up and be leaders
or were they influenced by what other people did?"
Well, boys, it's
It was a Monday
morning, three days after the '57 Tigers had pulverized Texarkana High of Texas
54--13, to run their record to 2--0 and their winning streak to 23. A federal
judge had just ordered the National Guard removed so integration could proceed.
The Little Rock 9, any moment now, would enter Central High for the first time.
The crowd of segregationists outside, fed by out-of-staters swarming to the
battle's front line, swelled to several thousand, sorely outnumbering the 150
cops. There was no air conditioning. The windows were open. The hate blew in.
"Two-four-six-eight, we ain't gonna integrate!" they chanted.
"Let's go home and get our shotguns!" one man cried.
poked his head outside. A block or two away white men were beating and kicking
a black reporter and chasing another down the street. Matthews reeled back
inside, telling people that it looked like blacks outside were being killed. In
enlightened Little Rock, of all places, where African-Americans had already
been hired onto the police force and quietly allowed into the public library,
parks and zoo. Tigers tackle Bubba Crist, trying to get into school, saw whites
shatter the car window of two black construction workers with a shovel just
before they were dragged out and beaten.
would take the students' minds off the lunacy outside. The morning bulletin
asked everyone to chorus 15 hurrahs to inspire the Black and Old Gold for that
Friday's game against powerhouse Istrouma High of Baton Rouge--the last
opponent to have beaten the Tigers, two years earlier, behind an All-America
named Billy Cannon. The horde outside, hearing those roars and thinking that
the Negroes had somehow sneaked in, went into a froth.
Moments later the
nine were inside, smuggled in through a delivery entrance by police. Some white
kids leaped out of windows and screamed, "They're in! The n------ are
in!" The crowd surged, hurling itself at the police line. Rocks and bottles
began flying at passing cars. Five more reporters and cameramen were attacked;
they looked like Yankees. Women and girls outside sobbed and begged all the
white kids to walk out of school.
used to vomit before every football game, sickened by the faintest whiff of
losing. All at once, four days before his team's biggest challenge, he was on
the verge of losing everything: winning streak, football team ... maybe the
whole school. Five weeks earlier, the day before two-a-days had begun, he'd
gathered his Tigers in the empty bleachers, let it get real quiet, then said,
"Boys, I want you each to go home tonight, get on your knees and give your
soul to God ... because tomorrow your goddam ass is mine." Now events were
loosening his iron grip: What if one of his starters got tangled up in this and
got expelled? His quarterback--future Razorbacks All-America Billy Moore--would
fight a buzz saw barehanded, and his teammates would follow him into the
sawmill. His fullback, Steve Hathcote, was so wild he'd drill you with a 90-mph
fastball in an American Legion game and scream, "Rub it and you're
chickens---!" What about Central's 6'4", 220-pound tackle, John Rath?
His old man, a moderate on the school board, was already receiving threats at
home from bigots.