Daily photo by John Godbey|
They were football players once: Among members of the Rough Riders were: front row, from left, Joe Porter, Harold Crayton, Joseph Robinson and Leo Gray; back row, Lewis Coger, Charlie French, Kenny Reedus and Cleveland Jarmon.
Remember the Rough Riders
Decatur semi-pro football team had 66-2 record, broke racial barriers
By Deangelo McDaniel
They are old men now, mere relics of once well-conditioned athletes who thrilled spectators in Decatur.
Competitiveness drove them, Cashin Wheeler coached them, and for the most part, they thought history had forgotten them.
Even though they were members of the “Rough Riders,” a semi-professional football team based in Decatur, they never made a penny and none is a member of the Morgan County Sports Hall of Fame.
“We are the forgotten men,” said Leo Gray, who joined the Rough Riders after playing basketball at Tuskegee and professional baseball for the Indianapolis Clowns, whose best-known player is Hank Aaron.
If you are old enough, you will remember them, especially on Labor Day because that is when they always played their season opener.
“We usually played a team from Chattanooga,” said Cleveland Jarmon, who joined the team after playing four seasons at Alabama A&M.
Jarmon is part of the 2007 class entering the hall of fame at A&M. The college will induct him Friday.
On a humid morning last month, Jarmon was one of eight surviving members of one of the most successful football programs in the area’s history. They met at Turner-Surles Community Center for the first time as a unit since the team disbanded in 1966.
They had stories to tell about their 66-2 record over seven seasons.
The two defeats came to Tennessee State University. In the first three seasons, the Rough Riders didn’t yield a point, the players mention proudly.
As when they were playing, they disagree on little. Charlie French, who played quarterback, was probably the best athlete, the players said. Lewis Coger, who came from Athens, was the hardest hitter. One of his hits split an opponent’s helmet down the middle.
“Lewis was probably the fastest on the team, too,” French added.
Several members of the Rough Riders football team also played softball. This picture includes, front row, from left, Maurice Harris, Russell Priest, James Walker, Wille Rayborn, George Swopes and David Chairs; back row, James Smith, Frank Matthews, Mike Matthews, Joe Porter, Charles Lucas, Lawrence Morris and Johnny Thompson.
About Coger, one newspaper wrote: “This amazingly fast 225 (pound) offensive tackle is the fastest man on the team including their jet-like halfbacks and fullbacks.”
Asked who was the dirtiest player, they all laughed, turned and pointed to Gray, who at 150 pounds was one of the smallest members of the Rough Riders.
“I wasn’t dirty,” Gray chuckled. “I was just real physical. If my mother was out there, I would have hit her. That’s how bad I wanted to win.”
So how did a group of men barely out of high school bring semi-professional football to the River City?
“It was almost by accident,” said Joe Porter, whose scrapbook holds the team history.
The Elks Lodge in Huntsville was giving away a car, and a Huntsville semi-professional team composed of former Council High players needed an opponent.
“Somehow we heard about this and got up a team,” Porter said.
Kenny Reedus, who passed up opportunities to play football for Tennessee State University and Alabama A&M, borrowed uniforms from Lakeside High School coach Lorenzo Jackson and carried the team to Huntsville.
Reedus had seen a team called the Rough Riders play in the Canadian Football League, and that’s where they got their name. The Rough Riders won their inaugural game. But, more importantly, they had fun.
“This was the beginning,” recalled Reedus, who kept the team together from 1959 through 1966.
“If it wasn’t for that guy,” French said as he pointed to Reedus, “we wouldn’t have had a team.”
Reedus purchased uniforms on credit and drove as far as Montgomery to carry players to games.
“Cashin Wheeler deserves a lot of credit, too,” Reedus said. “He drove a delivery truck and begged businesses for money to help the team.”
Just about every member of the team could have played college football. But there were needs at home, and “family came first,” said French, who was recruited by every black college in the South.
French, who graduated from Lakeside, enrolled at Alabama A&M. He said there were no full scholarships.
“When I finished high school, I didn’t have any clothes,” French said. “I wanted to stay in college, but I had to get a job. The reason a lot of us didn’t go to college is because we didn’t have any money. Even though they gave you a scholarship, you had to work and pay some of the money.”
Nathaniel Torain wrote about the team as a correspondent for The Decatur Daily.
“They were something special,” he said. “There were a lot of guys on this team that were pro material.”
As for his favorite game, Torain said there are too many.
“Every time they went on the field, you knew they were making history,” he said. “They were something else, a special group of athletes.”
The Rough Riders played most of their games in Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi. They played their home games at Lakeside, often to standing-room-only crowds.
This was no ordinary team because they were integrated in the segregated South. When Jimmy Faulk, a white man from Decatur, appeared in the paper with some of the team members, curious bystanders showed up for the next game.
“We didn’t care if you were black or white,” Reedus said. “If you could survive our practices, you were on the team.”
By 1966, Porter, Coger and Reedus were the only original members of the Rough Riders remaining. The team was fortunate no one was seriously injured.
They still loved football “because we all grew up around it,” Reedus explained. “But we started to get better jobs, and we needed to provide for our families.”
In their last season as a team in 1966, the Rough Riders rarely carried more than 20 players to a game. Still, they won every game, including a win over the Chattanooga All-Stars on Labor Day.
“We’ve talked about a reunion since 1975,” Reedus said. “This is the first time we’ve been together.”
As they left the Turner-Surles Community Center, they talked to each other about the Morgan County Hall of Fame.
Joseph Robinson, who returned to Decatur after retiring from the New York transit authority, turned to Gray and said, “You definitely deserve to be in there.”
“We were always a team,” Gray responded. “Maybe one day, we’ll be in there as a team.”
Rough Riders team members
Walter Jones, Curtis Miller, Willie White, Kenneth Reedus, Harold Crayton, Floyd Jones, Ronnie Chatmon, Jessie Goodloe, Charlie French, John Sykes, Joe F. Robinson, Joe Porter, Louis Coger, John Webb, John Lewis, Leo Gray, Leon Johnson, William Vaughn, Travis Williams, Robert Daniel, Robert Abernathy, Robert Goodloe, Clarence Saxton, Cleveland Jarmon, Jimmy Faulk, Kenneth Westmoreland, Fernando Outlaw, Bobby Moseley, Billy Brown, Bobby Qualls, Lafayette (last name not available), Houston Hardy, Bobby Cain, Johnnie Thompson and Newlyn Matthews
Carl McCloud, Maurice Harris, Willie Paul Maclin, Fredrick Alexander, James Nolan, Anasia Cosby, Bennie Malone, Sammy Robinson, Theodore Porter, Johnnie Bolden, Curtis Smith, Connie Barnett, Thomas Kay and Percy Campbell.
Source: Joe Porter
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