This picture shouldn't be published. It belongs in a moldy scrapbook in some old man's attic. Its time is done. Its way of life is finished. Even the school these 42 white boys played for a half century ago did away with it. Took it down one day to paint a hallway in the early '90s, and then....
What became of it? Some said it was stowed beneath the auditorium stage and destroyed in a fire. Some said that a black janitor threw it away along with four decades of other team photos from that hallway because no black faces appeared in them. No, others claimed, it was a black principal who decreed that the school's history began the day that all people became welcome there and that no image from its prehistoric past would ever be displayed.
Not even this one, the 1957 Little Rock Central Tigers, the best high school football team in America that year.
This story shouldn't be told. No one wants to hear it. They're all too busy celebrating another group at Central High that year—the nine black kids. Too busy planning their 50th anniversary, building their museum across the street, getting ready for the crowds and the network news reporters and the two presidents, Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton, who will fill the school's front yard on Sept. 25 to commemorate them.
April 8, 2007
No one wants to tell this story. Not even the white boys who lived it. It reeks of political incorrectness. It's sure to be misconstrued. They can't ask you to feel for them: They're Southern Caucasian males on the other side of 65, for goodness' sake. Born and bred not to feel for themselves.
Just 42 of the white faces on the wrong side of the saga of the Little Rock 9.
This is the photograph of today's team. This is the picture that everyone coming to the 50th anniversary wants to see. Forty-four of the 67 players are black. One's a Turk. One's the son of an Iranian. One's parents are from Nigeria. One's a white country boy who hunts ducks at dawn on school days. Another's father is Korean, his stepdad black, his mother white. All playing for a school that owns the second-most state football championships—32—of any school in the U.S.
These kids know the story of the Little Rock 9 by heart. They've seen the plaques honoring them in their school's entry, the benches dedicated to them out front, the statues of them on the state capitol lawn. They've seen films, read books and written reports about what the nine endured so that Central High's team picture could look the way it does today.
But those white boys in that vanished photo, their Tigers predecessors ... who are they? What happened to them that fateful year and the even more wrenching one that followed? Today's team hasn't a clue.
What if Little Rock Central added a wrinkle to its 50th? Imagine if everyone in those two team pictures sat elbow to elbow at dinner in the school cafeteria and tried to understand what happened from both sides, what might be learned.
No, not Hollywood's or history's version. Not what happened to the heroes or the hatemongers, not the black-and-white version. The story of the gray, the people in between, the majority that ends up drifting toward one side or the other and determining history, often without even knowing why. The ones we need to understand most, because they're us—the kids we likely would've been had we grown up white in the '50s in the South—and because we, too, might drift when our moment comes. Just teenagers, so absorbed in their search for love and identity that they hadn't even begun to take stock of the injustices swirling around them, to understand the forces about to sweep them off their feet. Teenagers just hungry to feel part of a group, the one that gave their town its greatest pride: its mighty football team.
Sure, it would be awkward for everyone at first. It's a subject the old-timers barely talked about for years, and then only among themselves. Some haven't set foot on school grounds since everything splintered. But if they pulled up in front of Central High, they'd shake their heads and feel like 17-year-olds again ... because that grand old fortress looks just the way it did back then, when it was on postcards instead of the front page of The New York Times. Two long city blocks of edifice, seven stories of yellow brick and stone, 370 tons of steel, a 1927 castle gussied up in Art Deco and Collegiate Gothic: America's Most Beautiful High School. That's what the American Institute of Architects crowned her.
The ol' boys would be anxious as they walked from their cars, the way the neighborhood's changed. Randy Rankin, the starting quarterback now, would assure them it's not that dire, but ... well, yeah, three of his buddies have been jumped by local thugs after games, and not all at once.
Guess there's a price to be paid for change, one of the kids would say. To which Bill May and his old teammates would glance at each other, shake their heads and begin to tell their tale.
Bill May blinked as he approached the school. Sawhorses ... soldiers ... cops ... guns? At Little Rock Central, the lord and master of all high schools in Arkansas? One public high school, up till that year, for all the white kids in a town of 100,000, the same school most of their parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents had attended—a city suckled by the same behemoth. A greenhouse for National Merit scholars, future Ivy Leaguers and Hollywood hotshots, for baseball Hall of Famers Bill Dickey and Brooks Robinson, for more state titles in team sports than any other high school in the continental U.S., for track teams that went 15 years without a defeat ... and, oh, my Lord, the gridiron. Bill May and his teammates didn't just dominate Arkansas football in the '50s—their second string could've done that. They took on the beasts of the South on Friday nights, beat the best that Texas, Tennessee, Louisiana and Kentucky could muster in front of crowds sometimes as big as the ones at the University of Arkansas.
But now the crowds were right in front of Central High, staring at 270 Arkansas National Guardsmen who ringed the building that first week of school in 1957, wondering whether those troops would let nine black kids become the first in the South to integrate a city school. Some soldiers had just graduated from Central High.
None of the Little Rock 9 showed up the first day, advised by school district officials to stay away. On the third day 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford tried to crack the fortress, she alone figuring that those soldiers had to be there to uphold the 1954 Supreme Court ruling mandating an end to segregated schools. Wrong. Under orders from Governor Orval Faubus, the troops crossed their bayonets, closed ranks and turned her away.
Faubus wasn't preventing integration, he insisted. He was preserving the peace, he said, because "blood will run in the street" if blacks attended Central. The crowd surrounded the girl, spitting and yelling, "Lynch her.... Drag her over to this tree!" Lord knows how she got home that day.
Bill? Hell, the all-state tackle was just trying to make it through the moil for the team's 8 a.m. preclass skull session for the season opener, just a few days away, in the Tigers' bid for a sixth straight state championship. Bill was like most of his teammates: white kids who'd grown up so separate from African-Americans—even the wealthier players with black maids in their homes—that they were surprised to learn that any black kid would even want to go to their school. White kids taught by elders that every human being was a child of God to be treated with respect, but don't touch the railing on the escalator at Blass Department Store because colored people had touched it.
Bill, at last, was wide awake. The superintendent of the school district, his dad's friend Virgil Blossom—under death threats for being the architect of the integration of Little Rock's schools—was sleeping in Bill's bedroom to throw his enemies off the trail. Good for Blossom, who had survived an assassination attempt a few months earlier, but not for Bill. Blossom snored.
He realized, too late, that he was approaching a police checkpoint, that students' cars were being searched and he'd never be able to explain that the brass knuckles and blackjacks in his trunk had been purchased by him and classmates on a lark during a school trip to New York City the previous spring, then left in his car and forgotten.
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.
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....
Miss West stared in disbelief as Johnny and his friend rose. "Don't do it," she said.
They did it. They walked out of the room, out of the building. The segregationists cheered.
Johnny felt his legs begin to move faster and faster, hurrying to get away. Two hours later the crowd would be cheering even louder: The black kids were gone. The mob's assaults on the police line had grown so fierce by high noon that the cops had smuggled the Little Rock 9 out of Central High in fear for their lives.
Johnny, who dreaded facing Miss West again, wouldn't return to school for a week. He'd tell today's team what he's tried to teach his own children, about the importance of knowing themselves and standing up for their values. About finding himself, all these years later, going overboard to boom greetings to black strangers, about buying whatever the black salesman at the front door's selling. About five decades of regret.
Quadel Foreman needs to take a walk to the auditorium with Buddy Tackett. Quadel would understand when Buddy began explaining what it was like to be the fat kid whom the boys would taunt and the girls would look right past. He'd get it when Buddy spoke of his epiphany in junior high, howling and hoisting barbells and gulping protein shakes, converting angst into dominance, lard into iron, a garage into a forge. Turning into the most powerful kid at Central, the all-state lineman who could pile-drive the seven-man blocking sled the length of the field alone.
Quadel would understand, even though he was 50 years younger and black, because Buddy's story was his story. It was this room—Central's magnificent auditorium—where both of them yearned to reap the recognition of who they'd become. This theater where Central still holds its pep rallies, leaps and roars for its football team; this stage where Buddy and Quadel longed to be anointed The Man.
Buddy would point toward the seats, empty now, and remember sitting here, shaking his head that morning: Sept. 25, 1957. It was two days after the Little Rock 9's attempt to integrate the school had ended in chaos. Two days before the big game against Baton Rouge Istrouma. Buddy's father had just dropped him off at school. They'd hesitated for a moment outside, blinking. There was a howitzer and a tank, machine guns mounted at the corners of the football stadium and on the school's roof. A helicopter churned overhead as a platoon raced up and down Park Street with fixed bayonets. Sweet Jesus. Overnight, President Eisenhower had sent 1,200 paratroopers from the Army's crack division, the famed Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne, to occupy the school and quell the mob.
Buddy's father had looked at him. "You think you ought to go in there?" he asked.
"If I don't," said Buddy, "Coach Matthews will be at our house this afternoon."
"Guess you better go in," his father said.
Nearly 700 students, in fear or in protest, hadn't gone in, a third of the student body missing at that morning's hastily called assembly. Fifty-seven hours before the Tigers' showdown, their auditorium was hushed, their stage empty.
The silence deepened as Maj. Gen. Edwin Walker and his swagger stick came down the aisle and mounted the stage. "You have nothing to fear from my soldiers, and no one will interfere with your coming, going or your peaceful pursuit of your studies," he vowed. "However, I would be less than honest if I failed to tell you that I intend to use all means necessary to prevent any interference with the execution of your school board's plan."
General Walker meant business. Outside the school a segregationist who refused to disperse got his head bloodied by a Screaming Eagle's rifle butt. Moments after the assembly the Little Rock 9, sheathed by 20 paratroopers, did just what Quadel would reenact dozens of times a half century later, picturing white people screaming at him: walk up those steps and integrate Central forever.
When the phone call came to Central just before lunch, saying that the school would be blown up at noon and flushing the entire student body into the yard, nobody giggled or horseplayed the way they had when the National Guard was there. It was a whole new ball game now, Buddy would tell the kids, and it was only beginning. Because soon his school would go from a battlefield to an empty building, its football team all that would remain of it, and then the team, too, would begin falling apart....
Over nine black kids, he'd keep muttering, in a school of two thousand. Hell, no, he wasn't for integration any more than most of his team was, but for God's sake, if the adults had just stayed out of it, the kids would've accommodated the change. No one consulted them, even though it was they who would pay the price.
And no, Buddy knew, that price couldn't be stacked up against the one paid by those nine black kids, or their parents and grandparents, but if healing was everyone's goal, neither price should be forgotten.
Quadel would get his moment in that auditorium, the one he hungered for all those years when the kids called him Fatty. He'd be summoned to the microphone at a pep rally last fall, introduced as "the big man on campus" to a roof-raising roar and asked to make a speech.
Buddy never would. His eyes would blink hard as they took one last sweep of that auditorium. Then he'd drop his head and rub away his tears.
Now the kids would begin to unravel a mystery. Why do they hear so much from coach Bernie Cox about Tiger Pride—the two words that symbolize their glorious tradition, the two words they bark when they break their huddles, and the title of the book written by Bernie's son, Brian—but rarely see that tradition in the flesh? Now they'd begin to understand why so few of the old-timers return to reap and resow it.
It won't be easy for the old men to explain their absence. Most could drive to campus in the time it takes to get a haircut. They'd hesitate, fumble for words, until someone at last would say it: "It's just not the same school." Running the risk that that might be taken as racism, when yes, it may be, at least in part, but no, it's not what they mean. Running the risk that these kids are too young to understand that a man carries a snapshot in his head all his life of his school days, and what it's like to walk through a doorway and have that snapshot shredded. To suddenly confront a new one in the same setting, full of people who look and dress and talk so differently from him, a snapshot that only makes it harder for him to be sure that the one in his head, fast fading with age—who he was—ever even existed....
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?
Ralph: We are going to have to have integration sometime, so we might as well have it now.
Wallace: Would it make a big difference to you if you saw a white girl dating a Negro boy?
Ralph: I believe it would.
Ralph: I don't know. I just was brought up that way.
Wallace: Do you think Negroes are equal in intelligence, and physically, to white people?
Ralph: If they have had the same benefits and advantages, I think they're equally as smart.
When the interview—which first appeared in the New York Post—was reprinted in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Ralph's relatives feared for his life, and Ralph turned to Little Rock's prosecuting attorney for protection when the media hounding continued. Who can say when the course of a life begins to turn? The boy who was class president every year from fourth grade on, the one whose peers were convinced he'd be governor one day and perhaps even president, would end up deciding to have nothing to do with public life.
Now Ralph could start pointing to his old teammates, turning first to center Joe Matthews—no relation to the coach—who had a police car parked outside his house at night because of threats against his father. That was Central's principal, Jess Matthews, who lost 20 pounds and turned to sleeping pills that year because of the stress.
Then point to big John Rath, the starting tackle whose dad's company was being boycotted because of the stance he'd taken on the school board in favor of integration and whose sister was being called a "n----- lover" and bumped in the halls at Central because she'd befriended one of the blacks.
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.
Somehow the 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.
Just before 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 incident, expelled.
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.
At graduation, 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.
Because that's when the front door shut to everyone.
This picture should never have been made. It's a photo of an impossibility: the football team of a high school that didn't exist. It's the team picture of the '58 Tigers.
It would perplex today's team when Buddy pulled it out, because most have never heard the last part of the story. Yes, the '57 Tigers were proof of sport's capacity to insulate a young man from his world, to seal him in a bubble where he and his teammates could achieve perfection even as that world unraveled. But Buddy and the other juniors on that team, the ones who returned in '58, can teach the kids a deeper truth: The bubble's an illusion.
No, it's not a true team picture, the kids will notice. It's a collection of individual photos cobbled together.
It's the best the Tigers could manage that unimaginable year.
Just before school began Governor Faubus got this big idea, the only way he could prevent a second year of integration. He closed Little Rock's public high schools—even the all-black one, Horace Mann—leaving nearly 4,000 kids to fend for themselves. So strong was the segregationists' fear of black people that he and the city's leaders were willing to damage their own children.
Wait a minute.... If you don't have a high school, it dawned on them, you can't have a high school football team. To preserve one sacred way of life—racial separation—they would have to sacrifice another: Friday night football. They'd have to shut down the best team in America and its 33-game winning streak.
Wait another minute.... Who said you can't have a high school football team just because you don't have a high school? Canceling football, Faubus decreed, would be "a cruel and unnecessary blow to the children." O.K., then, everyone agreed: Play ball!
Sure, Buddy would tell the current team, it seemed like a blast, at first. Everyone kept figuring that sanity and school would be back in session any day. Central's teachers began delivering classes on TV, but few players bothered to watch. Most did worksheets for two correspondence courses offered by the University of Arkansas, then went to practice in the shadows of their ghost school.
They won their first two games ugly, stretching the streak to 35. Then the noose tightened. Their friends began melting away, snatching the final vacancies at schools 20, 40, 60 miles away or moving to relatives' homes far away to salvage their school year. Pressure mounted on the players. How could they walk out on each other and the Streak? But how long could they hold out?
On the eve of the city's day of reckoning—a public referendum on integration and the fate of their high schools—the Tigers traveled to the nest of their nemesis: Istrouma of Baton Rouge. Buddy and his boys will never forget that suffocating night on that gumbo of a field, rain-soaked and reeking with chicken-manure fertilizer. The first series, quarterback Fallon Davis sloshed right and threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown. In that flash, it seemed, all that the Tigers had lost finally registered. Their unforgettable coach, Wilson Matthews, had left before the season to take an assistant's job at Arkansas. Their depth had been eroded by the opening of a whites-only school, Hall High. Their support—the bonfires, the pep rallies, the 16 busloads of fans that trailed them on road trips—was gone too. Istrouma humiliated Central 42–0 to end the streak.
Players dropped to the locker room floor, sobbing. As the team slunk back into town the next day, the people of Little Rock were voting nearly 3 to 1 to keep their minds and high schools closed.
The exodus began the following week. Tackle Bubba Crist approached coach Gene Hall alone, determined not to break down. Playing at Central was the finest thing in his life, but he couldn't bear the thought of redoing his senior year. He landed at a hastily opened private school with no football team, his scholarship chances gone, and ended up in a cardboard-box plant for 37 years, tearing up both knees pushing palettes, suffering three crushed vertebrae when stacks of boxes crashed on him, and so full of regret that he'd leave his football letters to gather dust in a closet even after his wife had them framed.
"Bullet" Bob Shepherd, Central's starting left halfback, departed. Josh McHughes, the backup who'd had a track scholarship to LSU dangled in front of him, if he could pare a few tenths of a second off his high hurdles time, went too, tears streaming as he took one last look around the stadium. At Mabelvale, the school he transferred to 10 miles away, three football players surrounded him and told him that Central big shots weren't welcome on their team. His athletic life and track scholarship dreams were done.
The Tigers got gut-punched at home by Fort Smith 19–6—their first in-state loss in seven years. The exodus became a mad scramble, 26 players departing the next week, most of them too stunned or ashamed to bid farewell ... just disappearing. The opposite of integration wasn't segregation. It was disintegration.
The diehards, led by Buddy and fullback Steve Hathcote, dug in and won their last four games with subs and B-teamers before shriveling crowds. Davis, the senior quarterback who'd transferred, forsaking the town's dream assignment, watched the Thanksgiving finale from the stands, crying his eyes out.
The Tigers jumped and screamed when they won on that bitter-cold Thanksgiving to finish 8-3-1. "Then it hit us," running back Jack McClain would tell the kids. "What do we do now? No school, no practice, no games. Can somebody answer me? Coach Matthews? God? Where do I fit in this world?"
There would be a hush in that cafeteria now. Sixty-seven teenagers wondering if the answer to those questions could be read in the furrows on those old faces ... or if it was better not to lift their eyes and search for it.
Four members of the '58 team—Buddy, Hathcote, Rath and guard Ken Zini—would receive scholarships to Arkansas and make the jump in the middle of their twisted senior year, but none would be prepared academically or emotionally, and none would last more than three semesters. Many of the others never got high school diplomas and never knew how to explain that on résumés or job applications.
They'd wince for the rest of their lives when people asked the most ordinary question: Where you from? What high school did you go to? "To have people look at you when you told them," Bubba Crist would say, "like you were damn hatin' heathens...."
The turning point would come in '59, when segregationists on the school board fired 44 teachers at the closed high schools for suspected sympathies with Negroes. At last Little Rock had had enough. It held another referendum and purged the school board segregationists, which led to the reopening of schools the following September and the readmittance of a handful of African-Americans. By then Faubus had been reelected to a third term—to be followed by a fourth, fifth and sixth—and had finished No. 10 in a national poll to determine the Most Admired Men in the World.
The absurdity of it all avalanched on Hathcote years later when one of his daughters came home from the military with a black husband and began handing him biracial grandbabies. "Integration was jammed down our throats," he'd tell today's team. "It would've happened anyway if they'd just let it happen." He'd pause. "Then again ... maybe it wouldn't have."
What would the old-timers have thought if they'd been there when the 2006 team photo was snapped? If they'd heard the black cornerback telling the darker special-teamer that he's so damn black that he'd show up in the photo as just a number and a black dot, telling the Korean-American he looked like a Mexican, then begging the Iranian's son not to go terrorist and blow the whole roster up. If they'd heard the blacks busting on the white kids for being crackers, and the crackers replying, "Don't make us hang you."
If they'd seen kids named Jahon and Andochini and Kalif and Myron and DeArius and Jim and Batuhan all running the same bleacher steps that they had run a half century ago, and Kevin Nichols, the African-American ringleader of all the racial jesting, asking Patrick Conley, the white tight end with the 4.3 GPA, "What's the square root of these bleachers?" and Patrick cracking back that black kids might know that if they didn't sleep through classes, and everyone huffing and guffawing.
What would the old-timers think if they returned to this cafeteria at lunch and felt little racial tension in a school that's just more than half black, but watched the students separate by habit to eat with kids of their own color, as three football players—Quadel Foreman, Genesis Cole and Bryant Miller—shuttled between the two groups, trying to build a bridge.
How would they respond when white wide receiver Will Carson said, "I don't know how you could be any good at football without black people." Imagine the conversation that could trigger about stereotypes and assumptions, how they can build barriers or be turned into humor to tear barriers down. And how often, on both sides, they're dead wrong.
The old Tigers? They might assume that today's Central High—its neighborhood wracked by poverty and one of the state's highest violent crime rates— couldn't be one of America's elite academic institutions. But Newsweek last year rated it the 20th-best high school in America.
The new Tigers? They'd assume that the fastest and strongest guys in the room would be theirs. But Bruce Fullerton's 10 flat in the 100-yard dash and Buddy Tackett's 520-pound deadlift would smoke 'em all. They'd assume that Gen. Edwin Walker was an integrationist. But he was arrested for sedition four years later as the ringleader of riots attempting to prevent a black man, James Meredith, from entering the University of Mississippi. Why, they'd even assume that they'd be seeing the old Tigers here again on Sept. 25, when the world shows up on their front lawn for the big anniversary. But wrong again. No, some of their predecessors would tell them as they bid farewell. Too many years of feeling stereotyped, ignored, forgotten and stigmatized.
This get-together would be it, the only chance for 67 teenagers to hear the story. The one about how a bunch of old white guys, best damn football team in the United States, got an inkling of how it feels to be black.