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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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The coach peered outside. White students were streaming out of school to the applause of the crowd. The black kids were getting bumped and berated in the halls. Matthews sent word through the building: All varsity football players were to leave their classes and report to him--now.

Matthews, an ol' country boy from Arkansas, was shrewd; he'd glimpsed the future. One day, he'd warned his team, "there'll be black boys here so tall they can stand flat-footed and piss in a wagon bed, and you white boys won't even be team managers." But for now the school district wasn't even allowing the Little Rock 9 to hum in the school's a cappella choir, let alone tackle a white boy in front of 12,000 people, so nothing good could come of this.

"Sit down," the ex-Marine ordered as his players filed into a classroom. "Don't look out the window and worry about what's going on outside. If I hear of any of you getting involved in any of this, you're finished with football. You'll answer to me."

No coach on earth could make a player cry, crap and vomit all at once like Wilson Matthews could. Outside, the howling for the heads of the Little Rock 9 grew louder. Inside that classroom the Little Rock 42 sat in stone silence.

That silence is what today's players need to hear about. They understand the outsiders' pain, the loneliness that Minnijean Brown must've felt as she was about to enter her first English class that day 50 years ago. It's what occurs in the minds and hearts of the insiders that the kids need to grasp. It's Johnny Coggins whom they need to gather around, because if they don't understand the ambivalence that can take hold of even the good kids when the moment comes, they too one day might find themselves in quicksand....

Johnny wasn't sequestered with the varsity that morning when Minnijean and the other eight black kids entered Central. He was a junior defensive end on the B team--not yet worthy of being summoned and supervised by Coach Matthews--sitting in Miss West's English class in a corner room nearest to a mob outside begging police to turn over just one of those Negroes, just one to be lynched as an example to the rest. He didn't agree with what they were screaming, he'd tell the kids today. On the contrary, he was discovering that day that he was a closet liberal, that he felt sick for those black kids, embarrassed for the whole human race. And still....

The classroom door opened. Minnijean entered and took a seat in the row next to Johnny, leaving him between the segregationists outside and her. His heart felt as if it would bang its way out of his chest. Three boys stood, flung their books to the floor, screamed at Minnijean and walked out. Miss West, a liberal, stared daggers at them.

The crowd outside urged the rest of the class to leave. Minnijean's dead-ahead gaze and small smile never flickered. The silence grew inside the bedlam. Johnny's mind raced. What if one of those nutballs out there had a gun? What if they branded him as what he was--a sympathizer--for not walking out? One of his best friends turned to him. "Let's get out of here," the boy murmured.

It caught Johnny by surprise. His pal was a straight-A student. The kids who were walking out to protest integration weren't the high achievers or the jocks. Johnny got B's and was one of Miss West's pets. And still....

What you need to understand, Johnny could tell the 2006 team, is how confusing the moment is, if you've never shone a light on your own shadows. Thunderclouds of anxiety, fleeting glimmers of rationalization: Miss West can't teach with this mob outside.... We can't learn anything today anyway.... Nobody can blame you, not in this madness.... Gotta stick with your buddy....

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