The '57 Tigers
walked out of their locker room after school on that history-making day, Sept.
25, still snapping on chin straps and tucking jerseys into pants, and stared.
Their practice field had been turned into a campground, helicopter landing pad
and armored vehicle parking lot for the 101st Airborne. "How we gonna
practice?" somebody asked.
appeared, screaming at the Screaming Eagles as if they were ... hell, as if
they were Tigers. "Get these goddam things off this field now!" The
players watched in wonder. The 101st became them, jumping to Matthews's
command, clearing tents and moving jeeps to the end of the field. A helicopter
levitated so fast that the players looked to see if it even had a pilot in it.
"That's how we're gonna practice," somebody said. The Tigers began
preparing for strapping Istrouma.
looking for a place to land, dodged the coach's flying clipboard and veered off
like a spooked dragonfly. "Your sporting blood has turned to piss!"
Matthews would howl if his players so much as glanced at the 101st. But guess
who came to dinner that Friday night? A few minutes before kickoff the
Screaming Eagles marched into the stadium, took seats at the top and began
cheering for the Black and Old Gold.
Late in the
fourth quarter, with Buddy imploring his teammates to hang on to their fragile
12--6 lead, Tigers all-state end Bill Hicks lined up a 31-yard field goal
against the wind, toward goal posts that a day earlier had been antennae mounts
for the 101st's radio communications ... and hammered it through. Central's
students jumped to their feet and traded fist pumps with the 101st. Their
winning streak climbed to 24. The wall between them and their occupiers began
But those other
outsiders? What about that wall? Here's what the kids today don't understand
about the old-timers who didn't scale it: That team never shared an experience
with those black kids. It never saw them run or sweat on a field, joke or laugh
or cheer. Most of the '57 Tigers didn't share classes with them. They flattened
themselves against the hallway walls and watched the nine blitz by inside those
six-man wedges formed by the 101st between classes. They never glimpsed
themselves in those nine kids. Sure, they could have, if they'd been strong
enough to step out of the pack during lunch, ignore all the peer pressure, risk
running afoul of Coach Matthews's edict, chance revenge on their parents'
businesses or on themselves--like one white student who got threatened and had
his car vandalized for talking to a black senior named Ernest Green. How many
on today's team would be that strong? Step right up.
Now you might see
Jerome Raynor, a black defensive back on the '06 team, clear his throat and
admit that he failed to stop classmates from mocking the one male on last
year's jayvee cheerleading squad. Now Aaron Nichols, the black cornerback who
was called "n-----" and ostracized by a roomful of white kids on his
own first day in an English class at a rural middle school just a few years
ago, would confess, "If I was those white guys back then, I'd have probably
stayed away from the black kids. Sometimes you just keep your mouth shut and
stay out of trouble."
Ralph Brodie at
last would speak. He was a starting defensive back on the '57 team, the state
champ in the high hurdles and president of Central's student body ... never
dreaming then that he'd been elected to a lifetime job. Never dreaming that
three months of his 67th year would be consumed by writing letters to the
media, gathering first-person accounts, petitioning the anniversary and museum
planning commissions to let the dinosaurs tell their side of integration.
he'd tell today's team, "no one's saying the Little Rock 9 weren't heroes.
They were. But there might not be a Little Rock 9 alive if not for the vast
majority of the students inside. We could be holding a memorial for lives lost
instead of a celebration if not for those students, teachers, administrators
and coaches in that building who conducted themselves with dignity under
Matthews, God rest his soul, dead five years now from heart failure. How did he
keep 42 players on the same track with all those sparks and cinders flying
around their heads? Starting with Ralph's own head, roiling with anxiety when
he was summoned to the principal's office one day that season, handed a
telephone and told that a reporter who worked for ABC wanted to speak to him,
fella by the name of Mike Wallace. Ralph tiptoed through Wallace's land-mine
questions, trying to convince him that his schoolmates weren't the pariahs
being portrayed to the nation, but not inflame the pariahs amassed outside
their front door.
you say the sentiment [among students] is mostly toward integration or