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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 '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.

Coach Matthews 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.

The helicopter, 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 to crumble.

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.

"Listen," 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 tremendous pressure."

Take Coach 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.

Wallace: Would you say the sentiment [among students] is mostly toward integration or segregation?

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