Dads, Bearcats, and memories

By Wesley Harris

It’s odd how childhood memories remain so vivid when you cannot recall yesterday’s lunch. Some events make such an impression that they stick with us for a lifetime. 

With Ruston High football back in fine form and entering the playoffs, I’m reminded of sporting events I attended as a child. 

I remember numerous trips to Ruston’s Fraser Field in what was then Woodland Park on the Chatham Highway. I can picture it now. The pow of a foul ball pinging off the tin roof, the dusty darkness surrounding the field, the huddles of old men discussing strategy, the cigar smoke mingling with the aroma of freshly roasted peanuts. Those stick with me more than the action on the field.

I know I attended several football games as a preteen, but I only recall one. The intensity of the experience has brought it to mind many times in the past 50 years, and as I watch the Bearcats edge closer to playoff time, that game plays out in my mind.

The 1968 contest pitted the hometown Bearcats against the Woodlawn High Knights. My dad said it was an important game because it featured two of the best high school quarterbacks in the country. I had to take his word. I knew little about football and nothing about the high school teams. Both my parents had attended Ruston High—not at the same time—and it would be my school in four years, but at eleven years old, that seemed far away.

We arrived at the stadium at the end of the third quarter. Perfect timing, because that’s when ticket sales ended, and admission was free. We always went at the beginning of the fourth quarter so we wouldn’t have to pay. My parents had scraped together enough for a fine new house but treats like popcorn and drinks were out of the question. I did not grasp just how poor we really were, having to forego many indulgences to keep that roof over our heads.

Ruston High’s stadium is much larger now, but in 1968 the home stands wouldn’t hold many fans. The visitor bleachers were even smaller. With no empty seats available, we joined a huge crowd ringing the field. Dad and I worked our way through the mass and stood just inches from the flag marking the back of the end zone.

I never knew who had the ball at any given time. Following the action from eye level 50-80 yards away presents a challenge for those who know the game well. I didn’t. The teams moved closer to our end of the field. The crowd jostled and shifted as men jockeyed for better positions. Everyone towered over me. I was afraid the throng would push me right into the field of play. I could not think of a greater sin. 

A spectator yelled at an official standing near the goal line. “Say, Sam, can’t you move that flag up a little closer?” pointing to the marker at the goal line. I did not know if the fan was on our side or pulling for the other team. 

Who were the quarterbacks? I had no idea. I didn’t know the next morning. Much later in life I researched the game and learned why it attracted an overflow crowd. The Woodlawn quarterback was a lanky kid named Joe Ferguson who would go on to have a stellar career with the Buffalo Bills in the NFL. The hometown quarterback was the son of another hometown football hero. Bert Jones, branded the “Ruston Rifle,” possessed an unbelievably powerful arm. He played for the Baltimore Colts until injury ended his career. 

It was a classic matchup of two of the country’s greatest college, and eventually, professional, prospects. But it is not why I think so fondly of that game. My dad thought enough to get me there, if only for the last quarter. A game that, for our small town, was an event of historic proportions. 

Our culture minimizes fathers. Nearly every TV sitcom portrays the father as the comic relief of the show. He is not a leader but a clown, often living in another realm from the rest of the family.

I have heard the average American father spends less than eight uninterrupted minutes per week with his children. Some, obviously, are not part of the family at all. Others busy themselves with work, the sports channel, the bass boat, or the hunting lease. My dad never went fishing without his sons. He never took in a ball game without us. We spent hours exploring in the woods. Together.

The trend I see at sporting events today disappoints me. The grownups take their reserved seats while the children run off to do their own thing. Hide and seek, chasing a ball, whatever. Moments like the ones I spent beside my dad as he explained the game and later as I discussed the field action with my children seem a quaint but curious remnant of the past. 

If we continue to have children but refuse to provide fatherly guidance, wisdom, and companionship, our only alternative is to pray to God that despite this shortcoming, somehow, they will succeed in life.