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Birney Imes: Magnolia Bowl in her glory days

 

Birney Imes

 

When reporter Carmen Sisson, whose story about Magnolia Bowl appears in today's Dispatch, asked me about the old field, she unleashed a flood of memories. 

 

My fondest images of the now crumbling stadium come from childhood. Like many Columbians, Bill and Teresa Jolly attended Friday night games of the Lee High Generals. It hardly mattered that none of the Jolly boys -- Steve, Hank or David -- played football. It's what white Columbus did on Friday nights in the fall; they went to the Bowl and cheered for the Generals. (We were living in a segregated society then. In the same way white Columbus supported the Generals; the black community across town coalesced around the Hunt High Hornets.) 

 

Often the Jollys took me along. Once inside the stadium, David, who was about my age, and I took leave of the adults. For the next two or three hours the Bowl was our big, and seemingly infinite, playground. 

 

This was small-town America. It would never do now, but firemen and linemen from the Light and Water Department watched the game from atop their trucks parked on the streets that bordered the stadium. For big games -- Meridian, Tupelo and Jackson Murrah -- bleachers were set up in the end zone. 

 

What is now an office complex and apartments at the corner of Seventh Street and Fifth Avenue North was then a clay hill. Blacks watched the game from atop that hill. On cold nights they would build a huge bonfire, which we kids looked upon with envy. I remember wondering what it must be like to stand around that fire and watch the game. On the bitterly cold nights when attendance was sparse, we built our own fires on the concrete steps using popcorn boxes as fuel. I don't remember anyone ever saying anything to us about it. 

 

Usually we made a ball out of the waxed paper cups from the concession stand and played our own games in the darkness of the east end zone. In our imaginations we were no less heroic than the titans doing battle nearby. 

 

At halftime, the teams would retire to the dressing rooms at the top of the stadium. To call them Spartan would be generous. At the end of halftime we would wait at the bottom of the steps as the players returned to the field. To a pack of ragtag little boys, they seemed like Roman gladiators returning to the Coliseum, their steel-capped cleats throwing off sparks as they descended the concrete steps.  

 

Years later, when I ran track in junior high (Joe Cook), we practiced at the Bowl. For warm-up our coach, Warren "Oop" Swoope, had us run from the school to the Bowl. Those who know "Oop" will not be surprised to know he ran with us. After practice we ran back to the school. That we had better distance runners than sprinters should be no surprise. 

 

Billy Brewer tended the Bowl's turf like it was his own front yard. Driving past the Bowl in the summer time, it wasn't unusual to see Coach Brewer adjusting sprinklers or fertilizing the grass.  

 

By the time I got to the Bowl as a football player a lot had changed. The clay hill was gone and blacks were sitting in the stadium. In fact, the outstanding player on our team was black. Whether he was a gifted athlete or simply had moves white boys had never seen, Jackie Ball was a dominant force for the Lee High Generals my senior year. Jackie was as good a running back as he wanted to be. 

 

Jackie was remarkable in many ways. Perhaps most remarkable was his ability to enter what was a strange if not hostile world and actually thrive -- Jackie was among the first group of blacks to integrate all-white Lee High. If he were still alive he might say different, but he seemed immediately accepted. His sense of the absurd meshed perfectly with that of many of us -- humor was how we coped with the hell of two-a-days in August with impossibly gung-ho coaches. 

 

The best athletes, I think, are those who can become one with their sport. They don't have to think so much as feel it. My brother Stephen is like that with a shotgun. The gun is an extension of his arm; it's a beautiful thing to see him wing shoot. 

 

I was not one of those, at least not on the football field. But I played some my senior year. At the time this story takes place, I was a substitute quarterback -- Roger Collins was the starter. 

 

I've hardly thought about this since it happened, and thinking about it now, it seems preposterous.  

 

It was late in the season; I don't remember who we were playing, but the offense had been sluggish.  

 

One thing that made Billy Brewer such a good coach -- maybe it's a trait all good coaches possess -- was his understanding of human nature. That and a willingness to listen to his intuition. Billy sensed the bond between Jackie and me. 

 

He sent me into the game and told me to run "34 Belly," a play in which the quarterback takes the ball from center, reverses out and hands it to the tailback who looks for an opening off tackle. We were in our own territory with 60 or 70 yards of well-kept turf in front of us. If the line did its job, Jackie could work his magic in open field. For some reason, the play had not worked all night. 

 

"OK, J.B.," I said in the huddle, "let's do it." 

 

We had a formidable line; Andy Brislin, Danny Shepherd, Russell Caldwell, Mike Brown, Tim Sewell, Tom Brown and Bob Williford were among them. Most of those boys played college ball somewhere. I took the snap and handed the ball to Jackie. The line did its part. Jackie hit the hole, breezed through the defensive backfield and scored. A friend contacted for this column remembers Jackie trotting back to the bench with the ball and giving it to Brewer. 

 

Granted, memory is an imperfect thing, but I remember the two of us repeating the same play on the next series with the same result.  

 

Years ago I unsuccessfully argued here that the Bowl be restored rather than build a new stadium at Columbus High. Perhaps naively, I hoped by doing so Columbus might recapture some of the spirit of community that once existed. 

 

It's nice to see a move afoot to revive the Bowl. Perhaps the old stadium has more glory days to come. Here's hoping. 

 

 

Birney Imes III is the Editor and Publisher of The Dispatch.

 

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