Despite all that went on in the fall of 1969 at Brainerd High School regarding conflicts over some black students’ dislike of the playing of “Dixie” and the Confederate flag, it did not overshadow a memorable football season.
And the biggest game of the year for the undefeated Brainerd Rebels football team came on Oct.
11, when the squad played also-unbeaten Central.
It took place just as Brainerd was in high turmoil following various incidents and meetings after a racially motivated fight had broken out the Friday before at home against Riverside, when some black students tried to destroy a Confederate flag.
As a result, one could say the stars in the sky aligned with the “stars and bars” in the Brainerd stands and the stars on the field when the Central game was held.
Then-Brainerd senior Tom “Tommy” West, one of the standout receivers on the Brainerd team, and David Everett, a Student Council member who went to the game as a fan, said the atmosphere that day was quite unusual.
“It was electric. We did not sit down the entire game,” recalled Mr. Everett, who said 6,000 or more fans attended.
Mr. West remembered that the game definitely had a different feel, even before it started. “The team bus had about six police cars ahead of us and behind us,” he said, referring to the extra security due to the tensions of the last week. “It was crazy.”
He had also heard that the first Rebel-flag-draped car in the caravan of Brainerd fans arrived at East Ridge High’s Shanks Field across Brainerd and Ringgold roads before the last one had pulled out of Brainerd High.
Of course, it was more than just a big game against Central High, which since the mid-1940s had the top public school football program in Hamilton County under E.B. “Red” Etter.
The still predominantly white Brainerd school also felt it was facing another foe that day – a threat to its school symbols and heritage due to the wishes of a number of black students that the situation be changed. Many of the blacks felt the words in “Dixie” and the symbolism of the Confederate flag were offensive to them and brought back memories of the days of slavery, so they showed their displeasure by boycotting pep rallies and by taking other actions.
Although many of the former white students today say they understand the perspectives of the black students better now that time has passed, they were admittedly caught off guard in 1969. They saw the protests simply as an affront to the school traditions they loved, not paying much attention to their meaning outside of Brainerd High, where enlightenment was starting to take place regarding racial justice.
“This was pretty much the start of things,” said Mr. West, a white student. “Now we all understand it, but back then we didn’t understand it.”
Because of all that was going on, the emotions naturally carried over to the football team, and support for the squad by the mostly white student body at the time. The football Rebels of 1969 had some black juniors and sophomores, but its senior group was all white.
However, Brainerd had already graduated black football players, including Robert Walton, whose positive experience playing for coach Pete Potter as a pioneer is one of the inspiring Brainerd High stories from that time period.
Because of all the problems of the week before – including when outside supporters of both the black cause and the pro-Confederate cause showed up at school and student leader Mr. West was asked to try and calm everyone down with a bullhorn – the game was moved to East Ridge on a Saturday afternoon.
East Ridge in recent years was in the news over problems with the condition of its football stands, but in 1969, the facility was more than able to host a big crowd.
It was supposed to be at Brainerd the night before, but city school officials thought that might be too risky in light of the problems of the previous week. Exactly why East Ridge was chosen might require further investigation.
Mr. Everett recalls that the two teams had played at UTC’s Chamberlain Field as the final game in recent years, since it was a big rivalry along with Brainerd and City. And during the previous two years, Central had easily beaten Brainerd.
Central High was undergoing its own changes at the time. It had just moved out to Highway 58 to its new round school, and, while no one knew it at the time, its rich football tradition was in its final stages of glory. Coach Etter would head to Baylor School the next year and enjoy success there, while Central, which became a neighborhood community school, would only sporadically vie to be among the best teams in town after that.
And the last days at the old Dodds Avenue school had also not ended well for Central the previous spring, as it briefly had its own racially related disturbances and incidents.
For a couple of hours that warm Saturday afternoon, both teams were able to focus just on football. Although, Rebel flags were everywhere in the Brainerd stands and many in the student body no doubt saw the game as a chance to exert some emotions over support for the status quo and what they saw as simple school pride.
In the game, Brainerd scored late in the first quarter on a Joe Collins 3-yard run that had been set up by an outstanding 25-yard catch by Mr. West from quarterback Freddy Rohrdanz. And in the second quarter, Mr. Collins scored on a 25-yard reception from Mr. Rohrdanz.
And then there was the first-team defense – including eight two-way players -- which limited Central to only 22 yards rushing, although the paper pointed out that quarterback Randy Goins and running back Henry Radford were slowed by injuries.
As a result, Brainerd, which was ranked seventh in the state, was able to use its two big offensive plays of the first half for a 14-0 upset victory over the No. 2-ranked Purple Pounders and remain undefeated.
Sam Woolwine in the next day’s Chattanooga News-Free Press wrote that the Rebels had been “keyed to a fever pitch by the controversy surrounding their school symbols,” and said that plus the defense helped in the victory.
The situation at the school was definitely front and center. Quarterback Rohrdanz, who would go on to be Mr. Brainerd High School, shouted as the Rebel faithful stormed the field after the game his support for the Brainerd administrators in having to deal with the school’s sudden crisis.
“You tell everyone that we won the game for the school administration and for principal Ray Coleman,” Mr. Rohrdanz said with emotion.
Brainerd coach Potter, who would go on to face coach Etter plenty in the 1970s and ‘80s after he became coach of McCallie in 1973, focused simply on football, saying it was the sweetest victory in which he had ever been involved as a coach.
Mr. West remembers the sheer joy after the game. “We were just ecstatic, it was such a big deal,” he said. “It was an incredible game and, after the game, I’ve never seen anything like it. There was partying and celebrating.”
Mr. Everett remembered that about 100 students gathered at head cheerleader Cindy Smith’s new home later that day. It was simply a fun time for teenagers to celebrate an accomplishment by their high school, regardless of the internal struggles.
“The whole senior year we supported each other in every endeavor,” he said. “Our class and almost the entire school supported each individual, and it is still that way.”
Ed Nelson, a standout senior linebacker and fullback for Brainerd, still vividly and positively remembers that Central game, despite injuring an ankle that put him out of commission the next game.
While he was obviously aware of the situation with the racial turmoil, he wanted it to just be about football that game.
“Part of me knew what was going on, but part of me also wanted to know this was the game of the year and our fans were there in force,” he said.
“The school pride thing I’m not ashamed of. That is what mattered to me. I was 17 and selfish. I wanted the focus to be on the football team. I didn’t want anything else to get in the way. I just wanted to play football. Looking back, that’s pretty self-centered and I was putting my blinders on.”
About the game itself, he recalled that getting to play in the afternoon was an experience the players had not had since junior high.
“It was different,” he said. “And the fact we were playing it at a neutral site was unusual.”
He jokingly remembered making a mistake as the game captain in the pre-game coin toss by electing for Brainerd to kick into the wind, but after that everything went the Rebels’ way.
He remembers Vernon Pauls making a big tackle on the opening defensive play for Brainerd, and Ken Stansell making some plays as well. And, as does Mr. West, he recalls the soft-spoken noseguard Kenny Smith throwing up at one point during the game due to nervousness, causing the usually disciplined Rebel defense to get a movement-before-the-snap penalty.
Mr. Nelson said he was also able to blitz and sack Central behind the line twice, but on the third time the lineman had adjusted and stopped him and caused his ankle injury that slowed him the rest of the game.
He said the blitz was also part of a special defense coach Potter had been working on all season. “We knew what he was saving it for,” he said.
Mr. Nelson said he enjoyed playing for the respected coach Potter, who had grown up in the Red Bank area, and that the coach always focused on the task at hand, which that day included beating an archrival.
Greg Walton, a junior that year, was one of the few blacks on the team and also liked playing for coach Potter. In fact, he credits his still-trim and developed athletic figure in his late 60s to what he calls the Pete Potter effect.
“His strengths were physical toughness,” he said. “You did a lot of working out and lifting weights and working on mental toughness.
“He would challenge you to run a play and he didn’t tell you how to run it. And when you would make a mistake, he was on you.”
Mr. Walton also enjoyed having coach Potter in the required class of biology.
“He was a man’s man,” he said. “He was the kind of coach who taught you how to be a young man.”
In part because of coach Potter and the general experience of playing a team sport, a camaraderie existed on the Brainerd team in the fall of 1969 that went beyond race and the racial issues that were so much at the forefront of the school.
Mr. Walton said those social politics definitely did not carry over to the football team, even though he was admittedly one of those students who did not support the Confederate flag and the playing of “Dixie,” as he saw them as an affront.
“The politics behind the (Rebel) flag came from the other students,” he said. “It didn’t originate with the players.
“We were athletes and didn’t get involved with politics. And the football team, we are still great friends today.”
While the happy and blissful situation would continue for the 5-0 Brainerd football team, a subsequent story in this series will show that peace and calm and collective contentment would continue to remain an elusive goal for the school for months.
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To see the previous entry in this series, read here.
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