Tuesday, June 28, 2016

SPORTS STORY >> First gridiron Red Devils unite

Leader sportswriter

The Jacksonville High School class of 1951 had its 65th reunion Saturday at Taylor Farms, and included in that group were two of the remaining members of the first-ever JHS Red Devil football team.

The football program at JHS began in the fall of 1948. The Red Devils’ roster that year was around 30 players, not bad numbers for a first-year program during that decade. But only one player on the team had ever played football before that season. As expected, the lack of experience led to a tough inaugural season for the team and first-year coach Fred Higginbotham.

Two members of that team were on hand at Taylor Farms on Saturday, and two others who joined the team in 1949 and helped make up the first group of senior Red Devil football players were as well.

Original members were Bill Arrington and John Parks. Roy Huddle and Harold Sneed joined the team as juniors.

“We had one young man named Ed Tompkins who played football before,” said Arrington, a sophomore running back/quarterback on that first JHS football team. “Coach Fred Higginbotham, from Ruston, Louisiana, was our coach. He never coached before, so we started out fairly slowly.”

The Red Devils tied Bismarck 7-7 that first season, but didn’t come away with any wins in the eight games they played. The second year, the team showed signs of improvement, winning two out of 10 games.

In the third year, however, Arrington and the rest of the JHS seniors led the team to a 7-1 start, and the Red Devils finished the 1950 season with an impressive 10-2 record.

Getting a 10-win season in the program’s third year isn’t too shabby, but it took a lot of work and effort to get there. There were no home games for Jacksonville on Friday nights in 1948. The first home games were played where the old JHS playground used to be, a very hard and unforgiving surface.

Then the first stadium was built to host JHS football games shortly after. That stadium is now the junior high football field. It’s a stadium and program the Red Devil players literally helped build, and just getting to practice day in and day out also took some effort.

“Each day after school was over, all of us walked about the two miles to the practice field and then we had practice,” Arrington recalled. “But then again we had home games since we had a field. A lot of us worked to put up the fence, the lights and all those things, so we could have a football team.”

A lot of teaching was involved in practice sessions that first year, along with a lot of drills to both teach and get the players in shape.

“We did a lot of drills,” Arrington said. “Coach Higginbotham was a hard-nosed football coach – took nothing off anyone and got us in real good shape. I can still remember one practice session; we always did a lot of exercises. Some of the guys were goofing off during the warm-up practice drill, (coach Higginbotham) said, ‘You’re gonna do one more. One more time.’

“Every time he said that, in my mind I said if he makes us do it again I’m going to quit. I didn’t come close to quitting because he made us do it again another 10, 15 times, but I wasn’t even close to quitting because you didn’t enjoy the practice but we certainly enjoyed the games enough to continue playing.”

It was a feeling the majority of the JHS players shared, and the tight-knit group stuck through the hard times. The hard work didn’t pay off right away, but it certainly did that 1950 season.

“I don’t remember anyone ever quitting,” Arrington said. “Surely (there were some that) did, but I can’t remember if they did. It was kind of like this class (’51), it was really a close group. We had guys that kidded a lot, had a lot of great people. If you couldn’t take kidding you had no place.

“We have (class) reunions at least every five years and they’re considering they may want to have it every year. So it is a very close class, and that makes a difference.”

Parks was a right tackle during his JHS playing days. Sneed played at the other tackle spot and also at end on Higginbotham’s five-front defense.

Huddle was a fullback and Arrington a full-time halfback by his senior year. Arrington was later inducted into the JHS sports hall of fame and is also in the Ouachita Baptist University sports hall of fame.

Arrington was actually offered a Major League Baseball contract with the New York Giants out of high school, but instead wanted to go to college, where he lettered in five sports at OBU – football, basketball, baseball, tennis, and track and field.

“I’ve been blessed with a lot of great teammates, a lot of fun,” Arrington said. “I was fortunate enough to go on and play college football. I coached for nine years before I went back and finished my college degree, and I was a university professor after that.”

In 1950, Arrington was one of the leaders in the JHS backfield under Higginbotham’s modified T offense. Though it was a run-oriented offense, the Red Devils did pass quite a bit out of that formation, keeping the offense more balanced and, as a result, opposing defenses honest.

Arrington split time at quarterback with Joe Barnwell in the fall of ’48, but shifted to halfback by his senior year and Barnwell took the snaps full-time throughout the very successful 1950 season.

“The first year, Joe and I both were quarterbacks,” Arrington said, “and they moved me to halfback and Joe took over as quarterback – tremendous arm. He couldn’t throw it long, but very accurate for 30 yards down. So we threw the football quite a lot.”

Barnwell threw it well, throwing for double-digit touchdowns in 1950.

“I don’t believe we ever split anyone out,” Arrington said of the offense. “We probably should have, but they didn’t have the wide-open formations that they do now. Naturally, if we were running well, we’d kind of stay with whatever was working. Coach Higginbotham was good with that.”

It was a unique experience for the first football players to ever play three full seasons at Jacksonville High School, and a lot of good memories were made during that span, and going out with a 10-win season was a good way for the class of 1951 to leave their mark on the school and the Red Devils football program, and Arrington said it took a lot of good guys and a good coach to get them there.

“It was tough the first year because, naturally, you’re always the underdog and we were very inexperienced,” Arrington said. “After that, though, we were competitive – a lot of good guys, and a good coach. Coach Higginbotham did a great job.”