My man, Sean Dieterich whose blog, to which i was introduced by the beautiful and intelligent Judy Lewis Gray, wrote a post yesterday about Birmingham. Alabama ‘s Birmingham, not England’s. Sean’s post had nothing to do with football.
i have only been to Birmingham once. i thought it was a big, fantastic city. Of course, it was 1963 and my idea of a big city was Nashville. And it had everything to do with football.
The Castle Heights “Tigers” football team stopped there on the way to Marion, Alabama to play the Marion Institute “Tigers” on a Saturday night.
To be honest, it was a long time ago, and i have wrestled with the time flow of the events. i cannot imagine the team not spending at least one night somewhere. One way had to have taken about seven hours. And we played a ball game Saturday night. So my story is we left on Friday, had lunch in Birmingham, spent the night in Marion, played the game and drove back that night, a long drive. The travel expense budget for sports was not huge. Yet i cannot imagine we drove seven hours, played a game, and returned afterwards. It was a long time ago. So i believe my deductions are correct. Memory fades. But that’s my story, and i’m sticking to it.
The team left Lebanon very early Friday morning on a school bus painted Maroon and drove the two hundred -plus on roads less frequently taken in today’s world of interstate highways. We got to the big city at lunchtime, smack in the middle of downtown Birmingham. To me, it was like another world as i looked down the street and up at the skyscrapers, which were probably four or five stories high. i thought it was the finest restaurant i could imagine. Now, i suspect it was a Shoney’s Big Boy.
The 16th Street Baptist Church had been bombed killing four young “black” girls. Birmingham was a center of the civil rights protest and resistance since the 1950’s. i’m sure i read about all of what was happening and saw a lot on the TV news. But i was so focused on football (and high school girls) sadly. i excuse my lack of attention to this history in we did not stay any longer than required for lunch. i did not pay attention. Now, i wish i had.
We had a nice meal. Of course, being high school football players, quantity probably impressed us more than quality. Regardless, one waitress probably a decade older than any of us was having fun with us. As we were leaving, she spotted this little guy, aka me, amongst the post-graduates and asked if i was the manager.
You see, i had made a road trip, a rather impressive achievement for a sophomore on a team that had an extra year of high school.
Heights belonged to the Mid-South Conference made up of six preparatory schools in Tennessee and one in Rome, Georgia, all of which had that extra year. The bulk of senior-plus students were athletes. The schools recruited athletes to come the extra year. Colleges also sent students for an extra year before giving them athletic scholarships. It was before “red-shirting” and freshman eligibility at the college level. So colleges who saw potential in high school athletes would send them to the prep schools for an extra year of experience, putting on weight, and gaining maturity. Half of the 1963 Tigers 36 players were post graduates.
i was not only a sophomore, i was the smallest player to make the varsity. i topped out at five-six (and never gained another inch) and soaking wet weighed 128 pounds. So i must have been a scat back at wide receiver or something, right? Nope, i wasn’t particularly fast, but i was quick. And Coach Stroud Gwynn stuck with the single wing as long as any coach, Tennessee Vols included. On offense, i was the second string blocking back, a position i did not relish. Now on defense someone my size normally would be considered a defensive back, but again, nope. i was a linebacker, all 128 pounds against offensive lineman who nearly all were well over 200 pounds and many approaching 250 pounds. Go figure.
So how was i the only sophomore to go on a road trip (and i went on all of them that year)? For once my size helped along with not having any common sense or sense of preservation. In practice, i was a member of the “T” team, the players who weren’t on the first string who mimicked the offense and defense of the upcoming opponents. Playing linebacker, i was the only defensive fodder who consistently could tackle Snooky Hughes alone.
Snooky was a 5-11, 195-pound fullback who ran like a freight train except low like a bowling ball. Gang tackling was about the only way the “T” team defense could bring him down and that was not frequent. But i being my size could get lower than Snooky’s battering ram helmet and frequently tackled him by hitting him around the ankles. The coaches were impressed enough to award me by putting me on the travel squad.
The waitress at the Birmingham restaurant was not impressed. Manager. Harump. Before i could explain, Kent Russ, Snooky, and several other PG’s interrupted. They told the waitress they used me as a football. Everyone laughed but me.
And we left Birmingham.
Marion Institute was both a prep school and a junior college. A number of their football players were recruited by the big football colleges. Tennessee four-year high schools did not normally desire to play prep schools with PG’s.To fill out the schedules each season, Castle Heights would play junior colleges and freshman college teams. In 1963, the Tigers from the Hilltop played four conference games, one four-year high school, a junior college, a college freshman team, and a college “B” team, concluding the season with a 5-4 record.
Marion was the most impressive team on the schedule. The offensive line averaged 230 pounds. The star of the team was a tight end at 6-4, 220 pounds who went to Alabama the next year. It was a cool night in the Marion stadium. The field was not in great condition with large patches more the red gritty sand-clay soil than grass. Marion beat the Tigers into the ground physically.
Late in the fourth quarter, someone decided to let some linebackers get a break from the pounding. The score was already 21-7. My name was called. i ran onto the field to play one of the linebackers in the 6-2 defense. i did not know whether to be thrilled, excited, or scared as hell.
Marion had the ball on their thirty-yard line on second down. The quarterback broke the huddle and scanned the defense before getting under center. Seeing me, he called an audible. i might not have had any common sense, but i was smart enough to know the play, whatever it was, was coming at me.
The quarterback dropped back for a pass. The All-American to be tight end, who, to me, resembled one of those skyscrapers that awed me in Birmingham cut across the middle in front of me. The quarterback zipped him a pass. i could not see the ball coming with the running building in front of me, much less get around that building to knock down the pass. The behemoth caught it at full speed. i matched him stride for stride.
An aside: i loved wearing the maroon and old gold uniforms. They felt good. i felt like i was cool. To enhance that coolness, i shunned wearing my sleeves down as they were made to be worn. i rolled them up past my elbows. Cool. But playing in southern Alabama sandy clay, stupid. Really stupid.
i was on the heels of the tight end getting ready to dive at his legs. He decided to straight arm me, throwing his right arm back at the diminutive, pesky gnat chasing him. With no other option, i grabbed his arm. He flicked his arm like i might really be a gnat and sent me flying. They said i must have slid about ten yards in that gritty clay.
Shaking myself off, i felt my arms burning. i looked down and both forearms, supposedly protected by the sleeves i rolled up to be cool, looked like raw meat, bloody from elbow to wrist.
i had slowed the gargantuan enough for two defensive backs to tackle him after a gain of about twenty yards. Marion scored their last touchdown on that drive.
My arms burnt for three days. i never wore my sleeves rolled up again.
And i never went back to Birmingham.