It can be hard to fathom a time when football lacked racial diversity, maybe because it’s easy to forget and act like it never happened. Denial fits the tendency well. But the act of remembering the past and consecrating it within history is vital to the progression of humankind.
The Gainesville Athletics Hall of Fame forever enshrined the 1956 and 1957 state champion Fair Street football teams on Saturday night. Eugene (Gene) Carrithers, one of the few surviving member of the preintegration team, accepted the honor on behalf of the two Tigers teams, which are now indispensable to the identity of the Gainesville community.
“Before the public schools were integrated, black athletes played their own games among themselves and met with great, if often unrecognized, success,” said former Times’ sports editor Phil Jackson in his book 50 Years of Cheers and Jeers.
Many of Gainesville’s black athletes grew up in the projects, showcasing their football talent solely on hard, dusty sandlots.
Carrithers was one of them.
He remembers the age when an organized high school football
program for black athletes was a figment of the imagination.
The Progressive Club of Gainesville, an organization made up of the community’s black leaders, had an idea. Members met one summer afternoon in 1950 with the conviction to curb juvenile delinquency within the black community.
Football seemed like the best solution.
Through concerts and donations, the members raised the capital to create Fair Street’s football program — the black community’s first football team.
Within six years, Fair Street would become back-to-back state champions, with coach E.L. Cabbell at the helm.
Carrithers’ view of the Tigers’ dominant pair of teams was from the backfield, and it did not disappoint.
“I don’t like to brag, but I did a lot of touchdowns during the time,” Carrithers said. “Cecil Young always gave me the ball, and if I got lost or back in the backfield, Mr. Cabbell made me run, telling me, ‘You better get those yards back.’
“It was really nice and I enjoyed it all.”
The Fair Street Tigers became a Gainesville treasure within the white and black community almost instantaneously.
The Gainesville Red Elephants and the Tigers shared City Park Stadium. When Gainesville played away on Friday nights, the white community turned out in droves to watch the Tigers. The large attendance influenced game scheduling, but it was the Tigers’ halfback whose talent captivated the community.
“Everybody idolized Gene,” said Jerry Castleberry, a Fair Street football historian and former player under Cabbell. “Some of the old white people in the community still talk about Gene Carrithers. He was just something special.
“Gene was probably the precursor to Barry Sanders (NFL Hall of Fame running back). He was that good.”
Carrithers’ elusive tendencies allowed for penetrable gut runs, no matter how improbable gaining positive yards seemed.
Jackson recalls the Tigers’ opening drive of the 1956 state championship game. Carrithers rushed 22 yards after the kick return to put the Tigers at the Claxton 5 yard line. Fullback Ellis Cantrell shot into the endzone for six points, as a precursor for David Camp’s extra point for a 7-0 lead.
Fair Street (12-1) defeated the Claxton Longhorns 27-0 for its first state title, and began the legacy of the Tiger trickery.
“I always wondered had those athletes that played at (Fair Street) come along at later years what might’ve been because they were those kind of athletes,” Castleberry said. “I think we could’ve ripped the socks off Gainesville High. I think that was everybody’s wildest dream was to play Gainesville High.”
Scoring early was Fair Street’s speciality. The Tigers set the theme for another state championship in 1957 with a touchdown pass fromquarterback Young to receiver Arthur Moss that quickly pushed the Tigers ahead 7-0.
The Thomasville opponent, led by quarterback Charlie Ward (the father of Florida State University Heisman-winning quarterback Charlie Ward Jr.), countered with a touchdown drive, tying the game at 7-7.
With six minutes remaining and a tie imminent, Carrithers burst through the center and cut to the side to secure 32 yards. The running back trio of Clifford Stephens, Cantrell and Carrithers gathered 21 yards, leading up to Carrithers famed 6-yard dash to the endzone.
The team lifted coach Cabbell and Carrithers onto their shoulders in jubilation. The Tigers (12-0) had just earned their 16th straight victory and second consecutive Class A trophy.
The two fixtures of the two championship teams were now seeing the field at a different level. The sandlots were now a distant memory, as a segregated community unified on the soft grass of the City Park Stadium gridiron.
“That meant a lot to me to have me and Mr. Cabbell both on their shoulders,” the then-135-pound running back said. “Mr. Cabbell was a little heavy there now, but they got both of us up there.”
“Even to this day, in the white community — the older white community, they still talk about Gene Carrithers,” Castleberry said.
“It was a show.”