Then point to
Bill May, the lineman who--late for a test one day--ran from his locker
carrying a big red plastic tube of pencils that soldiers mistook for a stick of
dynamite, pursuing him into his class and marching him to the principal. Coach
Matthews came on the run, accompanied soldiers in a search of Bill's locker and
was appalled by the tobacco pipe that turned up ... until Bill convinced him
that it was only a prop in his role as an old man in the school play Arsenic
and Old Lace.
How about the
coaches themselves? Every bomb threat, Matthews and his staff had to search the
school for explosives, sometimes in the dead of night. There were 46 that year.
One of his young assistants, Lawrence Mobley--who'd planned a career as a high
school teacher and coach--swallowed so much tension that he quit at the end of
the school year. Good thing that another young assistant, Clyde Hart, wasn't
spooked out of the business. Otherwise, Olympic gold medalists Michael Johnson
and Jeremy Wariner, years later at Baylor, would never have had the world's
best 400-meter coach.
Tigers focused and poleaxed their next five opponents, ran the winning streak
to 29 and then stunned the No. 1 team in Kentucky, Tilghman High of Paducah,
with three first-quarter touchdown explosions by running back Bruce Fullerton.
"The greatest high school football team I've ever seen," gasped
Tilghman coach Ralph McRight after the 46--13 rout.
Thanksgiving the Screaming Eagles vanished, withdrawing to a nearby military
base in case they were needed and turning over the job to the federalized
National Guard. Bad news for the Little Rock 9. Many in the Guard, opposed to
race-mixing, turned a blind eye to the abusers inside the school. Their numbers
are disputed--perhaps 50 white students organized and coached by their parents,
bent on breaking the spirits of those nine black kids, according to some; far
more, easily in the hundreds, some of the Little Rock 9 insist. They got
kicked, tripped, punched, spat on and shoved down stairs. One black girl had
acid flung in her face and her head held under a hot shower. Minnijean Brown
finally lost her cool in the cafeteria when a boy kicked a chair in front of
her. She dumped a bowl of chili on his head, got suspended and, after another
None of the
reported incidents involved the football players. Yes, they could've done more
to help the Little Rock 9; yes, some still regret it. Backup running back Josh
McHughes, a lawyer, still winces when he bumps into Elizabeth Eckford in the
courthouse where she works as a probation officer, still remembers her as a
scared 11th-grader hurtling down the halls clutching her books to her chest as
if they were her only protection in the world, still wishes he could utter the
words he wanted to but didn't: It's going to be all right, Elizabeth. Running
back Ronnie Spann wishes he'd introduced himself to Carlotta Walls in biology
instead of keeping his distance. "But the coach and my parents kept saying,
'Stay out of it,' and the kids who were friendly to blacks got ostracized,"
he'd tell today's team, "and I was a kid just trying to fit in. If I saw
her now, I'd say I'm sorry I didn't hug you and hold your hand. If I could do
it over, I'd be a friend."
What the '57
Tigers did was give their school one clean thing that soiled year, one refuge
from the storm. They demolished Pine Bluff 33--0, stupefied Blytheville 53--12,
then slapped a 40--7 Turkey Day exclamation point on rival North Little Rock
and on the Streak: 33!
How good were
they? Their first string punted once that season. Hicks, the affable end, and
Fullerton were named All-Americas, and The Sporting News chose Fullerton as the
National Player of the Year. Twelve players became college starters, not
including Fullerton, who bumped into a future NFL Hall of Famer named Lance
Alworth at his position at Arkansas. Nine Tigers were named all-state. The
National Sports News Service of Minnesota knighted them as the nation's No. 1
team, and 43 years later they'd be chosen by a scholastic sports magazine as
one of the dozen best teams in the history of high school football.
Hicks made one last contribution. Among a crowd including soldiers, police,
national reporters and Martin Luther King Jr., the player spotted a kid with a
package of eggs ticketed for Ernest Green when he walked across the stage to
get his diploma, and Hicks forced a turnover that saved the school from one
more front-page disaster.
But--remember?--this isn't the Hollywood version. This story can't end with the
All-America saving the day, with the police dragging the villain away, with
Green squeezing his sheepskin and exchanging a poignant nod with Dr. King, and
the front door of Central High open, at last, to everyone.
when the front door shut to everyone.