Wednesday, November 13, 2013 11:38 PM
Playing at Reid St. 'honor and a privilege'
By Paul Durham | Sports Editor
"We are the Chiefs! The mighty, mighty Chiefs! Everywhere we go-oh! The people want to know-oh! Who we are, where we come from. We are the Chiefs, the mighty, mighty Chiefs!”
For those familiar with the Wilson Parks and Recreation Department’s Midget Football program at Reid Street Community Center in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, this was a familiar refrain.
The Elvie Street Chiefs, under coaches George Hill and Willie Thomas, crafted perhaps the greatest dynasty in Wilson recreation history as they won 12 championships in 13 years and nine in a row. The sing-song cadence call that accompanied Chiefs practices and games is part of the lore of the program, but the Chiefs are hardly the only story from the Reid Street Midget Football League, which began with two teams in 1953.
The Wilson Parks and Recreation Department began its Midget Football League in 1949 and shortly thereafter, a league was started at the community center on Reid Street. The current building wasn’t erected until the late 1950s but there was a community center for Wilson’s black citizens during the time of segregation.
The first two teams to play at Reid Street were the Wolfpack and Eagles. They would play teams from nearby cities and then play each other in the season finale in Fleming Stadium. Some of the stars from the 1953 season were Jake Battle, Walter Deans, Jimmy Barnes, Frankie Davis, Joseph Daniel, James Burch, Joseph Williams and Wendell Hines of the Wolfpack and Gene Weaver, Raymond Bell, Author Battle, Carl Petway, Alton Kirk and Junior Williams for the Eagles. Johnny Harris coached the Eagles and B. Barnes led the Wolfpack.
The Reid Street Midget Football program expanded to four teams in 1959 — Daniel Hill, Adams School, Elvie Street and Reid Street. Games were played at Reid Street Community Center at night.
The first coaches of the four-team league were Grady Edmondson at Elvie Street, Carl Parker at Daniel Hill, Sol White and Johnny Hall at Adams School and Tommy Young and Eugene Cox at Reid Street.
Cox was the director at Reid Street at the time and was instrumental in the lives of many youngsters, such as Bernard Barnes who would later lead Darden High to state championships in football and basketball in 1964.
"Oh, man, Gene was the man!” Thomas recalled. "He had swimming teams over there. We had swimming teams that would travel and we had swimming teams that were out of sight!”
Cox’s influence went beyond teaching kids how to play football or to swim.
"Gene turned a lot of lives around,” said Thomas.
Wilbert Washington, who was the Reid Street director from 1977 to 1992, recalls Cox as an icon to the community.
"I can’t say enough about him and what he did for the community,” said Washington, who now lives in Detroit.
Cox developed the Reid Street program in the early ‘60s and had coaches such as Bobby Knight, who led the Whitfield Homes Vikings. Ronald Crutchfield was one of Knights’ players from 1962-64 and he has fond memories of Knight and that time.
"Even then the Reid Street side was the better side in the black community and we were the poorer side,” said Crutchfield, now a research technician at Howard University in Washington. "We had to scrape together money to provide all the uniforms and he did some of that with his own money.”
Crutchfield, who moved to Maryland with his family when he was 15, recalls several of his Vikings teammates: Johnnie Lucas, Larry Jones, Bay McCoy and Chuck Pickett.
He also recalls playing against "this guy named Carlester Crumpler,” who, of course, went to lead Fike High to state 4-A championships in 1967, 1968 and 1969, before going on to a hall-of-fame career at East Carolina University.
But mostly Crutchfield remembers the joy of growing up in Wilson and playing for Knight.
"We all respected him and he cared about us,” Crutchfield said. "He had a positive impact on our lives. … We learned how to share and how to take responsibility. It was a learning experience and we didn’t see it at that time but something we learned later in life.”
GROWTH IN ‘60s
The Reid Street program continued to grow throughout the ‘60s with teams often changing names on a yearly basis. The Reid Street Colts won the 1968 championship and returned as the Jets a year later to claim another title with Arthur Sellars and Bruce Hardy among the leaders on both editions.
In 1966, at age 15, Thomas said he was given a team to coach by Cox, for whom he had played a few years earlier. Thomas recalled in one of his first games playing a team with "some guys that had goatees.”
"I went back over there and recruited a whole new team,” Thomas said with a chuckle before ticking off some of the names of players on his 1966 Chiefs: Dennis Williams, Donnie Thomas, Fred Coleman, Ray Barrett, Doug Barrett and Larry Speight.
Thomas, known to generations in Wilson as "Coach Spook,” went into the U.S. Army for a few years and, when he came back to Wilson in 1971, Hill, another former Darden High player, was coaching the Chiefs, who won the 1970 championship under him.
"George sent one of the little boys to tell me, ‘Tell Coach Spook to come out here,’ and I went out there and we got it together,” Thomas said.
The two men certainly did get it together as the Chiefs dominated the Reid Street program throughout the ‘70s and into the ‘80s, winning nine straight and 12 out of 13 titles.
"It was a lot of pride there,” recalled Juan Jackson, who was a Chief in 1977 and 1978 before later starring at Hunt High and N.C. A&T State University in the ‘80s. "Of course, George Hill was a disciplinarian. I was one of the youngest members of the team. So there was a lot of talent so you had to wait your time to play.”
Through most of the ‘70s, there were two teams at Reid Street and two at Elvie after the Whitfield Homes Vikings moved over and began practicing behind the Elvie Street Elementary School.
There would be a draft each year among the kids in the Elvie Street neighborhood, where Hill lived and had an intimate knowledge of those youngsters’ abilities. The stakes were high, however, for the kids.
"If that first day, you didn’t make the Chiefs and you lived in that neighborhood, it was a bad feeling,” recalled Corey Mercer, who played for the Chiefs and the Vikings under Rodney Creech.
The Chiefs practiced in front, sometimes on Saturday mornings beginning at 6 a.m. With customary song that Thomas, who was a cadence caller in the army, brought to the team.
"George’s philosophy was ‘let’s wake up the neighborhood,’” Thomas cackled. "They would do the ‘Chiefs run’ and they would sing that song, ‘We are the Chiefs,’ so everybody in that neighborhood would know when the Chiefs were practicing.”
Hill and Thomas expected the most from their players, most of whom understood the rewards. Some didn’t.
Mercer said he remembered players missing practice, a big no-no under Hill and Thomas.
"They had a zero tolerance for missing practice,” said Mercer, an 1989 Fike graduate and now a volunteer wrestling and football coach at Northern Nash High. "I’ve seen guys come to practice in their uniforms and they’d get cut and have to go home in their long T-shirt and underwear!”
Thomas grinned at the memory of Hill making his players wear a piece of athletic tape on their helmets with the score from a game the Chiefs lost.
"I‘ll never forget it and they had to wear that until we met them again and when we met them again, oh, it was on!” Thomas said. "Those were the kind of things George would do. He knew how to do it!”
IMPORTANT ROLE MODELS
As tough as Hill and Thomas could be, it came from a place of compassion.
"One particular year we had 85-90 percent of those kids who came from single-parent families,” Washington said. "So all the coaches became an extension of the kids’ family and oftentimes they were the only male role model these kids had.”
And the Chiefs weren’t the only team with coaches who cared as Washington pointed to the contributions of other men such as Herbert Barnes, Robert "Buck” Lucas and Hubert MacPhail.
The Reid Street program finally held its first all-star game in 1976 in Fleming Stadium as Hill coached the Gold All-Stars to a 24-0 win over the Blue All-Stars.
"It was a proud day for the kids and the community because for years that was one of the things that the community wanted,” Washington said of the first all-star game.
While many African-American kids played in the other league at the "white Rec,” as it was commonly known for decades, the Reid Street program remained strong until the two leagues were combined in the late 1980s.
"It was an honor and a privilege because in that league, there was an awful lot of talent,” assured Jackson.
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