Backyard Football

We lived out from town about two miles from the city limits of Baton Rouge on Perkins Road. Perkins was a two lane parish road (no counties in Louisiana) that led to farms and eventually to the Airline Highway which was the main highway to New Orleans. All of the houses along our stretch of Perkins were built on two to three acre plots. The Kansas City Southern Railway tracks ran behind our houses parallel to Perkins so all of the lots went from street to tracks and were roughly two hundred feet wide.

My parents bought our house from an old retired couple looking to move to a nursing home. I was nine when we moved in. The lot was rather barren so Dad, with my help, began planting it. He put trees, primarily oaks and pines, and shrubs everywhere except he left an area in the back completely open. This area was our ball field. It was big enough for football or baseball. Five of us boys, all about the same age lived in the same area. The field would serve us well until we outgrew it. Many a day were spent on that field.  Of course, no game could begin until I had finished my chores.

Across Perkins Road from our house was the LSU Agricultural Experimental Farm. It was here that experimental crops were grown and studied by LSU faculty and students. The fields were tended by Negro families who lived in shotgun houses on the property.  The families lived rent free, made a small salary and the kids were bused to Negro schools.

While the men tended to the fields several of the women made additional money as maids for the white people who lived on our side of the road. The women could make three dollars a day plus hand-me-down clothes and left over food. This was a relative good life for Negro families in the fifties.

As the crops grew and matured, we white boys would foray at night across the road to spy on the “Coloreds” and steal a watermelon or two.  We did this spying because we were curious.  All we knew about Negros is what we overheard our parents saying. As far as we knew, Jackie Robinson was all they had. It was like a military mission—spy on the enemy and steal his weapons (crops). Besides watermelons, we also stole cantaloupes, peanuts and corn. The farm was large so our petty thievery didn’t impact much, but did make us feel courageous and unafraid.

One afternoon, several of us were passing the football when we noticed a couple of colored kids cautiously approach us from the direction of the farm.  We walked out to meet them, nervous but ready for anything. After preteen type introductions, their spokesman, a kid named Willie, said, “We wanna play some football wit’ y’all kids. Ya know, us against y’all.”

Joel, the oldest in our group responded, “Yeah, that might be fun. When ya wanna play?”

“What about Sun’ay afternoon, ‘bout two o’clock, after church.”

“Okay, sounds good.  See y’all then.”

We were all excited. We practiced and made up plays for the next three days in preparation for the big game. We didn’t tell our parents because we didn’t know what their reaction would be or if they would even let us go through with the game.

When Sunday came, we were ready. Both sides were tense but after a few plays it was just twelve kids, six on a side, playing rough and tumble football. I never thought of game as a race war, only a football war. We wanted to beat the “niggers” and they wanted to beat the white guys, both sides wanting to prove they were better.

When I first tackled one of them and fell in the pile, I was surprised. Their skin felt just like ours did. We were more alike than I knew. The game started out fun, but as we played, it became more aggressive and serious. It was tackle football with no uniforms, helmets, or pads.

I relied on guts and brains. Talent was not my forte. I got out of the way when I needed to, but got in the middle of it when I thought I had a chance. As the game progressed, it became even more serious. The hitting was harder, the name calling was earthier—the stakes were higher. The game reached a point when Joel and Willie thought the game had gone on long enough. Emotions were running high and someone was going to get hurt.

The game was close and to this day I am not sure who won. Each side was keeping their own score. I’ll tell you who really won—the kids.We had a new appreciation of each other, and knew we were all made of the same stuff. The Negros went back across the road, and we went to our houses to get some ointment and band aids from our moms. For some reason we never played together again. However, mutual respect was learned on that backyard field in the autumn of 1956.

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