By all accounts, the High Point College football team had a lousy season in 1949, winning only a single game. The team tied two games and lost seven more, including two shutouts and an 83-13 drubbing.
But the game they won that year? Oh, what a night that was — and for a far greater reason than the ridiculously lopsided score.
It happened on Sept. 29, 1949, at the old Albion Millis Stadium on campus, where High Point walloped an undermanned team from Fort Bragg’s Pope Field, 107-0. The Purple Panthers scored more points in one game than they did in their other nine games combined, setting a modern-day scoring record for North Carolina colleges in the process.
And how bad were those guys from Fort Bragg? Not only did they get skunked by a less-than-mediocre High Point squad, they gave up 497 rushing yards while gaining only, ahem, minus 13 yards themselves.
“The men in Purple and White made the footballers from the Army Base regret ever having answered reveille,” High Point College’s yearbook, The Zenith, deadpanned in its season review.
“A football slaughter,” the press called it — and it was.
But here’s the thing about that football game: History was made that night, and it had nothing to do with how many points the Panthers racked up.
Here’s what happened: At halftime, with the 53-0 score leaving no doubt about the game’s outcome, a curious conversation took place at midfield between High Point College President Dennis Cooke, Head Coach Ralph James, the opposing team’s head coach and the referee.
Seventy-one years later, former High Point College player Clarence Ilderton — now 94 and still living in High Point — remembers the moment vividly.
“We were on the sideline, and we had no idea what they were talking about,” he says. “The coach came back to us and called all the men around him and said, ‘I have something to ask you all.’ ”
The players looked at one another in confusion.
“Would you all mind if Black players play the rest of the game?” the coach continued. “Some of their white players have gotten hurt, so would you mind if the Black players come in and play?”
The question strikes us as odd today, but it was not insignificant at the time. Yes, the color barriers were slowly starting to come down — Jackie Robinson had made his Major League Baseball debut 2½ years earlier — but this was the South, where integration was about as welcome as a slug in a punch bowl. Not to belabor the point, but during the first half, Pope Field’s two Black players weren’t even suited up for the game, having already assumed they wouldn’t be taking the field that night because of their skin color.
It was a logical assumption. Before that night, no player on the all-white High Point College team had ever competed against a Black player. In fact, as far as could be determined, no integrated, sanctioned athletic events had taken place anywhere in North Carolina. Would this finally be the night?
In the stands, High Point’s student section somehow caught wind of what was happening, and they began to chant, “Let them play! Let them play!”
Ilderton doesn’t remember the chanting — this was, after all, more than seven decades ago — but he remembers what the players told their coach.
“Absolutely, bring ’em on!” Ilderton says. “We had no objections to them playing. So they brought them on, we played against them, and we had no problems whatsoever. We didn’t even realize they were Black — they were just football players out there on the field.”
True enough, but for history’s sake, let’s remember the two men’s names — Willie Small and Sanford Lawrence. It had only been a year since President Harry Truman had signed an executive order desegregating the armed forces, so it’s entirely possible they weren’t even welcome on their own team yet. Why would they expect anything more from a football team at an all-white college?
In other words, it took some guts for the two men to take the field that night.
Clarence Ilderton scored a touchdown in that game — one of many for the Panthers that night — but all these years later, he doesn’t mention his TD. He only talks about those two Black men on the other side of the ball.
“There was no animosity whatsoever,” Ilderton recalls. “When the game was over, we all shook hands and congratulated each other.”
As the years passed, what would Willie Small and Sanford Lawrence remember from that historic night in High Point?
The lopsided score? Probably not.
But we bet they remembered the butterflies in their stomachs as they trotted onto the field. They probably remembered hearing a few scattered boos from the stands, but also the High Point student body’s chants of “Let them play! Let them play!” And they probably remembered the handshakes with their opponents after the final whistle had blown.
In the next day’s edition, The High Point Enterprise pointed out the historic milestone, citing the two Black players’ participation as “a first in North Carolina.”
More than 60 years later, High Point University installed a plaque on campus at what is now Vert Stadium, where the game was played. Fittingly, the plaque makes no mention of the score, nor even of who won the game. It simply mentions the significance of the integrated athletic event that took place on the field that night.
Looking back, that was clearly the biggest win of all.