Thursday, November 07, 2013 12:10 AM
Notable changes for Midget Football in '70s
By Paul Durham | Sports Editor
As the third decade of the Wilson Parks and Recreation Department’s Midget Football League began in 1970, the program instituted some notable changes.
For starters, the league began having additional games between the "B” teams, which gave younger or smaller (or both) players a chance to not only see meaningful action but play for a championship. Prior to 1970, reserve players didn’t have their own games.
Kent Montgomery, who began as recreation supervisor in 1969, said the reason for the change was simple.
"The idea was to give as many kids an opportunity to play that wanted to play instead of them sitting on the bench,” he explained.
The "B” teams also competed for a championship, but that meant having rules in place so "A” team players couldn’t be "sent down” to enhance their "B” team’s title chances.
The 1971 season saw two significant changes occur. From the first Midget postseason all-star game in 1955, it was the league champion against the all-stars from the other three teams, coached by the coaches from the runner-up. In 1971, it changed to a true all-star format with the top players from the league champion and last-place team going against those from the second- and third-place teams, coached by the runner-up coaches.
Well before 1971, however, the all-star game, which was sponsored by the Rotary Club from its inception, was the plum of the Midget Football season in Wilson. From the time it was first held in 1955, the postseason spectacle was a chance for players to play under the lights in Fleming Stadium. Later, when Fike High School opened its new football stadium, then named Cyclone Country Stadium, in 1967, the game was moved there.
"You were in the same locker room as the Fike team used. It was a big deal!” said Charlie Bedgood, who played in the 1969 classic.
The 1969 game was dedicated to the memory of Dr. William G. Spencer Jr., who died earlier that year. The 1970 all-star game and the trophy hoisted by the winning side was renamed the Dr. William G. Spencer Jr. Memorial All-Star Game for the Wilson physician and Rotarian who was heavily involved as a coach, doctor and supporter of Wilson Midget Football from its earliest days.
The all-star postgame ceremony continued to recognize the four sportsmanship award winners, one from each team as voted on by the players, in a fitting and symbolic conclusion to each Midget Football season. Players who sold the most tickets to the all-star game were also recognized and given prizes for their industriousness.
The other big change in 1971 was the addition of nicknames to the four teams, which became the Five Points Vikings, the Maplewood Redskins, the Park Avenue Packers and the Recreation Park Colts after some of the top NFL teams of that era.
Montgomery said he and Burt Gillette, the parks and recreation department director, thought about ways to "jazz it up a bit.”"We thought, what if we let the coaches pick the nicknames they wanted?” Montgomery said.
Another notable change that happened slowly but was very evident by the early ‘70s was the expansion of the original team districts that were created in 1949 for a much smaller, more compact Wilson. Recreation Park drew many of its players from the Forest Hills neighborhood that was nearly a mile away. Park Avenue included players from Westwood and Five Points added residents of Seven Hills, which like, Westwood, cropped up in the late ‘50s. Maplewood’s district reached farther down West Nash Street.
"We had to redistrict on more than one occasion,” reminded Montgomery.
Maplewood closed out the 1960s with its fourth Midget Football League championship in 1969 while Recreation Park produced its fifth league crown in 1970, the second under head coach Pinkie Jefferson, who led the team to the 1966 title.
But by 1971, it was business as usual in the Wilson Midget Football League as Walter Blake-led Park Avenue won the first of two straight championships. The ‘71 Packers went unbeaten and won the "B” team title to boot.
By the early 1970s, the Midget Football program had earned its fair share of renown in the local media. The Wilson Times, which had printed game accounts and photos from the very beginning, began publishing more in-depth articles regarding the all-star game. The media attention added fuel to the fire and was responsible for one of the most famous quotes ever associated with the league.
Maplewood head coach Lee Gliarmis and Blake, as the two most veteran mentors in the league, had developed a friendly rivalry marked by a contrast in offensive philosophy. Blake’s Park Avenue teams were known for their no-frills, pound-the-ball running approach while Gliarmis, a former University of North Carolina three-sport letterman, preferred utilizing a variety of misdirection plays in his arsenal.
Walter Blake Jr. recalls joking with Lee Gliarmis, the youngest son of the Maplewood coach who would go on to become an All-Atlantic Coast Conference place-kicker at UNC, about the difference in their fathers’ coaching styles.
"I’d always joke with Lee that my father would also run it off tackle with his best player and his best blocker four times,” Blake Jr. said. "And (his father) would run a double reverse and a Statue-of-Liberty and a pass play.”
While the elder Blake’s formula seemed to work better in terms of championships, the 1973 season stood as a testament that Gliarmis’ methods, which are more in line with the way the game is played today at all levels, would work with dazzling results.
Gliarmis’ Redskins ran through the 1973 regular season in undefeated fashion while Blake’s Packers finished second. As the all-star game approached, Gliarmis was asked by Wilson Daily Times reporter Trip Purcell who should be considered the favorite — Gliarmis’ Maplewood-Rec Park all-stars or Blake’s Park Avenue-Five Points all-stars.
"Walter Blake is the Knute Rockne of Midget Football,” Gliarmis said, invoking the memory of the legendary Notre Dame head coach. "His team has to be listed as the favorite just because he is coaching.”
When advised of Gliarmis’ plaudit, Blake deferred, saying: "Mr. Gliarmis was the regular-season champ and his team beat mine twice, so his squad is the one to beat.”
Blake’s prognostication proved accurate as the Maplewood-Rec Park all-stars used 10 turnovers by the Park Avenue-Five Points all-stars to run away with an 18-0 win. Furthermore, Gliarmis used one of his trick plays to perfection as halfback David Bland, the Maplewood star who had a great night, scored on an 18-yard reverse. It was the same play Gliarmis had seen the University of Missouri run on a televised game the previous weekend.
"I’ve never forgotten that one,” Gliarmis beamed 40 years later.
Blake would win his 12th and final Midget title in 1974 while Gliarmis led Maplewood back to the top in 1975.
Recreation Park, under the guidance of Jefferson, Bobby Dunn and Baldy Williams, won championships in 1976, going unbeaten, and 1978, sandwiched around Five Points’ first-ever crown in 1977 under rookie head coach Bill Shreve. The Vikings mentor would hand Blake a loss in the ‘77 all-star game, the final game for the storied Park Avenue mentor.
Five Points would go on to win four more championships, three under Shreve, before the league reorganized following the 1986 season. Gliarmis picked up one more title, his fifth and Maplewood’s seventh, in 1984 and presided over the winning side in the final Dr. William G. Spencer Jr. Memorial All-Star Game.
Park Avenue resurfaced with former player Bedgood at the helm after Blake’s retirement in 1977.
"I couldn’t wait to tell my daddy that I had been asked to coach Park Avenue. I mean, it was the greatest honor I’d had,” said Bedgood, who was fresh out of college in 1978.
He led the Packers to Midget titles in 1981 and 1982, going unscored upon one of those seasons, and again in 1985.
But the end came quickly for the Midget Football program as it had been run from the day it began in 1949. The opening of two new middle schools in Wilson, Forest Hills in late 1986 and Toisnot in 1987, meant that many seventh-graders stood better chances of playing for their school teams.
MORE CHANGE ON HORIZON
Plus, a competitor for the interests of youngsters that had begun in the 1970s had become the most popular youth sport in town by the late ‘80s.
"Soccer,” Blake said flatly when asked about the decline in participation in Midget Football. "They ran me off of my practice field. I went out there to practice one day and — bam! bam! — they’d moved me over to the side and soccer had the right of way.”
And so, with a combination of factors that contributed to a drop in numbers, the recreation department reorganized the Midget Football program in the late ‘80s. The program was combined with the one at Reid Street Community Center and neighborhood affiliations were dropped. So was the all-star game for a few years, before returning in 1990.
"It got to the point the ballplayers didn’t want to spend the time selling tickets to the game,” Montgomery said.
While the Wilson Parks and Recreation Department’s Midget Football League continued, all the way to the 65th season this fall, the 1986 season was the last in which youngsters played for their neighborhood teams, signaling an end to an era but not the memories of those who stood tall as Midget Football players.
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Next week the final installment of "Standing Tall" examines the years after the program reorganized, the Reid Street Community Midget Football League and the impact both leagues had on Wilson high school football.
©The Wilson Times, Wilson, North Carolina.
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