Sports
The last football season
By Edward Southerland
Mar 13, 2019
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Preface: Recently, Allen Rich wrote about the great Warrior football team of 1969, and by any standard that squad marks a high spot in Bonham football history. But seven years earlier, in 1962, following one of the worst seasons in Warrior history, another squad took the field with no expectations and no illusions as to the disasters that awaited them.

But somehow it did not quite play out that way; somehow when all was said and done, they had come within a touchdown of a district title, and Bonham Warrior football was back on steady ground. I was on that team, and I like to think that the Warriors of 1962 set the stage for the Warriors of 1969. And I always though that Jack McElhannon and Nolan Ashmore thought that too. So here is the story of another Warrior team, not so successful perhaps, but perhaps, in a different way, just as important.

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It was hot, really hot, and between wiping the sweat from your face with the bottom of an already soaking cotton jersey and bending over, hands on knees, gasping for a fetid breath of hot air, a sane person might have asked why he was putting himself through the torture that was two-a-day football practice in Texas in August. But that thought never really occurred to me. 

At 17, I had been going through the same ritual for six years, and not doing it never crossed my mind. Along with 21 other guys, I was getting ready for the 1962 season of Bonham Warrior football. It would be my last season, and it would be the most significant.

I wasn’t very good. I was little at 150 pounds, but I was slow and not very aggressive. I understood the game better than I played it. With a few notable exceptions, that was a good description of the entire squad.

 The previous season had been a disaster. Starting in the mid 1950s, Bonham had ruled the roost in class AA football in North Texas. There had been five or six straight district championships and at least one trip to the regional playoffs. Then, in 1960, big AA Bonham had become little AAA Bonham. With a just over 400 students, we were now matched against schools with more than twice that many.

1959 had been the last championship season. The 1960 team went 4-6, and the next year the Warriors fell to 2-8, topping only Lewisville and Sulphur Springs. The final game on a blue norther night in Gainesville ended in a 60-0 route that wasn’t that close.

The next morning the school board had an impromptu meeting, and someone suggested it was time to fire the coaches. The board split on the idea, with Dr. L.C. Biggers holding the deciding vote. He counseled holding off the decision until Monday when the matter would be decided.

Over the weekend, Biggers asked his son Cramer, who was a sophomore halfback, what he thought of the coaches, Jack McElhannon and Nolan Ashmore. Cramer said the players liked them, and they were good guys. That was good enough for the good doctor, and on Monday he broke the tie with a vote against the change.

McElhannon had come to Bonham in the winter of 1960 from Aransas Pass. He took over from Jim Acree who had moved up to bigger things in Corsicana. Ashmore, who also had been in Aransas Pass, joined McElhannon that summer. Both men were protégés of M.D. Nelson, the coach before Acree and now the superintendent of schools.

Coach Mac, quickly tagged with the nickname “The Bear,” taught American History and was the kind of man you instinctively warmed to and trusted. I met Ashmore, during the summer, when I took Driver’s Ed, and spent six weeks in the classroom and on the road listening to his jokes and stories. I quickly decided he was funniest person I’d ever known. I still think that today.

In the fall of ‘62, they had brought two new coaches to the high school. Thelston “Cotton” Ford, the line coach, came to town from Big Sandy, and Stan Wessinger moved up from the junior high to coach the freshmen.

Bonham didn’t have a B team that year, with only 22 players on the roster, and a not too rosy a future, McElhannon had decided to keep the big freshman class of more than 20 players together under Wessinger, so as not to taint them with what ever catastrophe that seemed likely to engulf the varsity squad.

Twenty-two it was and 22 was all there would be; if someone were hurt we had to half-line scrimmage — but hey, you can only play 11 at time.

Offensively we ran out of a flip flop wing T that was the signature of the Texas Longhorns. On defense we went into the Arkansas Monster. This was pretty radical; not many schools, even colleges, ran the complicated system based on deception rather than size to bumfuzzle the offense.

Ashmore had spent time in Fayetteville, Arkansas figuring out the defense as practiced by the Razorbacks, and then added his own tweaks to the system. For two years we had been going to sleep and dreaming of fist O, and blood ends and slanting nose guards.

The best player on the team was Roland Rainey. He was just a sophomore, but he was a natural athlete and could run like a deer. We had only six seniors, Gene Wilshire had talent; he was a high jumper and the best basketball player in school. Ray Finley, called “Fats” since junior high, wasn’t, fat that is, and was a pretty good tackle, and David Woodard, who was too small to be a linebacker but didn’t know it, could pop a runner with the force of small Mack truck were the best.

That left Bob Arledge, Fred Hale and me. We were pretty much “mullets” to use Ashmore’s favorite phrase — me more so than the other two. We didn’t really have any business playing football with real athletes, but ignorance is bliss, so we soldiered on.

In a really competitive program the mullet designation would have applied to most of the rest of the squad too — Randy Baccus, Lewis Faith, Bob Finley, Johnny Baker, Leslie Spoon, Larry Shockley, Teb Baker, Jerry Miller, Danny Weaver, Ray Ashlock, Bobby Sanderson, Ricky Jackson, Stanley Richardson and Ray Morse. They were all underclassmen and just as clueless concerning the hopelessness of the situation as the seniors.

How hopeless was it? When the Paris News, did a pre-season round-up of the prospects for District 6 AAA for 1962, they didn’t even mention Bonham. It was an oversight, or perhaps a way to save ink.

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The 1962 edition of the Bonham Purple Warriors opened wearing their white road jerseys on Sept. 15 in Terrell, Bonham’s long-standing nemesis in AA playoff competition. Working from the premise that if you can’t be good, at least you can look good, a note on the uniforms is in order.

We looked like the Baltimore Colts, sans the horseshoes on the helmets and in dark purple instead of blue. That meant white pants with a purple stripe, purple or white jerseys with UCLA stripes on the shoulders and white helmets with a purple stripe. The purple seemed to confuse referees, who referred to us as the blue team when we wore in the dark tops. Then there was the odd numbering.

Most teams followed the standard practice of issuing numbers according to position. Ends wore 80s, tackles 70s, guards 60s — you can figure out the rest. When Bonham came out on the field, it looked as though we’d left all the linemen in the field house and were playing with nothing but backs. Our uniforms were numbered 20 through 44, with the size increasing with the numbers. No one ever explained why this system was used, but it stayed that way until the UIL mandated a change.

Terrell came out the winner, 22-0, but it was closer than that. A few breaks and we would have put some points on the board, but the game was an example for how shorthanded we were.

Just before the half, Butch Faith got hurt, and we lined up for the kickoff after a Terrell touchdown a man short. Someone on the field noticed the problem and shouted for help. Coach Ford was scouting, Coach Ashmore was in the booth and McElhannon, the only coach on the field, was at the other end of the sideline, so I volunteered myself for the slot. I came off the field as Bonham went to the huddle, but now we were short a guard. Again, on my own, I went in the game and lined up as guard.

Nominally I was an end, in reality I was the place kicker, but in years past I’d been a quarterback, so I knew all the plays and generally what to do. I finished the period, and during the half time I studied a playbook. I played all the second half at guard, switching places with Ray Finley, the tackle, if the play called for the guard to trap. And when another injury left the defense short a man, I filled that slot too.

By the next week when we opened at home with Lewisville, players had been shuffled and switched, and I was starting as the Monster man. We beat Lewisville 2-0, and it wasn’t that close. Bonham moved up and down the field on offense, but couldn’t get in the end zone. The defense cleaned the Farmers’ plows, and when Randy Baccus dropped the quarterback in the end zone for a safety we got enough on the scoreboard to do the job. It wasn’t pretty, but it was one in the win column.

We went to Plano the next week and came back a winner 21-8; then we took Commerce 23-8 in Bonham before starting district play in Sulphur Springs. Both games were solid wins, with Ashmore’s quirky defensive schemes proving that size and speed could sometimes be overcome with guile and smarts.

The ball would be snapped, and the linemen would slant, the linebackers scrape and the blockers would find air where they expected a body. The back would dart for the hole only to find David Woodard or Bob Arledge waiting for him and Gene Wilshire or Ray Finley hanging on to his ankles. Rumor had it that the coaches at Arkansas would call Ashmore every week to see what new wrinkle he had come up with. If the rumor weren’t true, it should have been.

The first four games had been against old opponents from 13AA, now the district play was starting, and it would get rough. The Sulphur Springs Wildcats, perennial cellar dwellers, were on a roll. They had a big, all-state tackle, and they ran out of a single wing with a fast tailback named Miles Bramblett and a fireplug fullback we nicknamed Chubby Checkers. No one could remember the last time Sulphur Springs had beaten Bonham, but things were changing.

They’d lost once, but put up big points in all their wins, and it was homecoming. Bonham played in a lot of homecoming games that year as most of our opponents figured they could count on a win before the big dance. Early on it looked as if the schedule maker had done a good job. Toward the end of the first quarter, Bramblett hit an end over the middle and 60 yards later he galloped into the end zone for six. But that was the last galloping the Wildcats would do that night.

The Sherman Democrat wrote: “Manpower-shy Bonham had been relegated to the role of district whipping boy. Assigned to do the first whipping was Sulphur Springs. The Purple Warriors didn’t take kindly to the role handed them. They came from behind Friday night to throttle the Wildcats 13-6.”

Throttled isn’t really descriptive. Stuffed would be a better word.

That was the turning point. We were 4-1 when we had expected to be 0-5 and that’s when we began to think, collectively and individually, that we could play with anybody. Nobody really said that, but you could feel it.

We made the long trip to Mt. Pleasant the next week and got beat 7-0.

Their touchdown came after we lost a fumble on our own 35. It was a game we should have won, but two fumbles, 1-for-9 in the passing department and 56 yards rushing won’t beat anybody. It was long ride home after the exultation of the week before, but the lost didn’t dampen the new found confidence.

Greenville came to town the next week for our homecoming game. Bonham won 17-0, and I kicked only the second field goal the Warrior’s had scored since 1946. You can look it up. (The legendary Don Campbell had put three on the board sometime in the late 50s for the other one.)

When we came to the field house on Monday afternoon we faced two hard truths. Next week was McKinney. The Lions were one of the top ranked AAA teams in the state and were four touchdown favorites. We also found out that Roland Rainey, who amounted to most of what little offense we generated, wouldn’t play. He had suffered a concussion in the Greenville game, and the doctor was holding him out for a week. 

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It was November 11, Armistice Day, but there wasn’t any armistice in effect for the football game between the Warriors and the Lions. B.P. Weaks Stadium in Bonham was packed, and fans were still looking for a place along the sideline fence when Cramer Biggers fielded a McKinney punt and headed for home.

Fred Dickinson of the McKinney Courier-Gazette described it this way, “We were ambling along the west stands and suddenly found a purple shirted lad moving south just like we were only he was moving much faster, and he had a football under his arm, and nobody but a bunch of other purple shirts around him.” Seventy yards from where he started, Biggers tossed the football high in the air to celebrate a Warrior touchdown and the Lions were on the short end of a 7-0 score.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. McKinney was the big dog in the district and state ranked. They came to Bonham a four-touchdown favorite for a game whose outcome was never intended to be in doubt. They weren’t used to being behind, but they weren’t about to fold either, and no one on the purple side expected them to.

The Lions tied it up in the middle of the second quarter following a 49-yard drive. Near the end of the quarter, the Warriors drove to the 20 before the effort stalled and a try for three went the way of a fumbled snap from center. It was seven all at halftime.

Bonham broke the tie in the third period when Leslie Spoon shoved it over from the one following a 69-yard drive, but McKinney came back and scored with 30 seconds to go in the quarter to knot things at 14-14. The Warriors took the ensuing Lion kick off back to their own 46, and nine plays later quarterback Bob Finley hit Randy Baccus for a TD. Add the point and it’s 21-14 Bonham, with 9:35 to play. McKinney took the kick off to the 41, and on the second play from scrimmage complete a 59-yard pass and run to tie things up again.

At this point, the football gods, who had either been helping Bonham along from simple sympathy for the underdog or orchestrating a cruel trick on the favored Lions, changed their minds. When McKinney sent a bounding kick off toward the north end zone, the Bonham return man bobbled it. When the officials sorted out the pile, it was McKinney’s ball, first and goal on the one.

It took a couple of tries, but the 21 on the visitor’s side of the scoreboard went to 27 and then 28, and that was enough. There were still eight minutes to play, but somewhere in the darker corners of the field a fat lady wearing McKinney blue and gold was warming up her vocal cords.

More than 40 years later I recall the events better than I can recount the emotions generated by coming so close to something thought so impossible. Players invest a lot in a game. If the efforts pay off with a win, the elation that follows, though short lived, is intense. Losing is different. Winning masks the fatigue that follows exertion, losing only numbs it. You focus on the mistakes, and ponder why the things that went wrong couldn’t have gone the other way.

But one of the great things about sport is that it has absolute endings. When the horn blows at the end of the game it’s over, and the scoreboard is reset with nothing but zeros. For athletes, as for Scarlett O’Hara, “Tomorrow is another day.” For 22 high school kids, with school and girls and other things of importance clamoring for their attention, “another day” meant crowding into the field house on Monday afternoon to watch films of the Paris Wildcats and get ready to face them across the line of scrimmage on Friday night.

Paris was favored by two touchdowns, but when it was over it was Bonham with 14 on the board, and that was enough for a 14-6 win. The second score came when Cramer Biggers returned a punt 90 yards for a touchdown. The 90 yards measured only the distance up and down the field; all told, Biggers must have traveled twice that distance going as he wandered from here to there and back again. Coach Ford described the play as one that took about a quarter to finish, and claimed some of the players had to stop for a water break during the run.

The last game of the season was at home against Gainesville. It fell on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and there was some talk of moving the game to Friday afternoon, but nothing came of the idea. Because of the holiday, school was out, so the last pep rally was moved from Friday morning to two o’clock.

We went into the last game with a grudge we’d been nursing for a year. After the 60-0 lost in Gainesville the year before, the players who were coming back had posted the score where they would see it every day. In my case, it was taped to the mirror over the dresser in my bedroom. It was still there in 2000 when I sold the dresser and came back to Texas.

Both teams were 3-2 in the district and tied for second place behind McKinney. It went pretty much like all the games we’d played that year. The Leopards moved the ball better than Bonham, but when they got close, our shove outdid their push, and we kept them out of the end zone. We got two to their one, 14 to their six and that was that.

Well, it was not quite that. Bonham put five players, Gene Wilshire, Ray Finley, David Woodard, Lewis Faith and Randy Baccus on the All-District team and Coach McElhannon was picked as the district’s coach of the year. Bonham football was back, and the next decade would produce some the best teams that ever wore the Warrior Purple.

That year was something special all the kids who played. We accomplished things no one though possible when the August sun was baking the practice field, and the coaches were the instruments of the success.

McElhannon, Ashmore, Ford, and Wessinger were good men, in all the traditional ways the word good is defined. They touched something that made you want to do your best, and they instilled the idea that it was possible. Nolan Ashmore put it best, “Jack [McElhannon] was a motivator. We all want to do well for him, the kid and the coaches.”

 It’s been 57 years, but I don’t think a month has gone by that I didn’t dredge up some memory of that last season. And sometimes, when the autumn evening air takes on a crisp bite and carries the aroma of fresh cut grass, it seems like only yesterday.