Wednesday, October 23, 2013 12:42 AM
Rec Midget Football full of precious memories
By Paul Durham | Sports Editor
While Wilson has a rich baseball history and soccer is the game that is most enjoyed here today by high school kids on down, nothing has quite stirred the passion of Wilsonians over the decades like football.
Well before Fike High’s legendary run of three straight state 4-A championships in the late 1960s, fans celebrated state titles in 1944, 1946 and 1958. Mixed into those title years was a steady devotion to the sport by townspeople, especially its youngsters. A vital component of Wilson high school football success, inspired by and a crucible for, was the Wilson Parks and Recreation Department’s Midget Football program, which began in September 1949 and was both an instant and long-lasting hit, all the way to the 65th season, which began this week.
Beginning this Thursday and for each of the next two Thursdays, the glorious past of the Rec’s Midget Football program will be relived in our pages in a series, "Standing Tall: A look at 4 decades of Midget Football in Wilson,” that will examine the program from 1949-1986.
I suspect that Wilson Daily Times Sports Editor Karl Fleming was writing tongue-in-cheek when he offered in his Switching Signals column Sept. 15, 1949:
"On the field for the first practice yesterday with one of the midget league teams, this corner found it had (sic) to imagine that one day those gangling, yelling, enthusiastic youngsters could one day develop into charging fullbacks, good business men and staunch family guiders.”
One only need to glance through the reams of press clippings from the 1940s to the ‘80s, meticulously preserved by the recreation department, to see the names of countless young boys who have, indeed, gone on to become "good business men and staunch family guiders.”
Because so many youngsters in Wilson have participated in the Midget Football program, I sensed there was a greater story than just recounting who won the championships and which players went on to success at higher levels of football. Obviously, having a sound feeder has contributed much to the success of Wilson high school football teams but Midget Football was and is a great program for kids, many of whom never play organized football again.
I was inspired originally to undertake this project upon hearing stories from the man who was part of Midget Football longer than anyone: Lee Gliarmis. He took over as head coach of Five Points in 1950, the second year of the league, and led that team for five seasons before moving over Maplewood, where he remained until 1986 when the recreation department changed the format and got rid of the district format.
But the spark that brought me from thinking those stories might be the basis for a good account of those days to actually getting the project going was the discovery of dozens of old photos of Midget Football teams, players and games, along with a wide range of other recreation-related images at Recreation Park Community Center, or, as generations of Wilsonians have called it, "the Rec.” Many of those photos dated back to the 1950s and were the inspiration for the "Faces from the Past” feature that runs each week in the Times.
I had already begun doing interviews over the summer, speaking to Gliarmis and long-time Park Avenue head coach Walter Blake as well as some former players when I got another call from my friend, Chris Pittman, at the Rec. Former Parks and Recreation Director Kent Montgomery had dropped off a pile of scrapbooks of newspaper articles that had been kept by Rec staffers going back to 1940. There were several devoted solely to Midget Football, part of the department’s celebration of the program’s 50th anniversary in 1999.
Suffice to say, the availability of those scrapbooks made doing research on this series immensely easier as the written word usually trumps individual memories. And I didn’t have any Midget memories of my own because I never played, taking a break between flag football and junior high. I am, however, delighted to report that most of the recollections of Gliarmis, now in his mid-80s, were spot on.
Unfortunately, the scrapbooks were far from complete with some years missing altogether. Furthermore, the coverage of the program at Reid Street Community Center, which began in 1953 with two teams (before the center was even built), was not as comprehensive.
But, armed with a bank of vintage photos and a cache of press clippings from the past, I set out to retell the story of the Wilson Parks and Recreation Department’s Midget Football League from its debut in 1949 to 1986, when participation numbers declined due to the opening of two new middle schools and the growing popularity of soccer, to the point where the program underwent massive changes. The most striking were the abandonment of district rosters, which meant that Midget Football players no longer suited up for the Park Avenue Packers, Maplewood Redskins, Five Points Vikings or Recreation Park Colts. Instead, as with all the other sports at the Rec, they were randomly assigned to teams bearing no district designations.
Plus, the Dr. William G. Spencer Memorial All-Star Game, named for the Wilson physician who was highly involved in the Midget Football program from its early days, was suspended. The game was not played from 1987-89 but returned in 1990, albeit without Spencer’s name attached. Thus, 1986, by my reckoning, was the final year of the Midget Football League as two generations of players had known it.
The Rec’s Midget Football League remains a wonderful memory for everyone I interviewed for this project. It stands as one of those things about Wilson that made, and continues to make, it such a great place to grow up.
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