LOSING LUMBERJACK FOOTBALL

22 July 2018

 In July 2018, Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, announced that it was terminating its football program. It was said to cost too much to run. There had been some local efforts to raise private money, but that had fallen short of the necessary goal.

   I was sorry to hear that about my alma mater. During my years  in the Redwoods (1957-1963), Lumberjack Football was an integral part of the "college experience." Now, I know that college is supposed to be for learning - and I did pretty well in that endeavor (after flunking out on my first try) - but for many of us college was a transition into a new (and if we lived through it) adult life. I remember, and relish, the education, but my fondest memories center around the school activities. I remember the folk singers' concert in the cafeteria, when I met my wife-to-be (nearly 60 years ago, now). I remember the Lumberjack basketball team playing the Harlem Clowns (we lost), and our basketball team going against the 49ers football team. We lost that one, too, but not by much, and the playing and the court antics of Y. A. Tittle, Hugh McElhenny, John Brodie, and others of our pro football heroes made it all worthwhile. But, mostly, I remember our own football team.

The team record wasn't great in 1957 and 1958, but they were both winning seasons (6 and 4, and 7 and 2 and a tie). The student stands at Redwood Bowl were usually packed for home games, and we cheered our 'Jacks long and loud, although often the mud on the field - and soon on the uniforms - made it almost impossible to tell which team was which. College Football, to us, was noisy, energetic Mud-ball.

   As I recall, we had pretty good community presence at those games. (I also remember that all the half-time activities were directed across the field to the "paying customers," not to the student bleachers.) That community interest began to grow with the 1959 season, as the Lumberjacks came to life. We lost big in the opener to San Francisco State, but then won the next nine. The 1960 season saw a continuation of wins - often by substantial margins - and excitement both on and off campus increased. The games that year were played at Albee Stadium in Eureka, and the stands were always full. The last game of the 1960 season, against Whitworth College, was the nineteenth win in a row for our team, attracted some 10,000 people (by far, the biggest crowd ever), and brought the two-season scoring total to 498 points for Humboldt against 226 points for our opponents. An invitation to the Holiday Bowl, the national small college championship, sent local Football Fever into orbit.

   The Holiday Bowl in 1960 was played at St. Petersburg, Florida, and our opponent was Lenoir-Rhyne College, a team that few if any of us had ever heard on. They were a small Lutheran college in North Carolina, and they were good. We lost, but only by one point. The loss was hard to take, after the two winning seasons, but it wouldn't have felt quite so bad if it hadn't been accompanied by an education in Southern Reality -   blatant racial discrimination.

   I grew up in Oakland, California - a city notorious for racial tensions - but I missed most of it. We lived in kind of a middle-class transition area: our neighborhood was all White, but our high school had many Black and Oriental students. In effect, we lived together without living together. There never seemed to be any "racial trouble" where I was, but I suspect I was pretty naive about what went on. 

My naivety, and that of many other Humboldters, disappeared with Florida, in that December in 1960. On arrival in Florida, our team discovered that our five Black players couldn't stay in the same hotel as the rest of the team. They also learned that the team couldn't eat together in any restaurant in town. Both our college President and the Governor of California protested the segregated facilities, but were told it was the "State law." Later, our head coach was quoted as saying that the team was treated very well in Florida (presumably, not counting the segregation and discrimination!), but the returning players had quite a different story to tell of rudeness and disrespect by the other team, the game referees, and the general public. California had its problems, but we all found we liked our brand of "America" better than that encountered south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

   Lumberjack football didn't end with the Holiday Bowl. The next two seasons were winning ones, though not as decisive. After Sally and I left Humboldt in 1963, we followed team results as we could. I know there were winning seasons and losing seasons, and even a couple that approached the excitement of the march to the Holiday Bowl. Win or lose, I feel pretty confident that football continued to be an important part of college life for many students. I know it's expensive to maintain a sports program, and I know there are concerns about the safety of the game, but I think Humboldt is losing a significant part of itself. Again, I'm sorry to see it go.


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© Sanford Wilbur 2018