The public high school seasons of 1957 and 1958 produced two of the most exciting teams in Tennessee football history.
The Oak Ridge Wildcats were coached by Jack Armstrong and the Chattanooga Central Purple Pounders were coached by E.B. “Red” Etter. In 1958 either Oak Ridge or Chattanooga had won the mythical Litkenhous state championship for the seventh time in the past eight years. In 1957 the Wildcats were the favorites and came to Chamberlain Field at the University of Chattanooga campus undefeated and as the reigning state champions from 1956.
A crowd of over 10,000 spectators sat through a drizzling downpour to watch the Pounders defeat the Wildcats 8-0. The lighter Oak Ridge squad ran the single wing offense and was handicapped by the muddy surface that affected their ball handling. The teams battled to a scoreless tie through three quarters of play until halfback James “Happy” Mallett took a pass in the flat from quarterback William “Chink” Brown and ran 43 yards for a touchdown with seven minutes and 28 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
With time running out Central sealed the victory when Chink Brown punted the wet ball that floated out of bounds around the three-yard line. With three minutes to play and the ball on the three-yard line, Oak Ridge fumbled and the ball rolled over the goal line for a safety and the game ended with a score of 8-0 and a State Championship for Central.
In 1958 Oak Ridge was undefeated and ranked number one in the polls. Central likewise was ranked number two and was also undefeated with a team that was bigger but slower than the Wildcats. The coach of the Johnson City Science Hill High School squad had played both teams in 1958, losing to Chattanooga Central (21-0) and Oak Ridge (27-0). He was quoted in an article in the Knoxville News Sentinel in comparing the two teams…. “Oak Ridge is the fastest high school team I’ve ever seen. Central on the other hand has a huge mobile line capable of holding its own against anybody in the state.”
On November 14, 1958, approximately 14,000 fans packed Blankenship Field for the rematch between the two undefeated teams once again vying for the state championship. The teams battled to a scoreless tie until 32 seconds remained in the first half when all-state tailback and future University of Tennessee football player Jackie Pope scored from the six-yard line and the point after was successful.
Central would score in the third quarter on a one-yard quarterback sneak but the extra point was missed. In the fourth quarter Central gambled and failed to gain a first down at their own 48-yard line and Oak Ridge, led by Pope and future University of Kentucky signee Howard Dunnebacke, scored the winning touchdown.
Oak Ridge had gained revenge for the 1957 loss and would claim the 1958 mythical state championship. Pope and Dunnebacke were the stars for Oak Ridge while Central fullback Gilbert Trusley and defensive end and future Vanderbilt player Grady Wade were the outstanding performers for the Purple Pounders.
For those who either played or were spectators and had the privilege of attending both games in 1957 and 1958 they witnessed memorable events.
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