Informal scrimmages brought community together
Published 12:21 am Sunday, February 23, 2014
It’s taken for granted now that black and white athletes in Warren County play sports together. Take a trip back in time just a few decades before in the 1950s and ’60s and it wasn’t the case.
It was a different landscape then. There were no playoffs. No classifications. There were bowl games, like the Shrimp Bowl and the Red Carpet Bowl. The Big Eight Conference ruled over all and the winner of the championship game, pitting the North champion vs. the South champion, was considered the overall state championship.
The biggest difference was the split on racial lines.
In the city of Vicksburg, there was Cooper High for the white kids. Rosa A. Temple for the black kids. And there was the Catholic school, St. Aloysius. There was a divide that asked to be bridged between the two public schools that would one day be one.
Athletics provided that bridge. Even though the black and white athletes were shorn apart by segregation, there was one venue where the two groups came together to do what they loved best: compete. Pick-up football games on Sundays at various venues became a fixture starting in the late 1950s and continued until around 1970, with the city’s basketball players joined together in various gyms.
It was a preview of a bright future just a few decades away.
According to Alonzo Stevens, a former Temple star, Alcorn State alum and coach who later ran Vicksburg High’s program before retiring and being elected to the Board of Trustees for the Vicksburg Warren School District, they were the best games in town. Three schools came together for one display of athleticism and unknowingly, built a bridge.
“Just thinking about those days puts a smile on my face,” Stevens said.
There were stars aplenty, like Cooper High and future Ole Miss star Richard Price, former all-state running back Jimmy Winstead from Cooper and St. Al’s Rocky Nosser. Temple’s Bobby Huell and Willie Moore. They always had mutual respect for one another and refused to let the mores of the time get in the way of competition.
The games were especially intense in the last days of segregation, before the Vicksburg schools integrated. Moore, who was a 5-foot-6 speedster, and some of his friends dropped by St. Aloysius’ Balzli Field. Some of the players they’d only read about in the Vicksburg Post were there, just throwing around the football. When they found they were welcome, something special began with just a chance meeting.
“Since we lived in different communities, there was no way we’d have known about these guys except for what we read in the paper,” Moore said. “The newspaper made us curious about each other. We were athletes, and we just wanted to compete. Find out who’s best.”
In an age before cellphones, word of mouth spread like flames through kindling. All that was guaranteed that at the appointed time and a place, there would be a gathering of players ready to show off their skills. At first, they played at Balzli Field. Then the Temple kids invited their new friends from Cooper and St. Aloysius to come over to the now-defunct Ken Karyl Park for a game.
The turnout was amazing and the game was afoot.
“We asked them if they wanted to come over and play over there,” Moore said. “It was a way for us to get together and get to know each other.”
Moore remembers that it wasn’t just high school stars who turned out to play on any field they could use. Vicksburg native Eddie Ray, who played running back at LSU and played for the Buffalo Bills, Atlanta Falcons, San Diego Chargers and Boston Patriots, showed up for a game one day. The buzz was palapable. Moore played opposite Ray and caught three touchdown passes from his high school quarterback Robert Sims, who was the only signal caller to lead Cooper to back-to-back state titles. Ray, who was a 6-foot-2, 240-pound wrecking ball, played quarterback. Despite his ability, according to Moore, to flick a pass 70 yards downfield, Moore jumped the routes and intercepted three of his passes.
“I remember he said ‘That little guy is everywhere!’” Moore said with a laugh. “It was an honor playing against him.”
The coaches of Cooper and Temple were aware of the games. Cooper High coach Gene Allen, who was one of the founding fathers of the Red Carpet Bowl, never saw one first-hand.
But he heard plenty of stories from his players.
“I never saw one, but the kids would tell me about the ballgames,” Allen said. “They went on for a good number of years. They’d play together on open dates, on weekends after seasons.”
Moore feels that if the schools wouldn’t have been segregated, the collective talent would’ve overwhelmed the rest of the state. He won two state titles at Temple, the last of which was the final Black Big Eight Conference title.
“The tradition Vicksburg enjoys is unrivaled,” Moore said. “It was a football city with all of those championships. I really believe we could’ve won 10 to 15 state championships if we would’ve used all of that talent.”
Stevens believes that the games, played just for fun and the thrill of competition, helped bring the community together.
“I have no doubt about that,” Stevens said. “The mutual respect we had for each other, we got alone. We were just athletes in competition. It was what we loved to do. I know it made Vicksburg a better place. Athletics is our common ground. There was no black, no white.”
The best part of it for Moore, who now lives in Jackson, was the action taken by all to make it happen. It was all about initiative on the part of some kids who just wanted to play football together.
“It was a great thrill, a historic thing,” Moore said. “We were just children playing a game. It shows that people can come together if they try. We had respect for each other. And we didn’t have be told to do it.”