There are those moments when I feel lucky to have my job, for reasons that have nothing to do with the overall economy or the state of newspapers. No, just because of the work. Talking lately to former schoolboy stars Dave Harris and Dan Droze and other folks who had some role in the 1954 D.C. City Championship football game gave me the work-as-its own reward sensation again and again and again.
Their story of coming together, both as kids for a football game then again for a reunion a half a century later, is incredible.
That 1954 game was the first integrated sporting event in D.C. schools history, though it didn’t receive much recognition as such at the time or in the years since.
It was played several months after the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education ruling. D.C. schools had historically been completely segregated, as were public school athletics, with separate divisions for white schools (Division 1) and black schools (Division 2). In previous years, the football season had ended with a game matching the Catholic League champion against the titlist of the white schools league, called division, and that winner was recognized as the city champion. The black schools champ had no subsequent title game.
Officials with D.C. schools moved fast to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling in most areas of their operation. But the decision banning segregation had come down too late for the 1954 football schedules to be reworked. So athletic officials decided that to respect the spirit of Brown vs. Board of Education, the 1954 city championship game would pit the Catholic League champs, from undefeated all-white powerhouse St. John’s, against an integrated all-star team from the public schools, with a roster melding the best players from Division 1 and Division 2.
Harris was a star with all-black Cardozo. Droze played for all-white Anacostia, and was hailed as at least the best white football player in town, and Anacostia was the best white team.
But on Dec. 4, 1954, Harris and Droze were teammates.
Harris, who grew up on 13th & Florida Ave. NW near Cardozo, had never even been on a playing field of any sort with whites before he practiced for the city title game. He lives in Fort Washington, Md. now, and remembers his Cardozo coach, Sal Hall, preparing him for the encounter by emphasizing the racial aspects, and acting as if the whole event was world-changing. Even as a teenager, Harris approached the title game as much more than a game. And all these decades later, he remains convinced that the event was a big step in a process that changed this country and the world.
Anacostia coaches didn’t make a big deal out of the game’s integration angle, as Droze recalls things. Droze now says that it gets harder with each passing year to believe that such strict racial segregation existed in his hometown, even for a guy who lived through it.
“You look back at it now and say, `How could things have been like that?’” he says. “It’s sad, and it’s wrong. But that’s the way it was.”
The game was played at Griffith Stadium, the big league coliseum off 7th St. NW where the Washington Redskins and Washington Senators played. And, turns out kids of different races could play quite well together.
Especially Harris and Droze.
In the fourth quarter of the game, with Public School All-Stars with the ball and trailing the Johnnies by a point, Droze took a handoff and swept wide. Just as St. John’s defenders got to him, Droze threw a pass to a spot in the end zone where Harris was supposed to be. Harris, who was also a track star at Cardozo, was there, and made a leaping catch for a touchdown, giving the underdog all-stars the upset win, 12-7.
The Washington Post ran several stories about the city title game and how it ended, but there was no hint in the write-ups of the historic nature of the event. There was no mention of race anywhere to be found, in fact. This was just a big game with a great ending, in an era when high schools sports was a big deal.
As the gun sounded to end the game, Harris was lifted on the shoulders of fans from Cardozo, and carried off the field. So he didn’t talk to Droze about the winning play, or anything else, that day.
“The white players went to the white side of town, the black players went to the black side of town,” Harris says.
And they stayed apart, as Droze went off to play football at North Carolina and Harris did the same at Kansas, and had professional careers and families and, well, lived their lives.
But a couple weeks ago, after 55 years, Harris and Droze, the battery mates on the first racially mixed touchdown pass of the first integrated schoolboy game ever played in DC, met again for the first time since the big day.
Harris and Droze were brought together again by Dave Kane, a DC native who had attended the 1954 city title game as a junior high student to watch his big brother play for St. John’s. Kane, who would later be a fine athlete at DeMatha, is now trying to get the game recognized as the historic event that it was.
“I’m doing this for my brother,” Kane tells me. “And because people should know about this game.”
At their reunion, Droze confessed that he was on the ground under a pile of tacklers when Harris caught the ball, so he never saw the touchdown. His memories of the play come from a photo Droze’s mother had cut out from a newspaper story for her scrapbook that showed Harris leaping over a defender to make the catch.
“Great pass,” Harris told Droze after a half a century.
“Thanks for making me famous,” Droze told Harris after half a century.
As for how far we’ve come or how far we have to go as a city or society since that first integrated game, well, we could look at the last football game that will be played in the city this year. The private schools and public schools champion don’t meet any more, because of a massive race riot at D.C. Stadium in 1962.
So now the Turkey Bowl simply puts the two best public schools teams against each other. This year’s matchup, played Thursday, is Woodson vs. Ballou.
There will be no white players on either squad.
(More on the Harris and Droze reunion after 55 years apart, and the personal and dramatic reasons Kane has pursued the story of the 1954 city title game, later this week in my next Cheap Seats. I’m grateful for getting the chance to try to tell their tale.)