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Final Tigers' tales: Little Rock Central football teams of the ’50s set last reunion

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Photographs by Democrat-Gazette file photo

Little Rock Central High School’s football team coached by Wilson Matthews (center) was 12-0 in 1957, earning a share of the mythical high school national title despite the school’s campus being rocked by racial turmoil.

The 1957 Little Rock Central High School football team is recognized as not only one of the all-time best teams in the state, but also in the nation.

But Saturday's reunion will be the last formal get-together for a team that won in a year full of chaos.

The Wilson's Tigers group -- named for legendary coach Wilson Matthews -- will get together for their final official reunion from 5-8 p.m. Saturday at Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock. The players "will meet informally after this year until only a few are left to open the wine," according to an event announcement.

While the four Tigers football teams in 1955-1958 will be honored Saturday, it's the 1957 team celebrating its 60th anniversary.

Sixty years ago, the Tigers persevered on the football field in light of racial turmoil in Arkansas' largest city.

The Supreme Court declared, in its landmark 1954 decision, Brown v. Board of Education, that laws establishing segregated schools was unconstitutional. The Little Rock School District complied and planned to integrate Little Rock High School -- which became Central High School -- for the 1957-1958 school year.

But then-Gov. Orval Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to block the entrance of Central High to nine black students for three weeks in 1957. It was on Sept. 23 that Little Rock Police escorted the "Little Rock Nine" enter the school.

The next day, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent 1,200 Army troops from Kentucky's 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to enforce law and order. The troops were ordered to escort the nine black students into the building and to walk them to each of their classes.

While the Tigers were getting ready to practice, Matthews chased the 101st Airborne off the Tigers' practice field, which the Army had planned to turn into a campground.

With turmoil off the field, Matthews reminded his players to focus on their studies and football.

"Don't look out the window and don't worry about what's going on outside," Matthews told his players. "If I hear any of you getting involved in any of this, you're finished with football. You'll answer to me."

Buddy Tackett, 77, was a junior offensive lineman in 1957 and recalled Matthews' strict nature.

"Coach Matthews had a tight reign on everybody," Tackett said. "He didn't want any of us getting out of line. That was that. We didn't have any problems at all."

It certainly seemed that way on the playing field.

The 1957 Tigers finished 12-0, outscoring their opponents 444-64, and won its 11th state championship under Matthews and the Big 8 Conference title. They, along with Portland (Ore.) Jefferson, were named the country's No. 1 team by the National Sports News Service of Minneapolis. The news organization had previously named Pine Bluff in 1925 and the then-Little Rock Tigers in 1946 as the country's top football teams.

"A really, really talented team," Jerry McConnell, who covered Central for the Arkansas Gazette, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2007. "They had experience, they had speed and pretty good size. I think I figured out at one time that 12 players off that team became college starters."

Central played out-of-state programs from Louisiana, Tennessee, Texas and Kentucky. The Tigers beat Memphis Christian Brothers 20-0, Memphis Central 34-0, Texarkana, Texas 54-13.

Most of Central's games that year were decided by halftime. The Tigers outscored their opponents 240-31 in the first two quarters.

"We whipped the hell out of everybody we played in '57," Tackett said. "It was a great team. It was a great moment in time."

Central was invited to play in the Kiwanis Bowl, a postseason event in Miami's Orange Bowl that would have pitted Arkansas' best against the No. 1 team from Florida. But the Arkansas Activities Association prohibited schools from playing in postseason games after Central's 1946 appearance in the Toy Bowl in Baton Rouge against New Orleans Warren Easton.

Sports historian Barry Sollenberger named Central as one of his top 12 high school football teams of the 20th century in the Phoenix Metro Football Preview magazine in 2000.

"The best-ever squad at this national powerhouse finished the '57 campaign with a 33-game winning streak and a No. 1 national ranking," Sollenberger wrote. "Coach Wilson Matthews, later an assistant at Arkansas, had two All-Americans in his lineup, Bruce Fullerton and Billy Hicks. The Tigers beat teams from Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas for the school's 22nd state championship -- a national record at the time."

Ralph Brodie, 77, will be one of at least 12 players from the 1957 team that will attend Saturday's reunion. He said beginning in 1985, he and former players of Matthews would get together twice a year -- once in the summer and again at Thanksgiving.

In 1957, Brodie started at defensive back for the Tigers. He has joked over the years that he also was a backup quarterback "to an All-American" in Billy Moore. Brodie called the 1955-58 Tigers a remarkable group.

"As far as I'm concerned, even though the 1957 Tigers have gotten all the publicity for the streak and the national championship, all four of those teams contributed," Brodie said. "They ought to all be remembered, most of all."

Nine players from the 1957 team were named All-State: Moore, Tackett, running back Bruce Fullerton, tight end Bill Hicks, tackles Bill May, Ted Blagg and Jim Davis, halfback Sammy Peters and end Gilbert Arnold.

Matthews led the Tigers to 10 state championships and a 109-17-3 record in 11 seasons before becoming an assistant coach under Frank Broyles at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville in 1958. He became Broyles' top assistant and was part of the Razorbacks' 1964 national championship team. After coaching, Matthews went into administration at Arkansas and remained in that capacity until his death in 2002 at 80.

Central won 35 consecutive games from 1955 to 1958, with the first 33 coming under Matthews.

The national championship trophy, which the Tigers won in 1957 but did not receive until 2007, will be showcased Saturday. Also, a bust of Matthews, which is on display at the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in North Little Rock, can be seen at the reunion.

Tackett is looking forward to meeting with his former teammates one more time Saturday.

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Wilson Matthews left Little Rock Central after the 1957 season, winning his final 33 games at the school and compiling a 109-... + Enlarge

"It's nice to see them," Tackett said. "I've been the youngest one of the bunch. I'm 77 years old. If I'm the youngest one here, there's a bunch of old codgers."

Sports on 08/11/2017

Undefeated Tigers

• The Little Rock Central football team finished 12-0 in 1957 and won the state championship, which was Coach Wilson Matthews’ 10th title in 11 seasons. The Tigers outscored their opponents 444-64 and were named the No. 1 team by the National Sports News Service in Minneapolis:

1957 schedule

OPPONENT;SCORE

Memphis Christian Brothers;20-0

Texarkana, Texas;54-13

Baton Rouge Istrouma;15-6

Hot Springs*;46-6

Fort Smith*;28-0

Texarkana*;47-7

El Dorado*;28-0

Memphis Central;34-0

Paducah (Ky.) Tilghman;46-13

Pine Bluff*;33-0

Blytheville*;53-12

North Little Rock*;40-7

*Big 8 Conference game

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