Thursday, October 24, 2013 12:00 AM
Making weight limit a perpetual struggle for some Midget players
By Paul Durham | Sports Editor
Watching what he eats is typically not on the list of things to do for the average 12- or 13-year-old boy.
However, for those who hovered dangerously near the 110-pound, and later 115-pound, weight limit for players in the Wilson Parks and Recreation Department’s Midget Football League, it meant the difference between being able to play or watching from the sideline.
From the very beginning of the league in 1949, there were concerns over weight. Karl Fleming, sports editor of The Wilson Times, reported than one of the Recreation Park players was able to lose one pound (the amount he was over the limit) by "by missing a few candies and other things, and by running around the block three or four times before breakfast every morning.”
Turner Bunn was a member of the Wilson All-Star team that played in the Pop Warner Santa Claus Bowl, a national four-team tournament in Lakeland, Fla., in December 1952.
"We had some fat boys who had to make weight and I was one of them,” Bunn recalled with a chuckle. "They put us in the steam room and left us.”
Walter Brown, one of Bunn’s Santa Claus Bowl teammates, recalled another method.
"They made him chewing gum and spit it out,” Brown said with a chuckle. "I don’t know why back then but he had to chew gum and spit.”
Back home for regular games, players resorted to less exotic means of weight loss such as going without meals on game days so they could get the thumbs-up from Burt Gillette, who oversaw the league for his entire tenure as, as first a recreation supervisor and later as director of parks and recreation.
"It was hard to turn kids away if they weighed too much but I had to do it,” recalled former recreation supervisor Mike Webster. "We were strict with the weight limit because that’s the way Burt wanted it.”
"I remember the weigh-ins,” said Walter Blake Jr., who said he had to "starve himself” to be able to play for his father’s dominant Park Avenue teams in the 1970s.
The younger Blake was big for his age, like many boys, and would have been ineligible even though he still had another year of age eligibility left. Thus began a campaign to raise the weight limit to 115 pounds for linemen and keep it at 110 pounds for backs. Blake’s mother, Boo, was insistent on the change and she knew she had an ace in the hole when it came to negotiating with the steely Gillette.
"I just told Burt that he wasn’t going to coach,” said Boo Blake, pointing to her husband. "I did, too.”
Needless to say, the weight limit increased for linemen.
But Gillette, who was known to tell a player slightly over the limit to take a lap around the stadium and then give him the OK when he returned, wasn’t always unforgiving at the scales.
Miller Gibbons recalls his Park Avenue teammate from the late 1960s, Mike "T-Bone” Herring, always being too heavy to be eligible on game days. Finally, as Herring, who would later be a standout at Fike High, approached his final Midget weigh-in, Gibbons recalled: "I’m almost positive he was overweight.
And Burt Gillette said, ‘He’s in. Let him play.’”
Herring made the most of his opportunity, recovering a fumble to preserve Park Avenue’s 6-0 win.
"That was the happiest young man you had ever seen in your whole life,” Gibbons said with a broad smile. "He played the game of his life … I can’t help but think that was a great day in his life.”