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Friday, October 20, 2017

Redemption, One Step at a Time

The stars awaken a certain reverence, because always present, they are inaccessible.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

At 58 years of age, he sat dead in the cross hairs of a midlife crossroads, precariously perched on a cliff of mental despair. He was unhappy but not sure why, so he said the hell with it all, casting away a six figure a year Florida optometry practice and started to hike the Appalachian Trail, releasing his burdens and personal demons one step at a time.
Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people standing

Twenty one years later, he can still be found hiking, expeditiously clicking along on a Texas Panhandle High Plains back road at a steady pace of three miles an hour. He has for a generation crisscrossed America, logging over 40,000 miles. However, he cares little for such acknowledgements, his hiking not stirred by ostentatious motives as he seeks neither wealth nor recognition. Now, a near Octogenarian, he continues trekking on, he claims, for a Zen like inner peace the incessant steps deliver. He is a man in a desperate race with the setting sun of life. He will not win, this he tells me, but like the Man of La Mancha, effort is the key. “I am not afraid to die,” he philosophies. “I want to leave this world as I came in, with nothing. My grandfather died in the woods, my father died in the woods and I hope to do the same.”
His given name is Meredith, “a boy’s name back when I was born in 1938,” he assures me. His surname is Eberhard. However, within the world of long distance hiking he is known by his chosen moniker of Nimblewill Nomad and he is a legendary and revered figure, the Michael Jordan of long distance trekking. At 79 years of age, he is a walking machine.

We crossed paths outside of Shamrock, TX on a hazy September, 2017 late afternoon. Mr. Nomad was within one day of reaching the halfway point of his latest odyssey, hiking the path of America’s “Mother Road” – Route 66. He began his sojourn on July 26 amidst the toxic urban sprawl of South Chicago and should reach the trail’s end in the land of Milk and Honey, just past Thanksgiving. Upon completion of the 2300 mile journey he will symbolically dip his swollen feet into the Pacific Ocean, just off the Santa Monica, CA pier. Along the way he will use his Apple 7’s smart phone’s photo app to recreate and archive the best he can of what is left of the Depression era Grapes of Wrath migration trail, a movement that has come to represent the Great American Dream. “Route 66 is a highway we simply cannot forget. It cuts right across the heart of America, the very soul of this great nation. It is our Main Street,” Nomad says. “This road tells stories of hope and heartbreak, of starting over, new dreams found beyond the hazy blue. Route 66 represents what makes us a great nation.”

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, standing and textHe is a man impossible to pigeonhole, but if I must - a mixture of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Johnny Appleseed, would seem apt. In a radio broadcast in October, 1939 British Prime Minister Winston Churchill described the Soviet Union as a potential ally of questionable intent: "I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” A fitting evaluation of Mr. Nomad’s personality, I would conclude. He is a man who disdains personal wealth and has a strong reverence for the power of nature, but in a written article this past July defended the right of big industry to pollute the atmosphere with fossil burning fuels. He is outgoing to a fault, never considering personal security as he warmly greets every “On the Road” traveler he encounters. Yet, he told me, he has not been in contact with either of his two sons or his ex-wife in, “at least 15 years.” For a recent acquaintance, it is hard to understand the intent and purpose as he wanders.  Yes; a man whose life is, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

Image may contain: sky, outdoor and natureHis long distance hiking resume is unchallenged. Nomad has hiked the "Triple Crown" of American Trails: the Pacific Crest, the Appalachian and the Continental Divide. He has hiked all 11 National Scenic Trails (only one other hiker has accomplished this feat) and he was one of the first to completely hike the Appalachian Trail from the Florida Keys to Maine, a trek he later named the Eastern Continental. He chronicled his adventure in a book titled Ten Million Steps. Later, he repeated the trip with a southbound course, originating in Canada; etching for time his walk with a second book titled Where Less the Path is Worn.

In 2011, I had written a book on US Highway 83, the last non-interstate highway in the US system to run border to border, in this case, from West Hope, North Dakota to Laredo, TX. I had searched for and recorded the past, present and future in three small hamlets located on this isolated path. I nicknamed the road, “America’s 50 Yard Line.”  I try each fall to revisit Highway 83; to follow up on earlier stories and to indulge in a sort of personal catharsis. Old Route 66, much today under Interstate Highway 40, intersects Highway 83 in Shamrock, TX. This is where I first laid eyes on Meredith Eberhard, AKA Nimblewill Nomad. I found it symbolic. He and I share a common interest in the “off the beaten path” history of the back roads of America.

My wife Shawna and I first spotted Nimblewill on an east bound service road, hiking west, into the oncoming traffic. He was a striking figure, slightly hunched while rhythmically striding along with his custom made walking poles clicking in cadence. From a distance, one could not tell his age; only that he was thin with unbound and unkempt beard and hair. (He stopped cutting his hair and beard years ago.) Upon greeting, he smelled of a man who had spent the last two days in the heat of the Texas Panhandle hiking over 45 miles, with an in between a night’s stay in a long ago abandoned gas station. As we greeted each other, he immediately apologized for his hygiene. “I must be some sight and an even worse smell for someone you have just met,” he offered. His handshake was remarkably strong for a man whose wind burnt face gave a strong hint of his age. He was attired in long acrylic shorts and a long sleeve white dress shirt. When he removed his sunglasses, his pale eyes were deep set giving off a vague sense of weariness and wisdom. He wore a trendy racing hat while supporting himself on two Cressida Antishock trekking poles. He had distinct tan lines on both his wrists and ankles. His appearance was disheveled but his clothing was high tech. His greeting was genuine and without pretense. My immediate reaction was to like this man.

We offered to pay for a night’s stay in a nearby motel and a good evening meal in return for an after dinner interview. “Your generosity is most kind,” he said in acceptance.

I started the post meal interview while seated in my adjoining motel room with the obvious question: So why is a 79 year old man vagabonding across the nation? “After all is said and done,” Nomad explains, “the question boils down to this; and it’s really quite simple: How many of us can honestly say we’ve ever dealt straight up with who we truly are as a person — as a kind, loving, caring, and forgiving person?  Here’s the problem.  When we start this thought process, when we begin probing, we become very uncomfortable, very fast!  But with all the diversions and distractions around us — distractions that we create, along with all those that simply occur day-to-day here in the “real world,” we’re able to block out and avoid these painful thought processes.  On the trail, however, where one is alone mile after mile, day after day, month after month, where these diversions don’t exist and can’t be created, eventually all the masks, all the facades, all the little games played and replayed get stripped away.  It is then you come face-to-face with yourself!”

His commitment to his toil is total. A quick Google search told of a rumor he had surgically removed all ten of his toe nails in an attempt to avoid infections. True he confirmed, removing his shoes and socks to show me the proof. “Took a long time to find a doctor who would do it,” he said with a twinge of pride in his voice. “He used a pair of surgical pliers to pull them out one at a time. Hurt like hell and I couldn’t walk for a couple of weeks, but don’t have to worry anymore about infections or in-grown toe nails. It was a good investment.”

Nomad prides himself of traveling light. “I have learned over the years,” he says, “to haul only what I need and not just what I want. At my age, I have to travel light. I can still do up to 30 miles a day but I can’t pack 20 to 30 pounds with me like I use to when I was younger. Not counting any food or water I might haul, my pack goes about 11 pounds.”

“It speaks to our life’s priority, how much ‘stuff’ we collect and haul around with us,” Nomad says.  “Our life’s pack, its size, gives a strong indication of our own insecurity. Many fear the dreaded unknown. The greater our fears, the more stuff we haul around through life. To find inner peace, we must face this reality, we must lighten our load. Here is a quote for you, my new friends, ‘Feed your faith and your fears will starve to death.’ Every year I intentionally lessen my possessions, and every year my happiness increases, makes me richer, not poorer.”

He allowed for a peek inside of his nylon pack. Listed below are the contents, total weight is 10.9 pounds:
1.      Gossamer Gear® Murmur™ Hyperlight Backpack
2.      Nimblewill Tent (Cuben fiber body 0-8.1 – Silnylon Fly 0-6.9 -stakes 0-00.7)
3.      Mountain Hardware® Phantom™ 45 sleeping bag (converted to quilt)
4.      Therm-A-Rest® NeoAir™ short sleeping pad
5.      Dollar General® emergency poncho
6.      GoLite® Ether Jacket
7.      ZPacks™ Challenger Rain Paints
8.      Aquamira® water purification tablets (6)
9.      Gatorade® 32oz bottle (2@1.8)
10.   Photon® Micro Light II® w/cap-bill clip 
11.   Silnylon ditty bag
12.   First Aid in Ziploc® (iodine/alcohol preps, Neosporin®, bandages, powder, floss, razor blade)
13.   Garmin® eTrex™ GPS w/2AA batteries
14.   Apple® iPhone 5S™ w/case/charger
15.   14-days OTC (Osteo Bi-Flex®, GNC® sports meds, Ecotrin®, regular aspirin)
16.   2.1 Maps and data in Ziploc®

No toothbrush, no soap, no extra clothes, no toilet paper.

He will admit to a few worldly possessions, like an old pickup truck with a camper shell, housed now back with a friend in Alabama. He winters in his truck, often times parked in either a Walmart parking lot of a state park, spending hours in public libraries preparing meticulously for his next hike. Nomad survives off the funds from a merger social security check. If the money runs out before the month does, he simply does not eat. He has a few keepsakes stored at a sister’s house in his native state of Missouri; but most of what he has to show in terms of personal possessions collected over nearly eight decades lies now in a small backpack dropped by a leaking window air conditioner in a budget motel room in Shamrock, TX.

I tackle the age issue, an inquiry as to the toll that his grueling day after day efforts take on an aging body. “I have had made share of hurts, aches and pains, for sure,” he admits. “The worst was on my Continental Divide hike. I had to shut down at Silverthorne in Colorado, had made it about half way when I came down with the shingles. It took me a good six months to recover from it. I went back the next year to finish the hike, on down to the Mexican border. I simply ask the Lord each morning to lay it on me, challenge me, testing my faith. I don’t always have the luxury of having a fine steak dinner like you provided tonight. A lot of times I survive on what I would call crap food, lots of gas station hot dogs and the like. I depend on the Lord to provide and it seems each day he takes pity on this old man by allowing generous people like you two to cross my path.”

His list of hiking injuries are worthy of an overworked MASH unit. Once,” he confided, “I was struck by lightning. It was up in Canada.” He has broken both his ankle and his shinbone, obvious calamities in the middle of a hike. He has fallen and broken ribs. Even sans toe nails, his feet are a constant source of torture and torment.  He pops Ibuprofen pain tablets as if they were M&Ms. “I use to use straight aspirin,” he says. “Doctor was really on me about how hard it is on my liver. Now I go to the Vitamin I,” he adds with a chuckle. “I always know when I have taken too much and need to cut back, when my ears start ringing.” Yet, with the exception of the bout with shingles, he has finished every odyssey he has begun.

Nomad travels with very little money. When a Good Samaritan does not materialize to provide a night’s lodging, he will erect his pup tent in what he calls a “stealth camp.” It could be a roadway ditch or it could be behind an urban dumpster. “I find beauty wherever God leads me,” he says. Earlier, on his Route 66 Odyssey, he had found refuge on a stormy Oklahoma night within an abandoned side-of-the-road warehouse. When he told the waitress at a local diner the next morning where he had stayed the previous night, he was informed, “it’s full of rattlesnakes.” He has no fear of the trail’s unknown; with faith he will somehow procure whatever his needs may be. “I put my faith in the Lord to protect me. I say the same prayer each morning as I shoulder my pack. I ask the two angels assigned to me, one on each shoulder to watch out for this old lost soul.” Providence, he says, has always found him.

He readily admits he is hiking away from his past, the decadent and reprehensible life of a man named Meredith Eberhard. Today, he tells me, that person no longer exists. “I am ashamed how I lived the first 58 years of my life,” he states. I notice his eyes are misting. “I was a classic Type A personality. Not a likeable person. I didn’t like myself, even. My walks have changed that.”

Along the Appalachian Trail, over 20 years ago, the Nomad found God. He today is a deeply religious man, an antithesis of his odious pre-hiking self. He says walking alone, mile after mile, gives a man time to think, time to ratiocinate with increasing clarity the meaning of one’s life. Surprising, to me, his faith has no “New-Wave” feel to it. It is not mystic or humanist based. It is; he leaves no doubt, a down-home-rock-solid-old-time conservative religion. “I believe in Jesus Christ as my Savior,” he proclaims, his voice full of emotion. “I believe in the Bible as the true word of God.” His hearing is almost gone, he tells me, but his is not deaf tone to the melodious sounds of nature. “You cannot experience nature in the sense I have - just listen - and not believe in a higher being. The world is too complex for a mind of our human limitations to have conceived or created, or to logically explain. That is where faith comes in.”

His spiritual transition has taken time. It has been often painful. Enlightenment did not come cheap. “I sold my optometry practice in 1993 and started spending more and more time alone developing a piece of land I had bought in Northern Georgia, next to a little stream named Nimblewill. I took the name as my own.” Over the next five years, a time he says today he recalls little of; Nomad gave away most of what he owned, eventually divorcing his wife and reinventing himself as a perpetual long distance hiker with no permanent address and few worldly possessions. By the year 2000 and the completion of his eastern seaboard 4,000 mile marathon, the excoriation of Meredith Eberhard was complete.

“Now, I wear my heart on my sleeve,” he says. “Finding the Lord Jesus Christ was an emotional experience for me, the most humbling in my life. I have learned the virtues of love, patience, compassion, and understanding.  Today, I live purely by faith and trust.  I rely on a higher power. Today, I see life from a whole new vantage, a wide and endless horizon and how is the view from here?  Well, it’s called wisdom. Wisdom comes through faith and trust and that trust is administered by God.”

We live in a world fraught with inconsistencies, unpredictability’s and galloping variables. But that is not the world of Nimblewill Nomad. His is a refreshing story. At an age well past when most men have taken up the rocking chair, Nimblewill hikes on, day after day, mile after mile. Along the way he lives a life of freedom most can only dream of. But Nomad is not a dreamer, he is a doer. Possessing a kind soul that warms the spirit of all he encounters on America’s “Open Road,” this little old man  accepts each new day’s challenges with a smile and a nod to a God he knows will provide. He models an inter-contentment I find envious; knowing his task for today will be the same as yesterday’s and identical to tomorrow’s:  keep moving west at a never varying pace of three miles per hour, straight into the setting sun on a direct course to the Land of Milk and Honey.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Of Harry, KMOX and Summer Baseball 1965

Of Harry, KMOX and Summer Baseball 1965
“I just got hooked on the radio, the voice of it all. It was my connection to metropolitan America, if you will. Sports, in particularly baseball then 'cause of its rich sediment of numbers, was one of the first things a young person could peg up with adults on - that is, you could know as much about Jimmy Fox as your father did.”
George Will

Harry Caray
For an eight years old boy in the summer of 1965, when the sun goes down his world expands beyond the limits of rural Missouri. Equipped with only a $4 Sears’ transistor radio, a cheap pair of ear phones and a stash of AA batteries; major league baseball is magically carried through the wonders of the AM airwaves and into his darkened bedroom.

Like a Bob Gibson fastball splitting the night air, the smooth voices of legendary announcers - Hall of Famers like Bob Prince, Jack Brickhouse and Ernie Harwell - mesmerize a boy who lives for nothing but baseball. It allows him a glimpse of greatness, of faraway places, of men who threw and hit baseballs so hard and far that they disappear.

When these radio broadcasting giants speak of America’s pastime; drums roll and flags unfurl. Each summer weekday night KDKA carries the Pittsburgh Pirates; WGN the Cubs (only on the road, Wrigley Field has no lights); WCKY the Cincinnati Reds and if the air wave gods are cooperating this night, the Tigers on Detroit’s clear channel WJR 760.

Ernie Harwell broadcast Detroit Tigers games for over 40 years. In his final broadcast on Sept. 29, 2002, he told his listeners, “Thank you for letting me be a part of your family. Thank you for taking me with you to that cottage Up North, to the beach, the picnic, your workplace and your backyard. Thank you for sneaking your transistor under the pillow as you grew up loving the Tigers.”
However, these are the backups, mere seconds, only to be tuned in on those rare sticky muggy summer nights when the hometown’s St. Louis Cardinals are idle. Most nights; like a favorite Uncle, KMOX radio broadcaster Harry Caray will bring to a wide awake boy all the trials and tribulations of his Cardinals. Set to 1120 on the dial of the red plastic incased radio’s screen, KMOX is the best sports radio station in the history of the worlds’ of 8 years old boys. Caray, the longtime voice of the Cardinals, is the anchor for a city’s ongoing love affair with its baseball team. 

The boy’s dad saw summer life through a prism of family, farming and work. He liked his Schlitz beer cold, his Teamsters’ union strong and his kids quiet and orderly. His two favorite Cardinal mangers were the last one and the next one.

May 1965, the boy accompanied the father to his first live Cardinal game, his first trip to the soon to be abandoned and torn down old Sportsman’s Park. A victim of urban blight, city leaders said. But, seen through the eyes of an 8 years old, it was just like Harry had promised it would be; an awe inspiring and breath taking green cathedral.

The new smells and sounds of a major league baseball park are intoxicating to the boy. The cigar smoke hangs heavy but sweet over the green and lush outfield grass. He arrives early enough for batting practice. The ringing sound made by the crack of a major leaguer’s bat (his ears has never heard such a dominant and forceful sound in the local sandlots) has him on the edge of his left field bleacher seat, glove in hand, just in case.

 Sportsman's Park
If he could have gotten just a little closer, he could have seen with his own eyes the dent in the scoreboard atop the left field sun soaked bleachers caused by Mike Shannon’s 1964 World Series rocket shot home run. Harry said it traveled at least 450 feet from the home plate where 3’7” midget Eddie Gadel had once been sent to pinch hit in a Bill Veeck publicity stunt. That had been years earlier, and not even by the Cards but by the dearly departed St. Louis Browns, but Harry loved to retell the story, at least once every home stand. It was the same home plate Enos Slaughter had touched after scoring from first on a single, a famous mad dash that won for the Birds the ‘46 series, another of Harry’s favorite stories.

A boy’s first trip to a live Cardinals’ game with his father is a sacred part of growing up in St. Louis, MO; a welcome rite of passage, a treasured father son experience the boy would make with his own son to the “new” Busch Stadium, 30 years later. However, for a boy who came of age in the Cardinal’s golden years of Brock, Gibson and Musial; summer baseball memoires are of the radio; KMOX and Harry.

Mom’s routine never varied. Never. Just make sure your bedroom door is left open.  Nightly rounds are made at precisely 9:55 when the lights in the kitchen down the hallway go dark (head phones out, radio under pillow) followed by footsteps (roll on to side, feign sleep), then stir slightly and sleepily mumble when tucked in for the night while awaiting the “all clear” signal, the closing of the bedroom door. Just follow the plan. It is the perfect crime carried out night after summer night, the great escape to the magical after-hours world of Cardinal baseball.

Win or lose, no matter how dire the Cards situation may appear, to not remain always the loyal listener would be treasonous. Late September, 1965 finds the Red Birds mathematically eliminated from the National League pennant race, double digit games behind the hated Dodgers with only single digit games left to play, hopeless. The West Coast game will not start until 10 pm and will not end until well after midnight. This is a school night. So? Koufax is on the hill for the Bums and this minor league wunderkind of whom Harry’s rave reports from down on the farm have teased fans all that long and frustrating summer is to make his Cardinal debut tonight. Bobby Tolan, speed to burn and Harry says he is the perfect future right field complement to All Stars’ Curt Flood in center and Lou Brock in left. This kid can’t miss, Harry assured (but he did).

Fifty years later, in a now middle aged man’s life, the memory of 1965 Cardinal baseball on a cheap transistor radio is lovingly ingrained deep and vivid. Like a well thrown fastball that hisses as it sears the muggy night air; an unhittable aspirin tablet, bringing fear to all those who might dare to disrupt the secure summer nights of an 8 years old boy.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Hallowed Turf: The proud legacy of high school football in a factory town

“To us, the ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground.”
Chief Seattle

1. Hit the Ground Running

“Start where you are. Use what you have.
Do what you can.”
Arthur Ashe

Carved from a Mississippi River flood plain, surrounded by acres of sediment rich soil as black as midnight when cultivated for spring soybean planting; lies 100 yards of hallowed turf.  For the past 88 years this plot has served as testing grounds for the gallantry of a small Missouri town’s young warriors. Since 1928, the Crystal City Hornets have played their home high school football games here.

Today, to the east of the gridiron lays an abandoned railroad track that once served as the lifeline to a thriving factory town. One half mile down these tracks to the south, commencing in the 1880s, the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company (PPG) operated the largest glass manufacturing plant west of the Mississippi River. Around the clock, loaded rail cars would haul in the rich mixture of the glass making ingredients of silica and sand. The finished plate glass would exit via the same tracks, bound for a young nation bursting with industrial growth. For nearly 100 years, this three-shift, seven-day-a-week operation supported generation after generation of an authentic American melting pot. 
A true company town in boom times, a majority of adult males residing in Crystal City worked for PPG. The arrangement provided steady and abundant factory jobs. Immigrant laborers from Italy, Germany, Eastern Europe and Ireland joined transplanted southern blacks - some born into slavery - to form a heterogeneous community that became a safe haven; a fine place for a man to work hard, to raise a God-fearing family, to grow old gracefully and to die content for having built a better life for those who followed.

In 1926, a 24 year old history teacher at Crystal City High School named Aburey (A.E.) Powers took it upon himself to organize a football team, “because our boys need something to do after school.” Powers and his players worked out all that first summer, from 5 am to 8 am, and in September hit the ground running.

The team’s first-ever game was against De Soto and was played in an open field that today serves as the town’s Little League baseball grounds. The Hornets (a nickname Powers claimed to have randomly drawn from a hat) came out on top 6-0, launching the upstarts to a pleasantly surprising first year record of 7-1. A nondescript tackle named John Tinsman, moved to fullback by Powers late in the game, had the honor of scoring the first touchdown in Hornet history. In 1927, the team spent the summer building a field on a ridge off Burgess Avenue and proved its rookie season’s success was no fluke, recording a final mark of 8-2.

In 1975, Powers related, in an entertaining story written by Steve Jennings, a favorite early Hornet memory. “In 1927, we played Kirkwood, a big school from St. Louis. Their coach thought so little of us he didn’t even dress his first team backfield. At halftime it was 12-3 in our favor. I overheard the coach tell his backfield, ‘You boys got to get your suits on, score a couple of touchdowns and I will put the others back in.’ I told our boys that and they just went wild. We won 37-3.” Today, 90 years after the fact, when listening to the coach’s words of how his little country team slapped the arrogance out of the big city slickers – “they just went wild” - time does little to diminish the pride that resonates through the years. Underdog became the Hornets’ mantra and a factory town’s love affair with its feisty little football team had begun.

In 1928, the home field was again relocated, this time permanently to its current river bottom home. In 1964, the grounds were named Dr. J.J. Commerford Field.

By 1929, under Powers’ masterful leadership, the Hornets had earned the respect of the entire St. Louis area, no longer able to sneak up on overconfident big city foes. In the first three years of Hornet football, the young and innovative coach led the small school to an impressive record of 25-4. 

With De Soto the only local competition available, many of the wins came over big city St. Louis schools with five to ten times larger enrollments. The Hornets took on all comers. Roosevelt, Cleveland, St. Louis University High, Normandy, Soldan, Christian Brothers College; a virtual who’s who of the area high school football powers of the time filled out the Hornets’ schedule.

 1926, The Original Hornets
During the early years, Powers even scheduled - and his country boys defeated - several college freshman squads. The St. Louis Post Dispatch reported that the Crystal City High School of 1930 “consists of 105 students, 53 boys, 30 of who are on the football team.” In 1928, the Hornets allowed their goal line to be crossed only once, while scoring 152 points in eleven games and logging major victories over area powers St. Louis University High, 13-0, and Ritenour High, 37-0. So dominant were the Hornets in the win over St. Louis University High, considered at the time the top program in St. Louis, the city 11 never came closer to their end zone than the Hornet’s 38 yard line. Crystal City recorded 18 first downs to the visitors’ measly five. The only blemish on the season ledger in ’28 was a 6-0 loss to the St. Louis University Freshman team. The 10 wins in 1928 remains, to this day, the Hornet’s high mark for a single season.

Powers used deception to compensate for his team’s lack of size. One area coach of the day glibly described the Hornets’ style as such: “They used freakish formations to a great extent and throughout the game had us up in the air trying to fathom the plays.”

Crystal City became the first team in the area to play at night. On September 26, 1930, one year into the Great Depression, the resourceful Powers had somehow found the funds to install “flood lights” at his river bottom field. The squad from Normandy High School provided the opening night opposition. It was reported in the St. Louis Post Dispatch that, “with their field forming a natural stadium, the installation of lights makes it one of the most attractive high school football fields in the state.” The lights of the time were of such a poor standard that a special white football was designed to help players see the pigskin. For some perspective, Major League Baseball did not play its first night game until five years after the trend-setting Hornets had initiated their own version of “Friday Night Lights.”

A date on the Hornet’s dance card became the hottest ticket in the area, schools lining up for the chance to experience nighttime football. In 1930, CC’s first seven games were all played on their home turf and all on Friday night.

In 1946, visiting foe Principia chartered several special rail coaches and received permission from PPG to park them on the railroad tracks next to the field. Filled with their team, the school faculty, the student body and “a large number of supporters” from the St. Louis school, the entire festive troupe was, one hour before game time, dropped off, valet parking style, at the field’s east sideline.
The factory railroad tracks that adjoined the north/south field on the east provided a great sightline and a free view of the game. Stories are told of second shift factory workers being given “extended lunch breaks” to walk the short distance up the tracks from the factory to cheer on their team.

Within a decade, the red-and-black-clad Crystal City Hornets had become an inherent shining light in the life of a depression era factory town, a source of deep and abiding civic pride.

Powers departed Crystal City after the 1932 season. A progression of seven coaches then took the Hornets through the remainder of the Great Depression and the war years. Several seasons performances stand out, most notably the 1946 team, coached by Murrell Godwin, that won the Jefferson County Conference and finished with an 8-1 mark. Godwin eventually crossed Highway 61 to become the athletic director and football coach at hated rival Festus.

2. Coach Arvel Popp

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”
Lao Tzu

The coaching carousel stopped in 1948 when Arvel Popp was lured away from Dexter, Missouri High School to take the reins of the Hornets. Popp stayed for 27 years, winning six conference titles. Crystal City football was well known when Popp arrived. When he retired, it was legendary. A Southeast Missouri native of the town of Perryville and a World War II vet, Popp was an enigmatic leader, aloof and disengaged from the community. He ran his Hornets as an unbending disciplinarian, totally above the grasp and influence of any of the town’s power brokers. Renown in his younger days as a bar room brawler who seldom came up short with his fists, Popp made and lived by his own rules. The crusty coach had no interest in moving into school administration nor harbored any plans of using his coaching notoriety as a stepping stone to outside enriching employment. He was first, foremost, and only - a coach.

Running off the unwilling, while molding the survivors into men, to Popp football was an equivalence test of character. It was an era when a football coach often had more influence over a young man than his own father. “I played for Coach Popp,” 1954 grad Rodney Mills recalls. “He was a ‘rub a little dirt on it and get back in there’ type of coach.” As a winning football coach in the America of the 1950s, Popp wielded  both respect and power, his steely glare over the years cutting like a laser through many a malingering high school boy. Coaching was his life’s calling and Crystal City had proved to be the perfect fit. 

Popp was also the head coach of the basketball team. Over his long career his Cagers won nearly 800 games, over 500 by his Hornet teams. Interestingly, he had more success in his first decade of tenure at CCHS leading the Hornets on the hardwood than he did on the gridiron. Having the round ball skills of  Bill Bradley, at the time then state’s all-time leading scorer, a future collegiate All-American, All-Pro, Rhodes Scholar, captain of the gold medal winning 1964 Olympic team and a 18 year U.S. Senator, at his disposal, didn’t hurt. Bradley said that Popp was the only man, “I would ever call Coach.”

However, Popp left no doubt that the flagship program at his Crystal City High School would always be his football team. The no nonsense taskmaster made it very clear that any young man wearing the red and black who dreamed of basketball glory had better dutifully report the first day of fall football practice. He made an exception for Bradley, although as an 8th grader Popp had told the future Princeton Tiger and New York Knicks star that he would make him the “greatest pass catching end in the history of the University of Missouri’s football team.” Bradley passed on the offer and spent his high school falls preparing for the upcoming hoops season. But, as Popp would for years inform many a basketball player wannabee balking at his football playing responsibilities, “You are no Bradley.” Danny LaRose, 1957 alum, remembers, “You couldn’t even wear a letter jacket unless you played football, Coach Popp’s rule. I don’t think even Bradley got one.”

In 1953, led by all-state center Jack O’Bryan, Popp produced his first championship team. The Hornets finished 8-0-1 to win the conference title. O’Bryan would go on to play at the University of Missouri, the first of many stars Popp would send to the state university. It was a harbinger, under Popp’s tutelage, of good times to come.

During the 1960’s, Popp would bring back two of his former players as assistant coaches. Over the next 25 years Dick Cook and Rodney Mills would both leave their indelible coaching mark upon their alma mater.

Dick Cook graduated from CCHS in 1956. He then played football and ran track at the University of Missouri. The cerebral Cook would successfully wear many coaching hats in his long tenure at CCHS and over the years has filled a plethora of civic leadership roles as a respected public servant in support of his beloved home town. After college graduation, Cook had short stays as an assistant coach at Poplar Bluff High School (three years) and Herculaneum High School (one year) before in 1964 joining Popp at CCHS. Cook jumped at the chance to return to his home high school. “In 1964,” says Cook, “Crystal City was a destination stop for any teacher or coach. This is where you wanted to be. Teachers and coaches at other schools envied us. I knew once I was here, I would never leave.”

Rodney Mills played football for and earned his teaching credentials from Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau. After receiving his college degree, he spent four years as an assistant coach at Herculaneum before in 1962 joining Popp’s staff at CCHS. Mills was the “Renaissance Man” of the Hornet coaching staff. By day, he taught the complexities of the structure of the English language to an often unmotivated captive audience of 15 year old sophomores. After school, he corrected the errors of would-be football lineman with a combination of inspirational practice field quotes and the surgically precise placement of the pointed end of a size 12 Wilson coaching shoe up an offender’s ass. He once told a hapless punter in a JV game that if the young man shanked just one more punt, “I am going to raise more hell than the alligators did when the pond went dry.” Somehow, his varied and disparate approaches would find a confluence and Mills was well liked and successful in both venues. To this day, at 80 years of age, Mills remains unbroken, irreverent and in his own words, “loudly humble.”

“Crystal City in the ‘50s was a great place to grow up and Crystal City in the ‘60s was a great place to coach,” Mills remembers.

Popp, in time, deferred most of the running of the football program to his two trusted assistants. From 1964 on, Cook ran the offense, Mills the defense. Mills’ 1964 defense was so impregnable they were not scored upon until the 4th quarter of the final game of the season, when Fredericktown returned a punt for a touchdown. At the time, the Hornets led 39-0 and had a number of young substitutes in the game. Cook’s 1970 Hornet offense averaged 39.1 points per game.

Cook would succeed his mentor as the Hornet’s head coach upon Popp’s retirement in 1976. After the 1983 season, Cook stepped down and Mills took over the head coaching duties until his retirement in 1986.

Arvel Popp passed away on January 25, 1996 at the age of 81.

3. A Shining Exception

“The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice.”

Mark Twain

In 1954, the United States Supreme Court handed down its landmark Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education decision, a ruling that outlawed the racial segregation of the nation’s public schools. As a southern border state, the evil of separate but equal Jim Crow was deeply rooted in rural Missouri’s social norms. Many Missouri school districts initially ignored the federal edict then challenged it in the state courts first, and then the federal courts, often delaying school desegregation in many Missouri towns until far into the 1960s.

Crystal City was a shining exception.

Led by an educated school board, many of its members college grads who worked in administrative roles at the local PPG plant, the district immediately and fully desegregated its high school. In 1955, Popp issued football uniforms to three African-American athletes; Richard Byas, Bennie Evans and Don Riney. In the years that followed, African-American student-athletes would play prominent roles on every outstanding Hornet squad.

“I was a senior in the fall of 1955, when the three (African-Americans) joined our team,” remembers Dick Cook.  “It was never an issue. They were never excluded, due to their race, from anything we did as a team. If we hung out as a team at a certain place away from school, they hung with us.” Cook remembers a sort of de facto segregation in the community before 1955 - nothing written, but just an accepted fact that there were certain places in town local blacks just didn’t patronize. “Looking back, I feel we broke a lot of those (assumed) racial barriers, although at the time we didn’t realize it. I remember no problems anywhere we went as a team. Athletics, no doubt, helped in the transition,” Cook recalls. “If you wore our uniform, you were our teammate. It was that simple.” All three black athletes earned their acceptance by proving their mettle on the football field. “If they could help us win, then that was all that mattered,” says Cook.

Danny LaRose in the 1960 Orange Bowl
Former Hornet Danny LaRose was an established star player at the University of Missouri in 1958 when St. Louis Vashon High School graduate Norris Stevenson became the first African-American to earn a foototball scholarship to the state’s flagship university. LaRose put into practice the diversity lessons he had learned as a Hornet teammate to Byas, Evans and Riney. Years later, upon his induction to the Missouri Athletic Hall of Fame, Stevenson gave a newspaper interview in which he recalled the positive role LaRose played in Stevenson’s trailblazing and sometimes rocky path as a Tiger.

 “When I first came to (Missouri) Danny LaRose was a team leader and (he) went out of his way to make me feel welcome,” a still grateful Stevenson remembered. Racism was a constant companion for Stevenson in his years at Mizzou. With many football players from the South on the roster and a campus heavily decorated with the Confederate Flag and a “Dixie gonna do it again” mentality, without the symbolic message the respected LaRose’s actions sent to the rest of the squad, Stevenson feels his road to acceptance, or at least tolerance, would have been much steeper. “It says a lot about LaRose’s character,” said Stevenson. “It wasn’t a popular stance he took with many on the team at the time.” But it was a just stance and LaRose’s actions validate the progressive action the Crystal City public schools took in 1955.

Today, LaRose eschews with a cavalier shrug his role in Stevenson’s story and plays down any noble intent on his part in befriending him. “Anybody that knows me, knows I am a big jokester,” LaRose says. “I just liked the guy because he was like me, always kidding around. I am not political and never have been. The other black player on the team at the time was Mel West from Jefferson City. Mel and Norris were two of my best friends on the team. Mel was very light-skinned for a black guy. I had been outside all summer working construction and I was really dark from the sun. One time, Mel and I went downtown together and this lady in a restaurant says, ‘Oh, you two boys are so tan.’ We laughed and laughed at that one.”

 #27 Randy Cayce in 1965's Farmington game
However, Crystal City High School in the 1950s and 60s was not a racial utopia either.  Randy Cayce was a standout African-American running back and defensive back for the 1963 to 1965 Hornets and remembers the volatile years of desegregation with negatives many local whites did not see, or maybe, choose today not to remember. Even as a star football player in a football crazy town, Cayce was not immune to the intolerance that seethed below the surface of small town 1960s America, left to wonder as to the level of sincerity of the postgame back slaps heaped upon him by smitten white fans. Cayce had attended the “colored” Star Elementary School. “It was a hard time,” Cayce says today, recalling the trauma-induced anxiety of a young teenage boy moving up to a just-integrated high school. Cayce agrees that the power positions in the community were manned by progressive minds, and that expedited school integration, but the hateful sting was still felt. “The racists were still there. Even if they had no power, (they) couldn’t keep us out of school like they did some places, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t make our lives miserable, and some did. It was over 50 years ago, but I still remember the hurt.”

Having been taught by a proud father to never be bitter, Cayce’s views today of his years at CCHS are shaped with a more philosophical bent than when he was younger, tempered by the years, which he says, brings perspective. “There was racism, for sure, in Crystal City in the ‘60s. How could there not be, considering the times? I mean, this was several years before Dr. King was murdered; we still had a long ways to go. But, when we went to practice, that all changed. My teammates were great, I can’t emphasize that enough. And Coach Cook and his wife were like second parents to me, (as) fine a people as I have ever known. You see, that is why sports are so important. My teammates knew me as a person, respected me as a teammate. There are good people and there are bad people everywhere. Athletics brought out the good people of Crystal City. I have always been proud to be from Crystal City.” 

4. The Standouts

“Oh, the days of Kerry dancing, 

    Oh, the ring of the pipers tune,

Oh, for one of those hours of gladness,

   Gone, alas, like our youth, too soon.”

Irish Folk Song

The Hornets’ first marquee player was Benny La Presta. Playing in the backfield for the 1926 and 1927 teams, he was described in the local media as a, “flashy line plunger and broken field runner. The short but husky Italian is a dependable blocker and he knows how to back up his line.” After his high school graduation, La Presta matriculated 30 miles north to St. Louis University where in 1930, 1931 and 1932 he was the leading ground gainer and point maker for the Billikens in an era when the Missouri Valley Conference member played a major college football schedule. 

 Depression era star Bennie Le Presta
After both the 1931 and 1932 seasons, La Presta was named an All-American. He was labeled, “one of the greatest football players ever developed at a local university.” In 1933, La Presta joined the Boston Redskins of the professional National Football League, becoming the first of several former Hornets who would play pro football. He later toiled for the St. Louis Gunners and the Cincinnati Reds. After leaving professional football, the scholarly La Presta worked for the Internal Revenue Service and was a college and high school football referee. In August of 1975, at the age of 66, while exercising in preparation for his upcoming season’s officiating schedule, La Presta suffered a fatal heart attack.

Danny LaRose was arguably the best to ever pad up for the Hornets. The 1957 CCHS grad went on to become one of the top linemen in the history of the University of Missouri Tigers. After his 1960 senior year, LaRose, a two way end, was named to several All-American teams. He finished in the top ten in that fall’s Heisman Trophy balloting for top player in the nation, the highest rating that season of any lineman. A first round NFL draft choice of the Detroit Lions, LaRose played offensive tackle for four NFL teams over a seven year career. LaRose is now retired from a second career, selling medical equipment; living the good life with his wife in a riverside log cabin in upstate Michigan.

“Danny was just a big old kid in high school,” remembers teammate Cook. “He played in the line and didn’t get a lot of recognition. But when he got to Mizzou, he just took off.”

 Bill Bradley and Arvel Popp
“For me, growing up in Crystal City, sports were everything,” LaRose recalls. “My mom died when I was 13 and my older sister was in nursing school, so it was just me and my dad at home. Every other week he worked the evening shift over at PPG, so for a week I would not see him at all. I was always up at the school playing sports for something to do. Once, I was home alone cooking some Spaghetti O’s and I forgot it was Friday night and we had a game and the bus pulls up to my house and Coach Popp is yelling at me to get my big dumb butt on the bus.”

“Coach knew I was on my own a lot and he looked out for me,” LaRose continued. “Coach was a hard-nosed old school type of guy. He is one of the most honest people I've ever met. Sometimes he would be too honest, and it could hurt your feelings. But that honesty was what a kid like me needed to hear. His son, Jerry, was my age and Coach was really hard on the poor guy, use to make him box me in the gym and I was a lot bigger, but I better not let up, either, or coach would have been all over me. But, Coach also had a soft side he tried hard to hide. He knew I needed some special looking after and he saw I got it.”

“Sports in high school kept me in school, no doubt,” LaRose says. “I just had so much fun in high school. In 1957, Richard Byas and I were a two man track team and we won the state track meet. Richard won both sprints and the hurdles race and I won the shot and discus. Fifty points between us and it was good enough to win. Richard was so fast, unbelievably fast. His mom had never seen him play football and she finally came to a game one night. Richard scores four touchdowns that game and his mom makes him quit football. Said she never realized it was so rough. Can you believe that? But man, was he fast, fast as anyone I played with in pro ball. Only one who could slow him down, I guess, was his mom.”

Nineteen fifty-one CCHS grad Ike Jennings was a two way lineman at the University of Missouri and for the Green Bay Packers. The charismatic “Big Ike” looked the way a football player in the 1950s was supposed to look and he acted the way a football player in the 1950s was supposed to act. In high school, he was a combination of strength and speed, witnessed by winning the state track title in both the shot put and the 440 yard (400 meter) dash. After his brief career with the Packers, Jennings was for six years an assistant coach, and then the head coach of county rival Herculaneum, but he never forgot his CCHS roots. After leaving coaching to enter private business, Jennings was a highly visible and vocal supporter of his home school and several of his offspring were star Hornet athletes. As one friend said about Jennings’ life of the party personality, “You liked him or you didn’t, but you never forgot him.” Jennings passed away in 2007 at 74 years of age.

Bill Schmidt was another Hornet who found success on the collegiate field in Columbia, Missouri. A two way star for the Hornets and a senior leader for the 1965 undefeated, untied juggernaut; from 1967 to 1969 Schmidt was a defensive mainstay for three of Dan Devine’s most decorated University of Missouri teams. In the Festus game, his high school senior year, Schmidt suffered a horrific injury, a broken back that left him in a brace for four months. Most college suitors lost interest in securing Schmidt’s future football services. Not Mizzou. Popp’s reputation as a straight shooter convinced the home state university to take a chance on a player many now considered, “damaged goods.” Then Mizzou Assistant Coach Al Onofrio said during Schmidt’s junior season at Mizzou, “Coach Popp recommended him and Coach Popp’s word has always been good enough for us.”

Randy Cayce, a 1966 CCHS grad, played a leading role on the undefeated 1964 and 1965 squads. The marquee member of a talented backfield on offense and a ball hawking defender, Cayce used a freakish mixture of strength, size and speed to dominate opponents. Coach Popp, after Cayce’s senior year, stated that Cayce was one of the fastest players to ever suit up for one of his teams. Coach Rodney Mills has a fond Cayce memory he likes to tell. “We are playing up at Fox. Coach Cook calls for Randy to sweep to the right. Of course, where ever Randy went, so did the 11 on the other side. Well, Randy sees he is boxed in, comes to a complete stop, I mean a complete stop with both feet; he looks around and then takes off around the left end and outruns the whole Fox team for a touchdown. Nobody laid a hand on him. I saddled up to Coach Cook on the sideline and said, ‘Nice call Coach, just how you drew it up.’”

Playing college football first at Mesa Junior College in Colorado and then Wichita State University in Kansas; Cayce completed his eligibility at WSU one year prior to the October 1970 plane crash that wiped-out a majority of the football team. “The coaches at WSU wanted me to redshirt and I said, no, or I would have still been playing at WSU in 1970,” Cayce states about a fateful decision that possibly saved his life. “I even went to summer school to graduate on time (May, 1970). I wanted to get to pro ball as quick as I could, or I would have been on that plane. It has just been in the last year that I could force myself to visit the crash site. I was on the practice field with the (Denver) Broncos when I was called off and told that the plane had crashed. Since that moment, I have felt I am living on borrowed time. I try to make each day count.”

Cayce spent three years as a running back with the Denver Broncos and one year as a teammate with OJ Simpson (“everyone wants to know about OJ,” Cayce says with a laugh) on the Buffalo Bills roster. In 1973, after a knee injury, he left football behind and settled in the Denver, Colorado, area. Cayce is now retired from a long career with the Denver Fire Department. He spends his days running the flooring installation company he has owned since the 1970s and doting over his four grown children and 14 grandchildren.

The introspective Cayce, the son of a father who never, “let me get too full of myself,” keeps his role as a football hero in the well-grounded reality of his small town raising. “Many people in Denver remember me as a Bronco,” Cayce states, “but I am also proud of my years with the fire department. I have signed a lot of autographs over the years because a long time ago I ran with a ball. I saved lives with the fire department and nobody ever asked for my autograph. Tell me, which job was more important, more impacting?”

5. The Golden Years

“Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.”
Vince Lombardi

Without question, the golden age of Crystal City football was a five season run from 1963 to 1967. The Hornets dominated the area with a 41-4-1 record. Along the way they pounded out an 18 game winning streak and spun the program’s only undefeated, untied season, 1965’s 9-0 masterpiece. After a   gut-wrenching last second loss to Herculaneum to end the 1963 season, the Hornets would not taste defeat again until 1966. Only a scoreless tie with Herculaneum in the second game of the 1964 season marred a perfect three year record.