Thursday, October 24, 2013 12:00 AM
1952 bowl puts Wilson on national stage
By Paul Durham | Sports Editor
The chance to travel hundreds of miles and play in an all-star football game in what certainly must have been an exotic locale for 11-, 12- and 13-year-old boys must have been a dream come true for the tiny Midget Football players from Wilson in 1952.
After the fourth season of the Wilson Parks and Recreation Department’s Midget Football League, the program was one of four selected to play in the Pop Warner National Football Championship Santa Claus Bowl in Lakeland, Fla. The event, which continues today as the Pop Warner Super Bowl, began in 1947 in Philadelphia and the 1952 game was the second straight in Lakeland and the last to be dubbed the Santa Claus Bowl as it changed into the Citrus Bowl/Piggy Bank Bowl when it resumed in 1955.
The team of Wilson all-stars was chosen after the 1952 season by issuing an invitation to select players to try out for the team by being at Municipal (now Fleming) Stadium on Saturday morning, Nov. 15, at 10 a.m. for equipment.
"Be on time,” concluded the invitation, issued by all-star coaches Wade Barnes and Burt Gillette, who was in his first year as recreation supervisor. Barnes was the head coach of league champion Recreation Park. Assistant coaches were Dr. William G. Spencer, who assisted Barnes with Rec Park, and Lee Gliarmis, the head coach at Five Points.
The involvement of Wilson in the prestigious all-star game, which included teams from Green Bay, Wis., Jamaica, Queens, N.Y., and Washington, D.C., was likely due to the efforts of Wilson Parks and Recreation Department Director Tom S. Miller. He began the Midget Football program here, among other things, and was instrumental in Wilson sending an all-star team to the Piggy Bank Bowl, the Pop Warner Eastern Championship, in Easton, Pa., after the Wilson league’s inaugural season in 1949.
"He came out of Pittsburgh and he was well-known there,” Gliarmis said of Miller. "He was willing to promote stuff. He had stuff going on all the time.”
Twenty-five youngsters were chosen for the team from the league’s four squads — Park Avenue, Rec Park, Five Points and Maplewood.
"One week, you and I are competitors and the next week, we’re buddies on the team going down to play,” said Eddie Robinson, one of several all-stars who would help Fike High claim a share of the state 4-A championship in 1958 by tying mighty Winston-Salem Reynolds.
Other members of the team were Walter Brown, George Barnes, Chester Baker, Sid Denny, Wyatt Bissette, Steve Mercer, Dennis Peacock, Johnny Keen, Glenn Bass, Michael Childs, Ray Baker, Jay Dixon, Jimmie Barbour, Jack Tillery, Henry Taylor, Benton McMillan, Hatten Hodges, Gordon Joyner, Charlie Miller, Turner Bunn, Ken Stallings, Hunter Valentine, Cubby Lamm and Joe Wheeler.
Tillery, McMillan and Robinson later played collegiately at North Carolina.
"We all tried out for the Santa Claus Bowl and the only reason I think they picked me was that I tried so hard,” ruminated Walter Brown, who would go on to be quarterback on the 1958 Fike team but was one of the smallest all-stars at 78 pounds.
Perhaps the most recognizable name on the Wilson roster is Bass, who later starred at East Carolina University before playing eight professional seasons in the American Football League for the Buffalo Bills and Houston Oilers. A wide receiver, Bass caught 167 passes in his AFL career, which included championship seasons in 1964 and 1965 with the Bills.
But Bass, listed generously as 90 pounds in the official Santa Claus Bowl program, didn’t immediately impress the all-star coaching staff, who didn’t include him on the original roster.
"When he played Midget ball, he won’t but about that big,” Gliarmis recalled, holding up his hand about waist-high. "He was the last one sitting in the bleachers when they picked them and he wasn’t picked. And he was crying and I felt so sorry for him.”
But Bass ended up joining the team when another player was hurt. He told Wilson Daily Times Sports Editor Jim Hughes on a visit home to Wilson in September 1971 that he only made it into the Santa Claus Bowl for one play and "was knocked silly.”
As the players practiced throughout the holiday season for the games scheduled for Dec. 27 in Lakeland’s Bryant Stadium, people in Wilson contributed to the travel expenses for the team, which left Wilson by train on Christmas night.
Young Johnny Keen, as described by Miller in his correspondences for the Daily Times, nearly missed the train because he overslept. Fortunately, the train was a little late and Keen arrived in a police car to the new nickname of "Rip Van Winkle.”
Wilson arrived in Florida as the decided underdog considering the other teams hailed from New York, Washington and Green Bay. The latter squad was easily the best funded as the Green Bay Packers supplied them with uniforms and coaches. Former Packers star Ted Fritsch was the head coach of the pre-bowl favorite.
But Wilson showed the nation that it knew a little something about football when it stunned the New York team 20-0 in the semifinals. Hatten Hodges, chosen for the Pop Warner All-America team, scored the first touchdown on an 11-yard run and added a 62-yard scoring gallop late in the game. Steve Mercer scored the other TD while quarterback George Barnes and Robinson led Wilson to the shadow of the goal line but came away empty-handed in the first half.
Wilson’s defense shut down New York, holding the "Yankees” to just one first down, but the "Rebels,” as the Wilson team was called by the public address announcer in Bryant Stadium, had the favor returned in the championship game as Washington blanked Wilson 13-0.
"They had a tailback named John Haley, who seemed like he was 15 or 16 years old!” said George Barnes.
Haley scored both touchdowns for the DC club and ran for nearly half its 111 rushing yards.
But the loss didn’t diminish the trip for the youngsters from Wilson, who were feted at nearly every turn both in Wilson and in Florida with the other tiny gridders.
"We had parades all the damn time!” Robinson recalled with a grin. "We had a parade when we were leaving and we had a parade when we came back, didn’t make any difference that we didn’t win. We had a parade right down the middle of Wilson. That was when downtowns were downtowns.”
The team put Wilson on a national stage and no doubt helped boost the popularity of the Midget Football League here for years thereafter.
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