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Ringing in a new era

Rosa A. Temple High School graduates Alonzo Stevens, left, shows Alvin Taylor a ring similar to those he will be ordering for their championship rings they earned in the 1960s but were not able to get at that time. Temple was twice Big 8 state football and basketball champions in the 1960s. (Sam FreemanThe Vicksburg Post)

[6/9/04]James Clay could always feel the eyes upon him.

The same eyes that would curse him or harass him just for walking down the wrong side of the street were suddenly watching him with awe when he stepped onto the football field.

Hidden behind fences, and looking on from afar, they were white eyes. Clay, a black football player at Rosa A. Temple High School, knew they were there and why they were there to watch one of the best teams in the state.

Temple, Vicksburg’s segregated, all-black high school in the 1960s, was a dynasty during that decade. The Buccaneers finished second in the Big Eight in football in 1964 and ’65 before claiming the 1966 title, then went 38-3-2 from 1967-70. The 1970 team beat New Orleans’ St. Augustine High, the top-ranked team in Louisiana, in the Red Carpet Bowl.

In basketball, Temple won the Big Eight title in 1967, ’68, and ’69, and made a splash on the national stage by playing in several major tournaments. The 1968 team went 29-0.

“I think you could have robbed this town blind when Temple was playing, because everybody was there,” said Vicksburg High football coach Alonzo Stevens, who played at Temple from 1966 through 1969.

Temple was turned into Vicksburg Junior High when schools were integrated in 1973. Now, after more than 30 years, the men who helped build that reputation are commemorating the era by purchasing championship rings. They never got them during their playing days and spent years trying to put an effort together to buy them.

“Rosa A. Temple, in all sports, there’s a mystique about it. I don’t know if it’ll ever come back,” said Clay, who played football at Temple 1964-68 and was part of the 1966 Big 8 championship team. “This is way overdue. But we’re a close-knit group. We invite every other class to the reunions, and we do a lot of fund-raisers together. They support us and we support them.”

Temple’s success was built on a foundation of hard work and dedication. The football and basketball teams had no weight training programs, but practiced well into the evening.

Workouts were strenuous. Each football practice included 17 100-yard windsprints, and too many bearcrawls up the hills of Temple Stadium to count.

“You’d just be so wet, you’d twist your sock and it was like water pouring out,” said Sam “Muleman” Walton, a Temple linebacker from 1964-66.

Walton added that practices lasted from 3 p.m. until midnight, although Clay laughed and said it was more like 7 p.m. Sometimes, however, it could go longer.

Walton remembered one game in which the coaches told the players to run even though they had won.

“We beat Brookhaven 58-0 one night, and the coach told us to take a lap,” Walton said. “They were never satisfied.”

Basketball wasn’t any easier, with four-hour workouts every day. The first three hours usually consisted of conditioning drills, and the last hour was a full-court scrimmage. It was similar to the summer pickup games they played together, which would also last several hours.

“We worked so hard in practice that the game was a reward,” said Marshall Sanders, who played at Temple from 1965-69. “You couldn’t be fat and go through that strength program.”

The tough workouts served a purpose, though, as coaches tried to weed out the physically and mentally weak. It rarely worked.

Competition for spots on Temple’s teams was so fierce that few people ever quit. They knew that it would just open a spot for someone else, and they wouldn’t be missed.

“It was never no fun,” said Alvin Taylor, a basketball player at Temple from 1964-66. “Back then, you have to realize you only had one black school. Guys were ready to do whatever they had to do to make the team.”

The demanding workouts also meant few people played for both the football and basketball teams. The two sports required different kinds of physical shapes, and anyone who tried didn’t last long.

“It’s never that any athlete at Temple was shunned from playing any sport. But we had the type of (basketball) athlete that, by the time we got out of football, they were in shape,” Clay said. “A lot of them tried to go out for the basketball team, but they lasted an hour, hour and a half. It wasn’t about shooting a basketball, it was about physical training.”

In addition to the physical labor, athletes at Temple were required to give their minds a workout. Academic success was celebrated as much as athletic victories, and parents pushed their children to succeed.

Sanders, who later attended Harvard, boasted that he had perfect attendance from ninth grade on. Clay, Stevens and Taylor all went to college, as did many of their classmates.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the success of our teams was the result of what’s up here,” Sanders said as he pointed to his head. “You didn’t have a lot of great athletes, but some of the smartest guys I’ve ever met were on our team. And that was no accident. They cultivated that.”

The emphasis on hard work left little time for athletes at Temple to get caught up in the turbulent 1960s.

Playing against white schools during the segregation era was unthinkable, as was playing in Memorial Stadium, Taylor said. All-white Cooper High now Vicksburg High played its games there, but Temple was relegated to the smaller-scale version across the street from its campus.

Black students weren’t even allowed to walk down the side of the street that all-white Carr Central was on, and black schools would get used uniforms and equipment from white schools.

“It was just a way of life back then. Black folks weren’t going to get anything new back then,” Taylor said.

Road trips were also dicey. The Temple players heard stories of teams that were harassed or attacked for staying in a town too long after a game, and felt the fear creep in on some of their own trips.

Over the course of a few years, though, things slowly began to change in Vicksburg. Black and white students would play pickup games against each other during the summer, and some whites would quietly watch Temple games from the street above the stadium, peering through fences for a look at the Buccaneers.

“We would play baseball together in the summer time. The only thing that stopped us from playing together (in high school) was the ignorance of the era,” Clay said, adding that the atmosphere at Temple didn’t leave time to ponder the injustice of segregation. “We didn’t have time to get caught up in the era. We had to be wrapped up in academics, because we were destined to do whatever our parents had in store for us. We went to Temple to learn.”

Taylor and Walton agreed. Overcoming segregation, exhausting workouts, demanding coaches and near-poverty to accomplish what they and the Buccaneers left memories that are irreplaceable, they said.

“To me, that was the good old days,” Walton said. “We appreciated what life was about.”