Small Town Ohio: High School Football, 1965

I’ve been doing some deep cleaning the last several days, and among the many things I uncovered was an envelope from my mother’s stuff which contained my high school football memorabilia. She saved stuff that I haven’t touched in over 45 years! There were pictures, newspaper articles, and individual score sheets on each week’s individual and team performances. There was a special award for my receiving the team’s Mayhem Axmurder Award for 1966- given to the “meanest and most effective” defensive player. I played tackle and I made a bunch of them that year.. I guess.

So I was the 1966 Mayhem Axmurderer of my high school football team. I got to keep the jersey which affirmed that. Yes, I know:

Good. Lord.

Among the (many, many) other papers were several prep sheets. These were write-ups about the coming game. They covered particular players from the other team, the kind of offense they ran, and included special plays which the coaches had put together to be used against that team. The cover page of the prep handout was a hand drawn cartoon and an initial pep talk written by the coaches. (Note: this was the days of blue mimeograph and I don’t think the coaches typed, so the prep sheet was handwritten, before it was run off on the mimeograph machine. Those of you who are my age will understand that I held these particular papers to my nose just nowto see if they still had that special mimeograph smell. They did not.)

Anyway, this particular prep sheet was about a team from Youngstown which we were playing that week- Youngstown North. Let me quote some of the coaches “motivational” comments:

“North has been knocked out 64 straight times, and plans to get off the canvas against us. Anyone who has been knocked out that many times is bound to have a weakness, which they do. On many occasions they have beat themselves through faulty execution and mistakes.”

Of course the same thing can be said of the Dallas Cowboys or any sports team, but this was 1965, so there is more.

(If you are easily offended, stop here. Really. I should tell you before we go on that Youngstown North was an almost-all African-American team, although at that time, we knew them as an all Negro team. And all of our team members were white. The “glass jaw knock out” you see in the motivational picture above reflects a very real stereotype of the time: even the toughest black guy had a glass jaw, some thought, and taught, and believed.)

Continuing:

“Gentlemen, there is no alternative in the game this week. We must WIN it. There is too much shame connected with losing it…Everyone knows why North is getting beat. They are predominately low intelligent colored people. They can’t learn many things, and what they do learn they have trouble executing it very well.

“There is no doubt about it, some of them have good muscular strength and speed..but we know that it takes another very important element- BRAINS. This is where we can get our advantage…

“We must beat them or be put to tremendous shame.”

The coach was right- even now, I still feel tremendous shame, though it’s not the kind of shame he thought it would be. I tell myself that it was 1965, and it is 45 years later. But I know how the institutional racism I grew up with has knocked at the door of my consciousness over the years. What bothers me are the times when it manifested itself through me and I wasn’t aware of it. I’m certain that has happened any number of times.

I’m not really angry at the coaches or other adults who passed along this system of exclusion to the following generation, as much as I pity them. As Martin Luther King Jr. stated often, the civil rights movement was (and still must be) about freeing all people of their wrapped-chain attitudes and the crippling weight of judgmentalism. I pity those handicapped by such lies and I feel sorry for myself and so many others who have never been able to completely shed the imaginary but inflicted veil stretched over our fields of vision.

And what of the young men of Youngstown North? Across years and space, across a different country and an always brand new culture, I can say “I’m sorry.” But those are just words- useless, pale, impotent, nice-sounding words if I do nothing to back them up.

So I’ve tried. I don’t think there’s an iota of any of this shit (and that’s what it is) in my own children. They were raised in the South where the flavors of racism were and are different than they were in ’65 Ohio, but that I detect nothing mean about their attitudes, exclusionary about their relationships, or narrow about their love for others, tells me that their mom and I did some things right in this regard.

But I’ve experienced the outward and visible kinds of racism in the last several years, after decades of not experiencing it. The use of the ‘n’ word, the telling of really awful race-based jokes, and the overt attempts to re-establish institutionally racist principles among some persons and groups in state and federal government, are things I thought I would never ever see again. Wow, I was wrong. I have been dumbfounded so many times recently that I have been and know I will have to continue to be a pastoral advocate against and in the face of this ..awfulness. This little essay is a tiny part of that effort; and the the best part of this whole story may be this:

The winner of the game between our small town high school and Youngstown North was..

Youngstown North!!

North broke their 64 game losing streak against us! We discovered there were were no “glass jaws” to be broken. They executed very well and made fewer mistakes than we did. And it looked to most of us, that North had strength, speed, AND brains.

I’ve looked back on the game for many years as one of the best things that could have happened to me as an individual, and I bet there are dozens of my teammates who would feel the same way. There were stereotypes shattered that cool October night and the shattering of stereotypes is always a good thing. I’m guessing- if such things can be quantified- that the sounds of joy on the bus home to Youngstown North that night far outweighed whatever “shame” we may have felt in our hometown locker room.

So I laugh over a genuine soreness in my soul for a time and a place that never should have been. But I also laugh because we were such asses. We really were.

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3 thoughts on “Small Town Ohio: High School Football, 1965

  1. Thank you much for sharing this story. I encourage you to spread it. Unfortunately, too many people have forgotten how ingrained such attitudes were in those times.

    I found you while pursuing one on my favorite hobbies – researching high school sports history, particularly Pennsylvania & Ohio football. I am a ’65 graduate of Erie, PA Strong Vincent HS and many of the predominately “black” teams from Erie City schools ran into exactly the same ignorance when they traveled out of town.

  2. Your post is interesting, but not quite accurate. As a 1965 graduate of North High in Youngstown, I know that while a majority of the players by that time were African-American, there were a number of white players on the team, including another 1965 graduate who was the team’s best running back. The team ended up losing, I believe, 66 (but you may be right about it being 64) straight games (encompassing my whole time at the school), the second longest losing streak in U.S. high school football. I think that they did beat a small county school in the fall of 1965, most likely yours.

    I have no doubt that racism was a part of life in Youngstown in 1965, but it was, as it almost always is, admixed with other class and ethnic prejudices. In 1963, one of North’s best basketball players was an Italian-American, Joey Mascarella. After the North High team upset another city team, the local radio announcer doing the game, Don Gardner (who was also a Latin teacher at one of the other city schools) commented without realizing he still had a live microphone that the losing team had been killed “by that little spaghetti-bender”.

    In fact, North High football always operated at a disadvantage. Playing in an 8-team city high school league, North High had fewer than half the students of the next largest high school in the league. The deficit didn’t show up as much in basketball as it did in football. Pretty much the only games we played that were close were against small schools like Columbiana H.S.– perhaps that is where you played. As an aside, I always loved going to games at Columbiana – they were likely to be close, and you could get the most wonderful hand-cut french fries at the game, served with vinegar or mayonnaise.

    In 1964-65, I wrote for the school newspaper. My first article, on alcohol and fighting at local football games, led to my winning a student journalism award; my second, arguing that our size as a school meant that we were unlikely to be competitive in football and that we should consider dropping the sport and concentrating on basketball and track, led to my dismissal from the paper and a short suspension from school.

    I left Youngstown in 1965 for college and, aside from family visits, never considered going back, but your post has brought back many memories of my time there, and the weekly disappointment whenever late September rolled around.

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