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Blindsided by History
Gary Smith
April 09, 2007
Fifty years ago segregationists trying to keep black students out of Little Rock Central High inadvertently broke up one of the country's greatest football dynasties
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April 09, 2007

Blindsided By History

Fifty years ago segregationists trying to keep black students out of Little Rock Central High inadvertently broke up one of the country's greatest football dynasties

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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 Wilson Matthews.

But Coach 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 record.

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 Panther."

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 ... complicated....

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.

Coach Matthews 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.

Maybe football 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.

Coach Matthews 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.

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