On Wednesday night, about 20 people in their mid-to-late 60s and early 70s gathered at Mike’s Hole in the Wall bar and eatery off Cherokee Boulevard.
The smiles and laughter and camaraderie showed this was obviously a group of old friends having some kind of reunion.
Actually, it was a quickly planned gathering of a number of members of the Brainerd High Class of 1970 and other classes put together with the help of David Everett ’70 on the occasion of classmate Tommy West’s visit from Florida.
“We get together about four or five times a year to drink beer and laugh and tell lies and just have fun,” said Mr.
Everett. “The is probably the biggest crowd we’ve had. We try to make it bigger each time.”
Mr. West, a standout football player and high jumper, also was overwhelmed at the number who had gathered. “This has been fantastic,” he said. “Fifty years has been a long time, but look how many people here who are over 65 and came back to see each other.”
Among the “elder statesmen” attending was Greg Cunningham from the Brainerd Class of 1965, who went on to pitch for Middle Tennessee State University and for the Philadelphia and Cleveland organizations. He was on the roster for some major league spring training games, and played primarily at the AAA level.
But he has not forgotten his Brainerd roots.
“I’ve followed these guys over the years,” he said of his friendships with some of the younger Brainerd students. “Brainerd was a unique school in our time. It was short lived in its heyday, but it was a wonderful place to be raised and to go to school. The whole scenario was so different from today.”
While the reunion that night ended up being all white men attending, at least for the first hour or so, Mr. Everett said they had reached out to some female classmates, and one black male graduate had said he would try to be there.
These younger Brainerd graduates, particularly the ones from the class of 1970, were all smiling this night, but within their minds were no doubt memories of a more challenging time when blacks and whites were in at least perceived conflict.
As has been documented in the previous stories in this series, demands and protests by the school’s small black population over the Confederate flag and the playing of “Dixie” in those early days of integration at Brainerd High brought much conflict.
It ended up being a tense time of confrontation on both sides, and left emotional scars on virtually all Brainerd students at that time.
As an additional look is taken at that school year and football season before the final entry looks at what lessons can be learned, it was obvious some of the people at the bar still think about that time.
“It was just an insanely crazy year because people got in trucks and had a caravan and drove through town with Rebel flags flying and there were fights in the school like in the cafeteria,” said Mike Costello of the class of 1970, who later left and finished at Notre Dame High School.
“Things like that made it kind of a hard year. It was scary.”
He pointed out that Brainerd High for a period had different ethnicities represented – including Jewish people – and that they all had seemed to get along well. And many of the white students simply saw the great heritage Brainerd had as a school and in its sports programs in the 1960s as the Rebels, and were caught off guard when some of the black students wanted to challenge such issues as the flag and the song, “Dixie.”
“There we were, right in the middle of a conflict,” he continued. “It just didn’t seem right.
“We had a lot of friends from every race, color and creed, and we weren’t really against those people. We were all friends. That wasn’t the issue. It was the bigger issue of what was happening.”
Ken Stansell, one of the star former Brainerd football players also on hand at Mike’s, admitted that some of the actions by the white students fighting the changes could have been chalked up to being teenagers.
“When you are at that age, you are immature and do a lot of crazy things that you wouldn’t do when you get more mature,” he said of all the actions like the waving of Confederate flags and other counter-protests over the threats to change. “I don’t think many of us really took it to heart. We were just having fun.”
While civil rights protesters of that era usually believed in pushing for immediate changes to wrongs they perceived, Mr. Stansell believes Brainerd’s ultimate fate of today as a struggling local school could have been different if the situation had been handled differently.
“Brainerd High School could possibly be as great as it used to be, if everything would have slowed down and things would have evolved more slowly,” he said. “It was almost like a hostile takeover, so you had rebellion (by many of the white students) because of that. I think everything could have worked out better in the long run.”
Added Mr. Costello, “It was just an abrupt situation that was imposed on the school.”
Greg Walton, a 1971 black graduate whom Mr. Everett said was going to try to attend the gathering at Mike’s, said a few days earlier over the phone that the efforts to force changes at Brainerd had been planned by a core group of about six black students.
“They said, ‘Let’s meet and find ways to get rid of this symbol’ ” of the Confederate flag, he said.
And they felt that, due to the immediate backlash, the black students had to try and find ways to get the situation resolved quickly in a way where they felt comfortable.
“They had felt intimidated,” said Mr. Walton of the black students’ reaction to all the Confederate themes within the school. “The guys in the band played ‘Dixie’ and they were looking at us, and when we walked out (at a pep rally), we didn’t want to go back in. It was hostile.
“I liked the school, but the image had to go.”
Mr. Walton had played football at Brainerd as one of a somewhat small number of black players on the 1969 team, before he contributed even more as a senior the following year.
Also attending the Mike’s gathering was Vernon Pauls, a standout senior on that team under coach Pete Potter. Mr. Pauls still fondly recalls that season and his teammates.
“I still remember the guys,” he said. “We’re all here tonight and the ones who aren’t, we remember them, too – Billy Clark and Gary Belk. I wish they were here.”
While the school year as a whole was challenging and memorable, the football season was unforgettable as well for more positive reasons, despite some of the conflict spilling over, such as a fight at the Riverside game on Oct. 3.
After the Rebels moved to 5-0 with an emotional win over Central at East Ridge’s stadium as was documented in a past story in this series, it would continue its great run.
On Oct. 17, Brainerd moved to 6-0 with a 34-6 win over Notre Dame at home. Quarterback Freddy Rohrdanz – all 150 pounds of him – starred running and throwing the ball, and was called “sharp-shooting” by sports writer Steve Parker in the News-Free Press. Mr. Rohrdanz also intercepted a pass.
On the receiving end of Mr. Rohrdanz’s passes were Gary Belk, Clinton Palmer and Tommy West, the latter of whom was described as “brilliant.”
Ed Nelson and Joe Collins starred carrying the ball, while Vernon Pauls, Kenny Smith and Ken Stansell stood out for the impressive defense, the write-up said.
This same success would continue for the rest of the year. That included the 16-6 win at home against a good City High team on Oct. 24, a 26-12 win at Tyner on Oct. 30 with the help of 147 yards rushing by Joe Collins, and a 21-8 win at home over upset-minded Hixson and coach Tony Martino on Nov. 7.
In the final game on Nov. 14, the Rebels gave coach Potter his first undefeated season with a 13-0 win over visiting Knoxville Bearden. Cyndy Smith was crowned homecoming queen.
Although this was the first year of the TSSAA playoffs, Brainerd did not reach the playoffs because it did not get enough points due to victories over smaller schools Hixson and Soddy-Daisy.
The schedules had been made out in advance before being able to determine how best to get into the playoffs, former player Ed Nelson remembered in a recent interview.
The 10-0 Rebels were still ranked No. 2 in the state, and Brownsville, which was ranked No. 1, also did not make the playoffs for the same reason. Mr. Nelson remembered that coach Potter offered to play Brownsville in a high school bowl game anywhere, but Brownsville declined.
Today, the old Brainerd players and other graduates certainly don’t decline opportunities, either, to gather and reminisce about the unique highs and lows of that time period, as they did at Mike’s.
“We can be apart for 20 years and run into each other and greet each other like we saw each other yesterday,” said Mr. Pauls.
Amid the tumult of the 1969-70 school year at Brainerd High School, plenty of positive memories were still made, particularly with the football team.
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Among the 1969 Brainerd players, Ed Nelson went on to play for a period at Vanderbilt, Joe Collins played at West Texas State, Freddy Rohrdanz starred at Middle Tennessee State and had a memorable win over UTC, and Kenny Smith, Vernon Pauls and Tommy West played at Tennessee, with Mr. West also participating in the high jump.
Mr. West was at UT about a year ahead of another Tommy West, a tight end from Georgia, who ended up being the head football coach at UTC, Clemson and Memphis.
The Brainerd Tommy West jokingly added in another interview that people often got them confused. “He got all my love letters and I got all his bills,” he quipped.
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To see the previous entry in this series, read here:
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