Thursday, October 24, 2013 12:00 AM
A new game hits town
Midget Football League debuts in 1949 to instant popularity
By Paul Durham | Sports Editor
The year was 1949 and there was a new game for boys in Wilson as the city’s parks and recreation department launched its Midget Football League under the auspices of the national Pop Warner Football organization.
In cities and towns across the United States, the post-World War II economic boom saw increased recreational opportunities for youngsters and Wilson was no different. University of North Carolina professor Harold D. Meyer, a staunch proponent of municipal recreation in the state at the time, paid a visit to Wilson in 1947 for one of three N.C. Recreation Commission Institutes in the state.
In a speech at First Presbyterian Church, Meyer praised Wilson’s recreational facilities, which at the time included Municipal Stadium (not yet named for Wilson businessman Allie Fleming); a community pond in Maplewood Park, adjacent to the cemetary; a competition-sized pool and tennis courts, but no community center, in Recreation Park and a handful of neighborhood rec centers around town.
Meyer also encouraged Wilson to expand its recreational program.
The city’s parks and recreation department under director Tom Miller began organized Midget leagues in basketball and baseball earlier that year. The youth of Wilson could play organized softball, baseball, volleyball and even dodge ball, as well as swim or play marbles in a competitive setting.
But football didn’t arrive until September of ‘49.
The Midget Football League was a hit almost instantly as more than 100 youngsters from ages 8 to 13 — and all weighing no more than 110 pounds — signed up to play on the four teams, which by the custom of the recreation department at the time, were divided into residential districts — Park Avenue, Recreation Park, Maplewood and Five Points.
"We were excited because we were introduced to football and, prior to that, we didn’t play any sandlot football particularly,” said Sonny Brice, who was the first quarterback for Five Points. "We might throw a ball and catch in the yard.
"It was the first introduction to football as a team sport where you learned you had a center and two guards and two tackles and you had plays.”
The learning curve proved steep, however.
Accounts in The Wilson Times of the first game in the new league on Oct. 3, 1949, described the scene on Community Field (now Jaycee Field) outside the left-field wall of the stadium as such:
"Sometimes they ran into the wrong huddle and sometimes they got their helmets on backwards but when the final whistle blew in the opening midget football fracas yesterday afternoon, both teams knew a terrific game had first been played.”
But the story went on to say that "more than 200 enthusiastic persons” were there to witness Five Points and Recreation Park battle to a 7-7 tie.
"The parents were just as excited back then as they are now,” recalled Allen Thomas, who played for Maplewood the first year and Park Avenue the next season.
Let the record show that Rec Park’s Badie T. Clark Jr. ran 35 yards for the first touchdown ever scored in Wilson Parks and Recreation Midget Football League play. Five Points answered with a TD pass from Keith Williams to Jerry Ellen.
The next day, Maplewood, behind two touchdowns from Woodley Lee, shut out Park Avenue 14-0, the first win in a championship season for Maplewood, which was coached by Bill Wiggins and Al DeRatt. The other coaches that first season were Charlie Noulles and Bobby Clark for Rec Park, John Graves and Lem Gibbons for Park Avenue and a pair of Atlantic Christian (now Barton) College students, Charlie Hester and Harold Bain, for Five Points.
The pageantry of game day was a major lure to the sensibilities of those pre-adolescent lads in 1949 and the scores that were to follow them.
"Absolutely couldn’t wait, looked forward to putting on the uniform,” Brice recalled, sitting at his dining room table with a smile curling his lips at the memory. "We were just kids having fun. The camaraderie was just contagious. You couldn’t wait to go practice and you coulnd’t wait to put on your red jersey and your football helmet and shoulder pads and be a warrior and go out there and compete.”
And from the beginning, the fun wasn’t limited to the boys.
"Every little girl in town was a cheerleader for one of those teams!” chimed in his wife, Elizabeth, who once cheered for Recreation Park.
Indeed, the number of cheerleaders for each squad rivaled that of the players.
"I don’t know how they chose the cheerleaders but there was always 10, 12, 14 girls who were cheerleaders,” Thomas said.
The first standouts of the league were Thomas, Lee, Clarence Nichols and Bruce Trevathan of the champion Maplewood squad; Johnny Boyette, Freddie Deans and Steve Yionoulles of runner-up Rec Park; Williams, Ellen and Brice of Five Points and Bobby Boyette of Park Avenue, which won just one game in 1949 but would claim the 1950 league crown.
Immediately, the district rivalries that would give the league its distinct flavor were in play.
"It was a tremendous rivalry because we got to know most of the players on the other teams,” Thomas said. "We’d play baseball against them and you’d know everybody in the area. To the players, it was what you lived for.”
Later in the inaugural season, recreation department staff member Buck Jones spoke to the local Rotary Club and proclaimed the popularity of Midget Football, which he said attracted at least 500 spectators to each game.
The league may not have started up, however, were it not for the $750 donation from the Wilson Jaycees to buy equipment. In his column on Nov. 8, 1949, the Jaycees’ gift was termed by Wilson Daily Times Sports Editor Karl Fleming as "perhaps the greatest project undertaken in the history of that organization.”
That kicked off a long-standing relationship between Midget Football and area civic organizations. For many years, the Exchange Club of Wilson sponsored the sportsmanship awards bestowed to one member of each team. When the league instituted its postseason all-star game in 1955, the Rotary Club was the sponsor and continued in that role until 1986, when the postseason classic was played for the final time.
While the recreation department didn’t start its all-star game for another six years, the Midget Football program did have a couple of postseason events that boosted the league’s popularity. The top two teams, Maplewood and Rec Park, met the champion Hayes Barton and runner-up West Raleigh squads from the Raleigh Midget League in Municipal Stadium in the first Kids Bowl. The game would be played again in 1950 in Raleigh’s Riddick Stadium.
Miller, a Pennsylvania native, landed a bid for a team of all-stars from Wilson to play in the inaugural Pop Warner Piggy Bank Bowl in Easton, Pa.
The Wilson contingent was one of five teams, along with squads from Easton, Philadephia, Knoxville, Tenn., and Bluefield, W.Va., picked to play in the playoff for the national Midget championship in Easton’s Cottingham Stadium. The local lads didn’t fare well, losing 20-0 in front of 3,000 fans on a chilly November day.
Wilson’s Midget program would achieve greater fame in 1952 when the local all-star team participated in the Pop Warner Football National Championship Santa Claus Bowl in Lakeland, Fla. Wilson defeated a team from New York City in its first game before losing the championship game to a squad from Washington, D.C.
The 1950 season saw the Wilson Midget program produce its first Pop Warner All-America player in Allen Thomas, who played for Park Avenue that season and helped it win the championship.
"It was very nice but I think probably (Park Avenue coaches) Lem Gibbons and John Graves and the coaches had more to do with it than I did. I think they put my name up there,” said Thomas, who added that the honor was lost on him at the age of 13.
"Didn’t sink in,” he said, "right after football you’d start basketball.”
IMPROVEMENTS AND ADDITIONS
The practices of that first season in 1949 were continued, with tweaks along the way, such as moving the games inside Fleming Stadium around 1955.
The success of the program led to the formation of two teams, the Wolfpack and the Steelers, in the African-American recreation center in the days of segregation. Later, after Reid Street Community Center opened its doors, the number of teams doubled to four in 1959.
The advent of the postseason all-star game, played at night in Fleming Stadium, proved to be the most popular addition to the league from the time it began in 1955. The game pitted the league champion against a group of all-stars from the other teams with coaches coming from the league runner-up. That format changed in 1970 to a true all-star game with teams assembled from the league champion and last-place team on one side and the second- and third-place teams’ all-stars on the other side.
As the decade progressed, there were some coaching changes. Wade Barnes, who helped Charlie Noulles on the first Rec Park team, took over the team with help from Dr. William G. Spencer and won league titles in 1952 and 1953, going unbeaten. Johnny Stott directed Maplewood to the 1951 championship.
Gliarmis left Five Points after the 1956 season to take over at Maplewood, which practiced at Margaret Hearne School just blocks from his home and business, Dick’s Hot Dog Stand.
"I probably never would have left but it was hard to get to practice and then back here (to Dick’s) by 5 o’clock when I opened,” explained Gliarmis.
Rom Llewellyn and Tim Ellen coached Park Avenue to the league championship in 1956, the team’s third straight and fourth overall.
Jim Morgan and Bill Causey led Rec Park to an unbeaten championship season in 1957, which was the first year Walter Blake coached Park Avenue. His first team went 1-3-2 and finished third but Blake was about to impact the Midget Football League in a big way.
With assistant coach Lee Johnson, Blake led Park Avenue to six straight championships from 1958-1963. The team’s dominance put a stamp on the first decade of the the Midget Football League and set the stage for the second.
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