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Monday, March 19, 2007

Douglass Football Flashbacks #1: Bobby Joe Johnson, Douglass '52

"It was some of the best fun I ever had."

57 years ago, Bobby Joe Johnson (at left) was the star quarterback at Douglass High School on East Walnut Avenue (now East Sevier Avenue) in Kingsport. Please go to the PHOTO GALLERY under "Douglass School Sports" for a picture of the Douglass High School football team Mr. Johnson played on. Although he also played basketball for the Tigers, he remembers the Riverview neighborhood school spirit at the football games the most.

"We alway played hard when we played football against the schools in our league," Mr. Johnson says, "and our fans always came to the games. They were always loud and boistrous, but still courteous and mannerly, given the upbringing we all had in Riverview.. polite, but proud." The all-black schools that Douglass played against were Austin High School in Knoxville, Langston High in Johnson City, Slater High in Bristol, and the African-American schools in Greeneville, Tennessee, Bristol and Big Stone Gap, Virginia. "We always played them twice in the same year, because we were not allowed to play the white schools in the area."

"We always followed our coaches' instructions, Coach Kizer and Coach Cox," says Mr. Johnson says, "because there were consequences if we didn't. They'd make us work in the school garden as punishment for doing something wrong or not following directions." The garden was down where the old Oklahoma Grove School was, down between Center Street and Main Street at the railroad "Y". "Work in that garden, digging those rows, culling out weeds, piling up all them rocks.. do that a few times, and you'll never want to do anything else wrong the rest of your life," he laughs.

Mr. Johnson started playing football when he was just eleven years old, and his natural scrambling ability earned him the quarterback position at Douglass. That ability came in handy in the early 50's, when Douglass High beat Knoxville Austin to be crowned Tennessee state champions. "We were the only Kingsport football team to ever win a championship," he says, "because Dobyns-Bennett hadn't won one yet." The distinction was ironic, since the Douglass players wore the old uniforms, pads and football equipment handed down by Dobyns-Bennett. "We didn't even wear the shoulder pads when we practiced," says Mr. Johnson, "so we wouldn't wear them out further."

"We were very proud of our trophies," he says, "which were prominently displayed at the school on East Walnut Avenue. The trophies made the move to the new Douglass School in 1951, and when the school closed in 1966, all the Douglass trophies we earned in all sports were moved to Dobyns-Bennett. "I'd sure like to see them come back to the old Douglass School someday," Mr. Johnson says. "We didn't win them just for the school, we won them for the neighborhood. It was a big achievement for us, and a source of great pride to our little community."

"We had some special plays during the games," Mr. Johnson laughs about now. "We had a 'triple reverse fielder's run play, which meant, on kickoff return, reverse the direction you're running a few times, pass the ball off to several guys scrambling, and they just couldn't catch us once the ball got into fresh hands. We'd just run away from them." "Another of our famous plays involved simply hiding behind the referee," he says. "If you ever looked at the referee, he'd think you just did something wrong and he'd blow that whistle, so the other team tried not to look at him. Well, if we were hiding behind him, the other players were afraid to look at him, and so they never knew what we were going to do," Mr. Johnson laughs. "We'd score every time."

"We'd always played our games at the Dobyns-Bennett field on East Center Street when Douglass was located down the street on Center at East Walnut, " Mr. Johnson remembers. "My class was the first one to graduate from the new Douglass School when it moved to Louis Street in Riverview in 1951. We'd only been there a year." Although he understudied veteran basketball player Vernell Allen, who went to Tennessee A & I (now Tennessee State) in Nashville and eventually joined the Harlem Globetrotters, Mr. Johnson received a football scholarship from Swift College, a small Presbyterian school in Rogersville, Tennessee. "Even though I had scholarship offers from Tennessee A & I, Florida Normal, and several other universities, the Swift college personally recruited me personally at Douglass to play football and basketball for him. I took that one so I could stay close to home," Mr. Johnson says.

"I never played baseball in high school," Mr. Johnson says, "but we did have a neighborhood team we formed that played visiting black teams from time to time that came to town. One of those visiting teams was the Homestead Braves, the all-black team out of Washington, D.C. We probably played against some future major league players and never even knew it."

One of the biggest things Mr. Johnson says he remembers from those days, was the fellowship of the players and the community. "It's important to have more than one talent. Capitalize on what you do best, and try to always do it well, " he says simply.

Another piece of advice Mr. Johnson, now 75 years old, says, would help the younger people cope with the stresses of their uncertain futures. "Never forget the past.. always remember your roots," he says.

"It will come back to haunt you if you don't"