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Tailback Dan Droze passed 18 yards to End Dave Harris for a touchdown with six minutes to play and gave the Public High All Stars a 12-7 victory over St. John’s before 8800 at Griffith Stadium yesterday.”
That’s the first paragraph of the Washington Post’s write-up of the city’s last high school football game of the 1954 season. It’s got the who, what, when, and where right up top, like all good newspaper stories used to.
But there’s nothing in that lede, or anywhere else in the story, that would let somebody reading the words all these years later know that the St. John’s vs. All-Stars contest was much more than just another game. Or that the Droze-to-Harris pass gave a Hollywood ending to what could be regarded as the most significant schoolboy sporting event in D.C. sports history.
Droze was an all-star runner for the all-white Anacostia Indians. During the regular season, Harris played both ways for all-black Cardozo. Before this game, held on Dec. 4, 1954, blacks and whites in D.C. had never played alongside or against each other in a sanctioned game. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education had been handed down in May, and while District schools moved as fast as any jurisdiction in the country to integrate, the football schedule for that fall was already set.
So all the city’s white schools, lumped together in what was called Division 1, played other white schools, and the black schools in Division 2 played only black schools. Same as it ever was.
But, to signal the sea change, D.C. athletic administrators changed the format of the regular season-ending all-star game, opening it up to Division 2 players for the first time.
Harris had never even practiced with white players before. As the all-star team’s first practice approached, Sal Hall, his head coach at Cardozo, gave Harris a talk about the importance of what he was about to be a part of.
“Sal Hall said this is a very important game, a turning point in history, and it’s a game that everybody’s going to remember,” Harris tells me. “He said that while we want to win the game, and while it’d be great to beat St. John’s, this is bigger than the game. The whole thing is about having the right attitude, the right disposition, be a class act for everybody. I approached it like it was historical: guys from the white side of town and guys from the black side of town, getting together.”
Anacostia had the roughest go, integration-wise, of all schools in the city. Shortly after the ’54 school year began, 42 black students were reassigned to Anacostia, which had an all-white enrollment of about 1,300 students at the time. That led to a series of large and occasionally violent demonstrations. On Oct. 4, some white Anacostia students called for a walkout to protest the black students’ arrival. According to news reports at the time, 500 pupils rallied against integration on the sidewalk in front of the school.
Droze says he was among the crowd. “I really don’t think most kids knew what they were getting into that day,” he told me a few years ago, “other than hanging around and getting out of school.” He went back to class, he says, as soon as a football coach threatened to kick him off the team. He went on to lead the Indians to the first Division 1 title in the school’s history.
Like Harris, Droze had never even been through an integrated practice before. Droze says he doesn’t remember his Anacostia coach, Zuzu Stewart, who was also the head coach of the all-star team, emphasizing any historic angle when prepping him for the city’s first integrated game.
“We were told that we would be playing with black schools, and that we were expected to carry ourselves well,” Droze recalls, “but that was it from the racial angle. You look back at [segregation] now and say, ‘How could things have been like that?’ It’s sad, and it’s wrong. But that’s the way it was.”
The practices were fantastic and wholly unproblematic, both Harris and Droze say. And once the ball was kicked off, race and history weren’t on anybody’s radar. It was all about beating St. John’s.
Johnnies Coach Joe Gallagher had built a powerhouse at the Catholic League school, compiling a record of 171-32-10 in the 21 years he ran the football program. Gallagher, whose team that year was all-white and undefeated, confesses he doesn’t remember much about the 1954 all-star game. “I’m 88-and-a-half years old, you know?” he says, laughing. “I remember we had a good team.”
But on this day, Gallagher’s squad wasn’t quite good enough. The All-Stars’ defense held St. John’s to five first downs and 94 total yards. And, with his team on offense and trailing by a point midway through the fourth quarter, Droze took a handoff and swept wide. Just before being walloped by a St. John’s tackler, he threw to the spot in the end zone where his tight end, Harris, was supposed to be.
Harris, who was also a track star at Cardozo and among the fastest guys in the city, remembers the catch. “Coaches designed that play,” he recalls. “Watching the St. John’s defense, my coach said, fake it to the inside and then turn it outside, use my speed, and the ball would be there. Danny put the ball right there. The timing was perfect.”
“I got carried off the field by my boys from Cardozo as soon as the game ended,” Harris says. “That was fantastic, everything you want. But I didn’t even get to talk to my teammates.”
And as Harris was carried away, he and Droze went their separate ways. In fact, they went 55 years without ever saying so much as “Nice pass!” or “Nice catch!” to each other.
But a few weeks ago, the winning white QB and black receiver, battery mates on the first racially mixed touchdown pass in the history of D.C. prep football, met again for the first time since that night they wore the same colors in Griffith Stadium.
Dave Kane, who was in the stands for the St. John’s vs. All-Stars matchup, brought Harris and Droze together. Kane was in junior high in the fall of 1954; he had attended the game to watch his big brother, St. John’s star fullback Jim Kane, who scored the only St. John’s touchdown in the game.
After his brother died several years ago, Kane’s nephew sent him a photo taken that showed Jim running away from Dave Harris, trying to avoid being tackled. And Kane, a D.C. native now living in Arizona, started thinking about the historical significance of the game, and became convinced that the game never got its due. He’s gathering as many participants as he can to pick their brains and film their recollections for a possible documentary. And he wants to have an exhibit about the event ready for the Smithsonian’s African-American Culture Museum when it opens on the Mall.
“My dad was an obstetrician, and we lived in a really nice house,” says Kane, who is white. “And I led a really segregated life at that time. The only blacks I saw were the maids and the help at the country club. And when I went to that game in 1954, I was there because my big brother was my hero, but watching that, I was stunned at the speed and ability of the black players. I’d never seen anything like that before. I’ve never forgotten that game. It’s been fascinating getting these guys to talk, and now I feel a responsibility to deliver something. This game definitely deserves the attention.”
When Droze and Harris got together, after a power hug, they both confessed that they don’t look much like they did when they last met. They talked about family and caught each other up on their subsequent athletic accomplishments—Harris played football and was a fraternity brother and occasional roommate of Wilt Chamberlain at the University of Kansas; Droze played football and baseball at the University of North Carolina and even had a stint as a rare white guy on a Negro Leagues baseball squad while deep in Dixie.
They traded memories about the play.
“I told him the pass was perfect,” says Harris.
But Droze had to confess that he missed Harris’ glory. He had gotten rid of the ball just before getting tackled and was on the ground beneath a St. John’s defender as the crowd roared. Whatever vision he has of the touchdown comes from a newspaper clipping his proud mother had put in the scrapbook she’d put together to chronicle her son’s deeds.
“I remember that in the photograph that ran in the paper, David Harris jumped so high to catch that ball that his feet are level with the defender’s shoulder pads,” Droze says. “It’s amazing.”
They didn’t spend much time dwelling on the racial or historic relevance of their first meeting more than half a century ago. The one-off teammates, however, talked about how much their bodies hurt from their long-ago athletic exploits.
“We had that in common,” says Harris.
Read Cheap Seats Daily every weekday morning at washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk.