/The 1970 Forest Bearcats ‘We weren’t thinking about making historywe were thinking about making touchdowns’

The 1970 Forest Bearcats ‘We weren’t thinking about making historywe were thinking about making touchdowns’

FOREST – 50 years ago, the residents of this Scott County community had no idea what they were in for. Because the two high schools were merging into one, they knew that life and school would be different. The formerly all-white Forest High School was merging into the previously all-black E.T. Hawkins High School. Hawkins High School would be the only school. This was happening across Mississippi. The football team led the charge, just as it did in many other communities throughout the Magnolia State. Before we get started, it is important to know that Forest was hugely influenced by football. The Forest High Bearcats were an important Little Dixie Conference power. The E.T. The Hawkins Black Bearcats also had a proud past. One month before classes started, football practice began. The first black and white students in Forest to mix were the football players. It is important to remember that the 1970 season was a season of integration. Gary Risher (a 28-year old Forest native) was replacing Ken Bramlett who had left to take up a job at a college after leading the 1969 Bearcats (10-0-1 record) and the Little Dixie title. Graduation losses had decimated the team. 18 seniors were lost, many of whom would go on college basketball. Risher, who was a former Bearcat, was not starting from scratch but was rebuilding his team and was running out of time. Risher also hired Billy Ray Dill, a former Bearcat, as one of his assistant coaches. They led Forest through spring workouts without knowing if integration would take place the following school year or if it would be delayed until 1971-72. Risher did not let the job of his assistant go. Risher made one the greatest coaching moves of his life when he decided to integrate the students for the 1970-71 school years. He hired James “Bo” Clark (a Forest native who was also the Hawkins’ head coach) as his line coach. It is amazing to see that Risher Clark and Clark grew up in the same area, had been high school coaches in the same small town, and had never met. For the players, it was the same. Lee Dukes, a senior wide receiving back and defensive back, said that he had never known a black classmate or teammate. Clark spoke about his day at Risher’s hiring. He said, “I was working in T-ball games, my Summer job.” “I looked up from my work and saw a man getting out of a pickup truck. He approached me and asked me if I was Coach Clark. He asked me if I was Coach Clark and I responded that I was. Then he introduced myself as the Forest High football coach. He asked me to become his line coach, but stressed that he wouldn’t tell me how to coach. He didn’t want to give me any instructions, but that would be my job. He shook our hands and said, “Let’s get to work.” August was extremely hot and the team practiced twice daily. Perhaps that was what helped the black and white players to come together. They were all in the same boat. Willie Bowie, Hawkins’ wide receiver and kick returner, said, “I don’t want to lie. The first practice was attended by 85 players. That number had dropped to 40 by the start of the season. Bo Clark, the assistant coach of black linemen, didn’t have any black linemen. This was the most bizarre part. His players were all white. Clark recalled his first meeting with his team forty-six years later. “Gentlemen. I am going be your line coach. I will respect you as a player and, in due time, I believe you will come to respect me as coach. Clark was astonished at the bewildered expressions on the faces of all the white players. He repeated his words: “Gentlemen I am going be your daddy far from home.” Clark became a second dad after he blew the whistle. Bubby Johnston was a kicker and lineman on the team. “He was always there to you,” he said. He was always straight with you, even if you tried to talk to him. Risher was a great motivator. He was a young head coach. However, he tried to make football enjoyable for his players. He would introduce a new trick play each week to use in the week’s game. Johnston said, “We players ate it up.” Some of those plays worked. The message that all three Forest coaches were sending was the same: that no matter one’s skin color, they were all united by one goal: win. The first Forest-integrated team ever formed was a success. Bowie, then a junior, said that the team treated each other with respect. We were focused on the business at hand. We didn’t think about making history. We were only thinking about touchdowns. One opponent was able to score more than one touchdown. The Bearcats allowed six points per game while scoring almost 27 points per game. The Bearcats won 27-7 over Neshoba-Central and then defeated Raleigh 47-6. Johnston said, “You could sense the whole community rallying behind the team.” As Little Dixie Conference play approached the Bearcats rallied the community and the new integrated school. This was before Mississippi had state playoffs, and before high school football teams were split into classes. The Big Eight Conference was home to most of the state’s larger high schools. The Little Dixie was the next step. There was intense competition with many football towns including Mendenhall and Magee, Brandon, Pearl. Morton, Morton, Monticello, Morton, Morton, Morton, Morton, and Morton. Many of these conference games were decided in the fourth period by defensive struggles. Brandon lost 6-0 due to a late fourth-quarter touchdown. In a driving rainstorm, Clinton lost 10-6. Joe Buddy Madden (white), and Lee Evans (black), combined to score a late run and win a hard-fought 12-6 victory against Pearl. The 1970 Bearcats were known for their hard-hitting, physical defense. Risher, the coach, would often leave the final words of halftime and pre-game talks to Bo Clark. The words that followed were: “All right! Let’s hit somebody!” David Lingle, a Jackson homebuilder and accomplished golfer, quarterbacked Forest Hill’s team that lost 25-0 to Forest. Forest Hill was a strong team and Lingle ran the wishbone. Lingle was marked because he had the option on almost every play. Lingle chuckled, “I felt like an outcast, they beat me up so much,” Lingle stated. He can still laugh fifty years later. But not then. Jackie Calhoun, a junior Forest defensive end, struck Lingle so many more times that he must have felt sore. Lingle said, “If you handed the ball off, you get hit.” I was hit if I kept the ball. If I pitched it, I was hit. They hit hard. Their head coach approached me as I walked off the field, saying, “Good game.” I replied, “It may have been a good match for you, but not for me.” “I feel like I might be dead.”” The Bearcats won despite Dukes’ injury to his leg. Bowie was able to get more opportunities to catch the ball in open field, which gave him more chances. Risher was called on for one of the trick plays in Newton’s game. Quarterback Mike Massey passed the ball to Bowie. Bowie deflected it to Ken Gordon, who raced up to the Newton 7, to score a touchdown in a Forest win 28-12. Risher called it “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Most coaches would call that play “hook and lateral.” His players loved it. The Bearcats had a 9-0 record going into the regular season finale against Morton. They were vying for the Golden Chicken trophy as well as the North Little Dixie Division title. Morton was leading 7-3 at the end of the fourth quarter despite the outstanding running of Forest’s all conference halfback Billy Thompson. The Bearcat defense won the game. Bobby Latham broke through to block a punt, and Madden took it and ran it in for winning points. Risher also saw Lee Evans (a black defensive back) celebrating the touchdown and dancing with Forest Mayor Fred Gaddis. Risher said, “Old Lee Evans was having fun, dancing all around.” I got him up and told him to get moving and to make the next tackle. He did better than that. To win the league championship, he made multiple tackles in succession. Risher switched from the Bearcats’ Power-I to a Winged T to gain an advantage in the championship game. Risher will never forget that Friday. Robin Risher was his infant son and fell ill on Friday morning. He was taken to Jackson Hospital where he was declared in critical condition. Risher stated, “I arrived at the hospital and everyone was shaking their heads as if there was no hope.” “I was told that I should prepare for the worst.” The Rishers were quarantined as a precautionary step. Risher was still in the hospital as the Bearcats faced Monticello. Risher stated, “I had all of the confidence in the universe in Bo Clarke and Billy Ray Dill.” “There was no panic.” It was not necessary. However, the score was still tied at 10. As they had done all season, that’s when the Bearcats took control. Thompson, who ran for 115 yards, scored 2 fourth quarter touchdowns to secure a 22-10 win. Robin Risher was also diagnosed with meningitis. After being hospitalized for ten days, he would fully recover. The surviving 1970 Forest Bearcats have reached their 60th birthday fifty years ago. At least seven of them have passed away, including Billy Thompson who was a hardworking 1,000-yard rusher and team’s top scorer with 67 point. Bo Clark, the beloved Forest Board of Aldermen member for 37 of his years, has also passed away. Clark died last June. He was 88. Risher is the head coach. After a career at Chevron Oil Refinery, Pascagoula where he was the offensive coordinator for an undefeated 1976 State Champion Pascagoula High football team, Dill has retired. Halftime at the Sept. 18 Forest Florence match at L.O. will celebrate survivors and their coaches. Atkins Field was home to the first ever integrated football team 50 years ago. A new coaching staff overcame many obstacles and achieved perfection. The 1970 Forest Bearcats brought together two communities, two schools, and one proud town.