Bubba Smith, the football player extraordinaire turned actor, died last month. When I heard the news, I was zapped back in time, back to Orange, Texas to the Tiger football stadium in the early 1950’s. Bubba and I shared space in the stadium – at least when colored football teams played.
Yep. In those days on the Texas Gulf Coast, African Americans were called “colored” – “Negro” if you were being high faluttin’ or putting on airs. That’s the way it was back then.
Since football is to Texas as the Pope is to Catholicism, everyone went to the football games, no matter who played. If the Stark High Tigers, the white team, played, the band and home team fans sat in the wooden bleachers on the announcers side of the field. The visiting white team and their band occupied the stands on the opposite side of the field. If colored people attended the Tiger games, they sat in the end field seats, the Crow’s Nest.
If the Wallace Dragons, the colored high school team, played, all the white fans crowded into the home stands. The Wallace High fans and the competing colored team shared the visitors’ bleachers. Since Wallace High was the home team, Coach Willie Ray Smith and the Dragon players used the coaches’ bench in front of the packed home team stands. Coach Smith’s three sons sat with him. One was Bubba.
Coach Smith’s boys paid rapt attention to the game. They jumped up, clapped, yelled and all the while fetched errant footballs, and carried equipment where needed.
Mother, a tried and true Texan, dragged me to the football games, even by way of public bus if Daddy needed our car for work. As a grade school child, I did not share Mother’s enthusiasm for football. In my opinion, the two most interesting things about football were the cheerleaders and the marching bands. Once the half time with all its sparkle was over, I inevitably complained of an abrupt onset of an illness with vague symptoms, an overwhelming attack of sleepiness, or a sudden night-air case of Gulf Coast frostbite – all of which Mother ignored. Pat, my seven-years-older-than-I sister, never sat with Mother and me. If teenaged Pat had her way, Mother and I wouldn’t have been in the same town, let alone in the same stadium.
I liked the Bengal Guards, the all girls band. They stepped off in a fast paced cadence even as they formed up under the wooden bleachers. The Bengal Lancers, the boys band, was not, in my opinion, as interesting. Why weren’t all those high school boys out on the field playing football like all the other normal Texas boys?
Wallace High suffered under the Separate But Equal Doctrine of that time. While certainly separate, the shabby school was not at all equal. I overheard my sister discussing Wallace history books. According to Pat, Wallace history books did not even mention World War II. I didn’t know when the war was, other than a long time ago, and should have been mentioned in colored history books like the white ones. The budget for the band, and most likely the football team, suffered as well. While the Bengal Guards and Bengal Lancers marched in smart fitting and up-to-date uniforms, the Dragon band uniforms seemed dated, ill fitted, and worn. However, what they lacked in funding for smart band uniforms, they made up for with enthusiasm, loud cheering, and gymnastic tricks. Upon leaving the field at halftime, even some of the Dragon football players turned flips or cartwheels, much to my delight.
When one of his Dragons failed to execute a play as expected, or if an official miscalled a play, Coach Smith jumped from his bench to limp up and down the sidelines. Something was wrong with one of his legs. The gossip was that Coach Smith had a wooden leg. Polio, I guessed, caused his limp.
Coach Smith ruled his football players with an iron hand. During practice, some said he smacked his players with a deflated bicycle tire inner tube as an incentive to better performance. Many Dragon players held after school jobs – dishwashers and janitors. If they worked in the evenings, Coach Smith required a written statement from the employer as to what days they worked and until what hour. Coach Smith made personal visits to each player’s home for bed check. If absent or unaccounted for, that player risked a beating, or worse, being thrown off the football team.
Soon after my family moved to Maracaibo Venezuela, Coach Smith moved to a better coaching job at the colored high school in Beaumont. Under his father’s direction, Bubba Smith became a valued player. Bubba played college football for Michigan State University. Later he went on to play pro football for the Baltimore Colts, the Oakland Raiders, and the Houston Oilers.
I’ll miss you, Bubba. Or, maybe I’ll just miss those long ago innocent days when life, as I saw it, was simpler . . . not equal or fair, but simpler.