Seeing red (and orange and crimson)

Frank CagleFeature, Frank Talk

Back when I was somebody I had tickets on the 40-yard line in Neyland Stadium. Some years ago I took an elderly Alabama fan to watch the Tide play the Vols. At one point he turned to me and asked if I realized that Peyton Manning was the only white boy on Tennessee’s team. I said, first of all, that wasn’t true. But if you look across the line of scrimmage it appeared that everybody on the Tide defense was black. He got a puzzled look on his face and I realized that when it came to his team the only color he could see was crimson.

They integrated my high school in the fall of 1965 and it was a time of tension and uncertainty all over the South. We started football practice two weeks before school started and we gathered at the field house the first day. We had heard that some of the black students wanted to play football and there was some mumbling and grumbling and no one really knew what would happen.

A car with four black students pulled into the parking lot. There was some milling around in front of the field house. The front passenger side door opened and a fellow got out. And got out. And got out. He bent down to fold his arms on the roof of the car. He smiled. From somewhere in our crowd came a low moan and a single drawn out word of incredulity: “Sheeeeeee–” The laughter broke the tension. We were introduced to Larry Woods, a future lineman for the New York Jets. He turned out to be a terrific guy. During tackling drills he had the decency not to fall on me and kill me.

When school started the black students were no longer the unknown but people we knew. The racist powers-that-be wouldn’t let Larry play in a game. They said he was a transfer and had to sit out a year. Even though he had been prohibited by law to attend his home town school. But he practiced every day and got a scholarship to Tennessee State.

Our experience was repeated all over the South. Violent incidents and large-scale protests were the exception, not the rule. Things were tense, surely. But black and white students adjusted and sports was the vehicle. Students and fans were united because they paid more attention to the color of the jersey than the color of a person’s skin.

All over the South college football fans, like the elderly Tide fan, found themselves cheering for the likes of Condredge Holloway and Bo Jackson and Hershel Walker and scores of other talented black athletes that made up their team. (UT doesn’t get enough credit for making Holloway the first black quarterback in the SEC.) Under the Friday night lights in the ensuing decades racial prejudice was not eliminated, but high school football smoothed out the rough edges. A football locker room with racial tension is the locker room of losers. And in the stands you will find the largest integrated crowd you are likely to see anywhere else.

We will welcome the Crimson Tide to Neyland Stadium this Saturday and a sea of white faces will be cheering for two teams of mostly black players.

The civil rights movement produced heroes and breakthroughs. But for sustained progress going forward in smoothing race relations in small towns and cities across the South, to quote an Andy Griffith comedy record, “what it was, was football.”

It’s election day: I’ve heard a dozen talking heads on cable wondering if the Republicans can stay mad about the treatment of Justice Brett Kavanaugh for four weeks or three weeks until election day and thus turn out the vote. If these idiots ever came out here to fly-over country they would find out that today (10/17) is election day. And election day will continue until Nov. 1 and very often half the vote is recorded early. And yes, Republicans are still mad about the way Kavanaugh was treated.

Oops: I have doubted that Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn could beat former Gov. Phil Bredesen – until last week. The Republicans need to send a thank-you card to Sen. Dianne Feinstein and her colleagues. They have defeated Bredesen and Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and likely a couple more Democrats that had a shot to win. The effort to smear Kavanaugh and stoke anger among women voters is going to backfire big time.

McConnell comes through: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell got another batch of Republican judges appointed last week, including state Sen. Mark Norris of Memphis. The state Senate majority leader going to the federal bench leaves a leadership vacancy. Two candidates are thought to be jockeying for the post, Sen. Jack Johnson from Williamson County and Sen. Mike Bell from Bradley County. Should Johnson get the majority leader post he would give up chair of the Commerce Committee, where pro-business bills start the journey to passage and anti-business bills go to die. It is a plum post if you like to take in a lot of campaign contributions.

Frank Cagle is a retired newspaperman, a former managing editor of the News Sentinel. You can reach him at


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