AS THE 1949 football season moved into November, only the most stubborn blades of grass remained on Laidley Field’s overused playing surface. It was a perennial problem.
Beginning in early September, football teams representing Charleston’s four high schools and five of its junior highs, as well as Morris Harvey College, played their home games there, depleting the field of grass and leaving a gummy, clay-like substance that, in the event of rain, quickly turned to mud. Gazette sports columnist Shorty Hardman called the field “a hog pen.’’ Gazette sportswriter Skip Johnson said it “was chopped up like a pound of hamburger.’’
On the morning of Saturday Nov. 12, 1949, the Stonewall Jackson High School team arrived at Laidley by school bus in anticipation of its annual clash with Charleston High — the city’s top sports event of the year — and found the field’s condition even more problematic.
“There was six inches of mud on the field,’’ Dick Harrah, Stonewall’s quarterback that day, recalled 68 years later.
“They turned the hose on,’’ added Bill Jarrett, an SJ defensive back-running back, “and left it on all night.’’
Moments later in the Generals’ locker room, Stonewall coach Russ Parsons addressed the situation. Suspecting that a CHS advocate had watered the field to neutralize Stonewall’s speed, he picked up the telephone and, raising his voice noticeably, demanded that the damage be repaired in time for the 2 p.m. kickoff.
“I’m not sure who he called,’’ said Harrah, “but he was raising three kinds of hell about it. He was on the phone talking to someone.’’
Hoppy Shores, the Generals’ big-play running back, figured his coach had called Mayor John Copenhaver and, more than anything, remembers Parsons’ bravado. The coach even threatened to have the mayor fired, saying, “If you don’t have the field dry, you’re gonna be looking for a new job.’’
The phone conversation, said Shores, impressed the players.
“We kids were sitting there,’’ he said, “and we said, ‘He’s got the mayor on the phone.’ He said, ‘I don’t care if he’s in bed. I don’t care. This is Russ Parsons from Stonewall.’ And it was unbelievable what that did to the players.’’
All these years later, Shores still doesn’t know if Parsons was actually talking to the mayor or simply using an inspirational ploy moments before the Generals’ biggest game of the season.
“To this day,’’ said Shores, “I still don’t think anybody knows if he really got the mayor out of bed. But for us kids, oh gosh, that impressed us. We thought he was talking to the mayor. We heard every bit of it.’’
Whatever the case, Laidley Field groundskeeper Bob Sloan and his crew went to work and restored the field to reasonable playability in time for the game. And if, in fact, Parsons’ telephone rant was intended to be inspirational, it didn’t work on that occasion. CHS defeated SJ 27-21, prompting the joyous Mountain Lions to douse their coaches, Eddie Bartrug, Clay Martin and Jack Lowe, in the showers — a 1940s version of Gatorade glory.
In attendance was a crowd of about 12,000, slightly exceeding the 11,728 capacity. Makeshift bleachers were installed in the end zones to accommodate the overflow.
Stonewall, a 10-year-old West Side school, had defeated CHS in each of the three previous seasons, outscoring the Mountain Lions by a combined 79-19, but the 1949 loss capped a disappointing season at Stonewall, at least by the school’s standards of the day. Parsons’ team finished the year at 6-3 but had gone through the 1947 and ’48 seasons without a loss, suffering only a 14-14 tie against Huntington East in 1948. After a 1946 loss to East Bank, the Generals reeled off a 28-game unbeaten streak.
The Generals’ 10-0 record in 1947 earned them a co-state championship with Beckley. The two teams tied in the final ratings in which there was no postseason play. In 12 seasons at Stonewall beginning in 1944, Parsons posted a 77-36-1 record and won eight straight state track titles, winning 49 consecutive meets along the way.
In his heyday as one of the state’s most influential coaches, the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Russ Parsons wielded the political, financial and social clout to call the mayor and, in fact, chew him out.High school football dominated the sports pages and attracted Laidley Field crowds of 10,000 or more in those pre-television days. In the Generals’ undefeated season of 1947, they attracted 67,000 fans for six home games, and the SJ-CHS game easily outdrew West Virginia University’s annual game at Laidley, usually against Washington & Lee.
Back then, crosstown and statewide bragging rights mattered greatly. Indeed, the Stonewall Jackson boosters club took such pride in the Generals that speculation arose that club members bought Parsons a new car and helped pay for his home at 816 Edgewood Drive in the West Side’s most prestigious neighborhood.
“That’s true,’’ said Harrah, who spent 45 years operating an automotive engine business. “The first car they bought for him was a ’48 [Buick] Roadmaster. And I’m not sure how much they contributed to paying off his house, but they contributed. I wouldn’t say they bought it, but I’m sure he had some help on it.’’
Shores is more emphatic. “They bought him a house on Edgewood Drive,’’ said the longtime insurance executive.
Jarrett, who later played football at West Virginia and coached at Stonewall, is skeptical.
“I cannot believe that,’’ he said. “I think he helped his mother-in-law pay for a house while he was working in the mines. And then when he got a house over here, maybe she helped him a little bit. A boosters club is not going to give you a big house on Edgewood Drive.’’
Parsons wielded similar clout in Stonewall’s corridors. He made arrangements for needy students — athletes and non-athletes — to eat lunch for free in the school cafeteria. As a Charleston native and well-respected figure, the coach probably had connections to local benefactors willing to pick up the tab, particularly if it meant keeping the football team well-fed.
If Parsons knew that one of his players was not eating well at home, he might reach into his wallet, pull out a few bucks and suggest he get a steak dinner at Shrader’s Restaurant, a former West Side landmark at the corner of Central and Delaware avenues.
The Generals practiced behind the school on a field that posed risks. The players’ relentless footsteps would sometimes expose rocks buried beneath the surface, prompting the Generals’ student manager, armed with a pick, to hurry onto the field for quick excavation work. The running track surrounding the field was lined with cinders, presenting another challenge. When players tumbled onto the track, cinders inevitably penetrated their skin.An occasional visitor to Stonewall practices was Paul “Bear’’ Bryant, the University of Kentucky’s up-and-coming young coach. Bryant would make the trip from Lexington to chat with Parsons and check out local talent. He recruited at least one Stonewall player, quarterback Bill Farley, who backed up UK’s Babe Parilli.
Other visitors were not so welcome. Opposing coaches or their representatives likewise would show up, skulking along Garden Street, which overlooked the practice field. They would peer down, hoping to learn some of Parsons’ secrets, trying to remain out of sight. The coach invariably would spot them and, in a nice bit of gamesmanship, continue practice but run bogus plays.
Parsons sometimes would show up for practice wearing no shoes or shirt, even on cold days, giving rise to the nickname “The Barefoot Boy from Jackson Heights.’’ Even so, he would engage his players in one-on-one blocking and tackling drills, giving him a chance, especially on those cold days, to show off his toughness, hoping it would rub off on the players.
To keep up with football’s latest innovations, he would venture into Ohio to attend clinics conducted by Cleveland Browns coach Paul Brown.
Stonewall Jackson High opened in the fall of 1940 to ease congestion at Charleston High, a downtown school built in 1926 for 1,600 students. But as the city’s population grew — from 60,408 in 1930 to 67,914 in 1940 — CHS enrollment approached 3,000, forcing school officials to schedule half the students in the morning and the other half in the afternoon.
The city’s population continued to rise throughout the 1940s, reaching 72,818 in 1950. On Nov. 18, 1948 — two days before Stonewall defeated CHS 21-13 at Laidley — Stone & Thomas Department Store opened at Lee and Dickinson streets, attracting 15,000 shoppers and clogging traffic throughout the day.
In that same month, the Diamond Department Store at Capitol and Washington streets introduced escalators, the first in the state. Meanwhile, down Kanawha Boulevard at Clendenin Street, construction was underway on a new Sears Roebuck store.
The prosperity, however, did not extend to Laidley Field. In addition to the grassless playing surface, the north stands had no restrooms, and the south stands had just one set, posing quite a problem on days when 12,000 fans filled the stadium. Hardman blamed the “big wheels’’ at the Board of Education.
Parsons was born in Charleston, grew up in South Hills and attended Charleston High, where he earned all-state football honors playing for coach Rocco Gorman.After a year at Greenbrier Military School, he played four seasons at New River State College in Montgomery (the forerunner of West Virginia Tech) and remained at New River for another three years, working as an assistant coach and continuing to play under an assumed name in an era of lax enforcement of eligibility rules.
In 1933, the 30-year-old Parsons began his coaching career at Oak Hill and spent nine seasons there, followed by two more at Charleston Catholic. After 12 seasons at Stonewall, he began a 12-year stint at Parkersburg High in 1956, where he inherited a 4-6 team and won a state championship two years later with a 10-0-1 record, outscoring the opposition 327-123. In his 35 seasons, he had a 267-84-19 record. In 1974, he was chosen to the West Virginia Sportswriters Hall of Fame. In 1999, Sports Illustrated named him one of the state’s top 50 sports figures of the 20th Century.
Along the way, out-of-town sportswriters accused him of skirting the rules and said state school authorities had reprimanded him. Opposing coaches said he was not averse to running up the score.
As Parkersburg coach in 1962, his Big Reds roughed up Huntington 68-0, handing the Pony Express its worst defeat ever. Afterward, Huntington coach Claude Miller said Parsons lacked sportsmanship.
“I don’t think Parsons ever substituted on defense,’’ he said, “not even in the fourth quarter. That’s the way he is. My day will come, and when it does, I’ll beat him 900-0 if I can.’’
Parsons defended himself, saying he kept the starters in the game to give them the experience needed against more challenging foes down the road.
In 1948, the Generals routed Dunbar 52-0 in front of a Laidley Field crowd of 7,500 and, in doing so, outgained the Bulldogs 452-46. For whatever reason, tempers flared, four players were ejected for unsportsmanlike conduct and, suddenly, with 4:40 left in the game, a fight broke out and continued for five minutes, involving players, coaches, police and fans.
The Daily Mail called it a “near-riot.’’ A fan was knocked unconscious, and one of Dunbar’s reserves, Eugene Skiles, suffered a broken leg.
During the 28-game unbeaten streak at Stonewall, it helped that Parsons had a running back like Shores. The 5-foot-8, 135-pounder, who later attended WVU on a track scholarship, won the Kennedy Award in 1949 — it was the Heisman back then — as the state’s top high school football player. He carried only 88 times that season but averaged 8.9 yards in gaining 785 yards and scoring 15 touchdowns.
In the Dunbar game, Shores carried only nine times but rushed for 121 yards and, earlier in the season, gained 153 yards on just six attempts in a 46-6 defeat of Parkersburg.
After a 27-0 victory over Fairmont Senior, veteran Polar Bear coach Biz Dawson said, “If Hoppy Shores had played for my team, the score would have been reversed.’’
It also helped that Parsons had players like Jarrett, who not only earned a WVU football scholarship but was the high-point man in the 1949 state track meet. Among Parsons’ other Stonewall stars were Dean Dugger, who earned All-America honors at Ohio State, Don Dugger, who played at Michigan, and Jim Danter, who was a Mountaineer captain in the mid-1950s.
Parsons’ football life was not without its awkward moments, however. As a Charleston High tackle in the early 1920s, he picked up a fumble against Huntington and began sprinting toward the end zone — the wrong end zone.His coach, Rocco Gorman, chased him down the sideline, loudly informing him to go the other way. Parsons then stopped suddenly and tried to reverse himself but was met ferociously by two Pony Express players not wanting him to correct his mistake.
The collision knocked him out. He left the field on a stretcher.
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