Thursday, October 31, 2013 12:20 AM
Park Avenue dominance blossomed in '60s
Blake the guiding force in 12 championship seasons
By Paul Durham | Sports Editor
Walter Blake gently chuckled and leaned forward in the chair in the den of his home as he pondered the question of how many of his Park Avenue teams won championships in Wilson Parks and Recreation Department’s Midget Football League.
"That’s the only name you see down there, probably,” Blake said with a smile and without a trace of boastfulness.
Of course, that wasn’t the case and Blake knew it. Park Avenue didn’t win them all, but it sure did seem that way.
His son, Walter Blake Jr., who played for Park Avenue in the early 1970s, offered a slightly more accurate assessment.
"Park Avenue probably won more than the other three combined,” said the younger Blake, referring to the other teams in the league — Maplewood, Five Points and Recreation Park.
In the 38 years the Midget Football League organized its teams by neighborhood, from 1949 to 1986, Park Avenue won 19 championships, with Blake directing 12. Conversely, the other three teams combined for 19 titles. Maplewood and Recreation Park each had seven and Five Points won all five of its championships over the last 10 years.
Park Avenue, which added the nickname "Packers” in 1971, was the league’s gold standard and Blake had a lot to do with that. The team had won championships in 1950, 1954, 1955 and 1956, the last coming a year before Blake took over with Lee Johnson as his assistant coach.
His first team in 1957 went 1-3-2 but the following fall saw Park Avenue begin a six-year championship stretch, the longest in league history and second only to the Elvie Street Chiefs’ 10-year run of dominance in the Reid Street Community Center’s Midget program.
BLOCK AND TACKLE
Blake, whose scholarly appearance was more suited to his insurance business than coaching a football dynasty, just kept it simple. He put his biggest, fastest kid at fullback and ran him relentlessly between the tackles. Passing was rare. Punting was verboten.
"I didn’t ever punt,” Blake said. "It was just the fact that if you punted you didn’t gain but 5 or 10 yards and I’d just as soon try to get a first down.”
David Woodard, who played halfback for Blake’s 1960 and 1961 championship teams, said the offense was geared toward steady success, a far cry from the pass-happy spread offenses employed in all levels of football today.
"The way our offense ran, you tried to gain 5 to 7 yards each time,” Woodard said. "You didn’t get much farther than that unless you ran a reverse.”
The reverse was about as exotic as Blake’s offenses would get in the first several years of his tenure.
"He might run a reverse,” Woodard said, before adding with a laugh: "The only hope at glory if you played halfback was running a reverse!”
Woodard aptly recalled one such moment when such glory visited him.
"Once against Rec Park we ran an off-tackle play and it was like the Red Sea opening and I got a 45-yard touchdown, I think,” he said. "I hadn’t thought about that in a long time.”
The line was anchored by Sarvis Bass and Billy Clark, both of whom would go on to help Fike High win the first of its three straight state 4-A championships later in the decade. So unfaltering was Blake’s offensive set in that time that Bass and Clark would line up on whatever side of the center the play was going.
"So the other team knew which way we were going but there wasn’t much they could do about it when we had Sarvis and Billy over there,” Woodard said.
Passing was usually out of the question. Miller Gibbons, who played on Park Avenue’s championship teams in 1967 and 1968, recalled Blake having to miss practice one day. His assistant coach was Dr. T.C. "Skeet” Hesmer, a Wilson dentist who had been a star football and baseball player at the University of North Carolina. Hesmer had the team work on a pass play in practice.
"Blake came back the next day and I figured we were never going to be able to run that play,” Gibbons recalled.
But during the next game, Blake, indeed, called the halfback pass and Gibbons joyously recalled being on the receiving end of it for a touchdown.
"I remember how happy Skeet Hesmer was that we ran that play,” Gibbons assured.
Newspaper accounts of Midget games in the later years of the 1960s revealed that Park Avenue, indeed, found success through the air on many occasions.
But for the most part what Blake and his assistant coaches taught were the fundamentals of the game.
"We blocked, we tackled. We blocked, we tackled. We blocked, we tackled,” reiterated Gibbons. "We didn’t have many plays but they taught you how to block and tackle and I’m convinced that’s why Fike football was as good as it was because we learned very young how to block and tackle.”
GREATEST PLAYER EVER?
Many players who went on to play at Fike started their football career with Park Avenue.
Among the standouts from the Park Avenue teams in the 1960s were Steve White, Dickie Watson, Butch Bradley, Tom Quinn, Wooten Lamm, Tommy Nixon, Johnny McDustrell, Russell Hesmer, Charlie Bedgood, Carroll Shealy, David Clayton, Gene Winstead and Woody Henderson.
But perhaps the best Park Avenue player of them all was tiny Briggs Sherwood, who played for five seasons, probably longer than anyone.
"He was my field general,” Blake said. "He knew all the plays. He was quarterback for about three years.”
Sherwood was a tiny terror. He was on Fike’s first state 4-A championship team in 1967 but a concussion early in the season ended his career.
Bedgood, who played for Park Avenue in the late 1960s, didn’t mince words about Sherwood.
"Briggs Sherwood was the all-time greatest player,” contended Bedgood. "There’s no doubt about it that Briggs Sherwood was the all-time greatest Midget player ever.”
Sherwood, who is now in the N.C. Soccer Hall of Fame for his work in organizing youth soccer programs in Asheville, laughs at the notion.
Sherwood said he remembers being excited the day Blake passed out the "playbook” with large Xs and Os on 81/2-by-11-inch pieces of paper.
One of the reasons Sherwood was able to play at such a young age, despite his size, was that he had his own equipment since Blake had already handed out the pads and helmets allotted him by the recreation department.
PACKERS KEEP ON TRUCKING IN ‘70s
After that six-year run of championships from 1958-63, Blake’s teams won titles in 1967 and 1968 and again in 1971 and 1972 before his last championship season in 1974.
He stepped down after the 1977 season, leaving the Packers to Bedgood, who was fresh out of college.
"They thought of somebody that had been a player, that knew Blake, that would carry on the same kind of plays,” said Bedgood. "And, of course, that’s what we did.”
Bedgood’s first Packers team struggled until it found a star running back.
"But then Chris Ward decided to play football,” Bedgood said. "Then we beat the breath out of Maplewood, Rec Park and Five Points.”
The Packers won championships in 1981, 1982 and 1985, including one year the team went unscored on. Bedgood said it wasn’t easy following Blake.
"Sure there was pressure. You had to carry on Walter Blake’s tradition,” insisted Bedgood, while acknowledging that he had the same type of talent that Blake enjoyed.
"There was a run that Park Avenue just had better talent, for a long time,” Bedgood said. "I’d like to give Blake all the credit, but he had pretty good talent.”
Blake, and later Bedgood, also had the tradition that came from the early championship years of Park Avenue, from its first coaches Lem Gibbons and John Graves and then Rom Llewellyn and Tim Ellen.
"I just got along with the boys and the boys responded,” Blake said of the secret to his success. "I don’t know, I just instilled in them right to start with. I said, ‘We’re Park Avenue. We’re supposed to win. We don’t lose.’
"And they followed right along with it.”
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