Thanks to James Edward Alexander of Bluffton for sharing special memories as a new football season begins.
By James Edward Alexander
There was no signing bonus, but something more valuable -- family hospitality.
During the preseason, National Football League teams evaluate scores of young athletes who want to join the ranks of gridiron superstars. Some are "walk-ons," those who were not invited to camp, but who come at their own expense to audition. In order to confirm their decisions, and to see if their money was wisely spent, coaches will give special attention to those who were recruited and eventually invited -- or drafted.
In the late 1940s and early '50s when I was a high school football player in Valdosta, Ga., my teammates and I were selected by persons who had nothing to do with the NFL, or for that matter, not even a college football squad. We attended the all-colored Dasher High School in those days before the integration of schools and before we could, like our white counterparts, spend a night in a motel or eat at a roadside restaurant when we had away games. When the game was over, we boarded the slow bus for the ride home. It seemed a much longer ride when we lost. We lost a lot.
Sometimes the distance home was too far to travel at night, and we were "put up" by colored families. To assure each of us a place to sleep, a couple of weeks before our visit our coach advised the host coach how we would travel, our time of arrival and the number of players who would require accommodations. Such overnighters usually occurred in South Florida, too far away from our beds in Georgia. Thus informed of our needs, the welcoming coach would make arrangements for extra cots, beds, floor pallets, sofas, etc. His usual method was to ask the coeds to seek parental permission to have as a guest, "one of those Georgia football players."
Immediately upon our arrival we were taken to the school's auditorium or assembly room and given refreshments and a warm reception. Their players wore extra shirts, sweaters and jackets to look bigger, but our attention was on the girls who would be our hostesses. As each visitor approached a table, a smiling female attendant gently pinned a name tag on our shirt.
These young women then roamed among us and started polite conversation. The usual questions: What grade are you? What position do you play? Do you plan to go to college? And not what kind of music do you like, but how well do you like T-Bone Walker and B.B. King?
After a reasonable period, we visitors formed a sideline-like formation for one final, carefully-orchestrated ritual. The stakes were high. The selector and the selectee would spend a lot of time together; he being treated with a date for a pre-game party, guest status in a home, and other social intermingling. She also was selecting a person whom she was willing to console after their team won the game.
The head chaperone would start the "draft," in alphabetical order of course: "Miss Grace Adams, your parents have offered to accommodate one of these fine young men. Have you acquainted (scouted) yourself with a gentleman whom you'd like to have as your guest?"
No matter what you call this process, it was plainly and simply a draft.
Miss Adams would scan her slip of "first round choices" and answer, "Yes, Ma'am, we would be honored to share our home with Mister ______," or whoever turned her on during the practice drill.
The teacher would then excuse Miss Adams and her guest. The girl would hold the player's arm and do a slow stroll out the door, the pace of her glide acknowledged the envy of having the "first round pick." The alphabet was her ally.
During one draft, a girl selected a player but another loudly protested, "Take another one; I want him." The first girl, exuding her aplomb, answered, "If you would like to have this gentleman, you may." She then assumed a deliberately - controlled sensuous body motion, and turning to us she offered, "I would be pleased and honored to have either of you share our home." Twenty guys moved three paces forward.
Once selected, we had to follow another set of rules, like those observed by rookies: Know your place among the veterans -- the girls' regular boyfriends, and they usually were football players. I was the visiting team quarterback, and it too often happened that my hostess' boyfriend was a linebacker who loved to blitz.
Preceding my last high school game on Christmas Day 1950, I stood in St. Petersburg, Fla., and deliberately lied. The procedure there was for the girl to demonstrate her choice by walking over to her selectee and taking his arm. A girl moved in my direction. She was very attractive and had been pleasant during the early mingling, but as she neared me, I could feel the eyes of a giant tackle measuring my body. Just as she started to reach for my arm I looked at her, and stuttering, I told her, "I appreciate your hospitality, but, but, I would like to stay with my cousin."
It was an awkward lie, for I didn't have relatives living in that city. She knew I was lying and moved to her left and made another selection. Her boyfriend's hostile eyes shifted to another target.
Two days later we played their team, nicknamed the Gladiators. We would have fared better against the lions. They beat us 40-0. The star of the game was her boyfriend. I never knew his name, but it is likely that he also was eventually drafted -- by the NFL.
The Island Packet appreciates all written and photographic submissions from readers. All submissions become the copyrighted property of The Island Packet, which may use them for any purpose, including in print and online, without compensation to the submitter.