Special Reports

Breaking Through: Mustangs of 1965 reunite, reflect on the perfect season (Part 3)

Myers Park High School's 1965 championship football team -- including stars Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick (left), Neb Hayden, Mack Tharpe and Harris Woodside -- gathered for a reunion in January 2013.
Myers Park High School's 1965 championship football team -- including stars Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick (left), Neb Hayden, Mack Tharpe and Harris Woodside -- gathered for a reunion in January 2013. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Third in a three-part series; originally published in February 2013

After he graduated from Myers Park High School in 1966, all Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick wanted to do was leave Charlotte, play football at Purdue University and never be the first or the only at anything again.

He finished his senior year as the first black star at Myers Park - a sensational running back who left all-black Second Ward High and then helped lead the predominantly white Mustangs to a perfect season. Kirkpatrick set a single-season school record of 19 touchdowns that still stands.

He did this amid one of the most dangerous, racially turbulent eras that the city had witnessed. Kirkpatrick’s outstanding performance and then surprising omission from Charlotte’s Shrine Bowl had inspired a racial equity lawsuit, followed by bombings, protests, marches and court hearings.

Kirkpatrick had hoped the Shrine Bowl decision would never be about race, and yet his name is forever tied to the integration of the all-star game that is still played annually. In 1966, the bowl ended its all-white history of 29 years.

Kirkpatrick, who had been so determined to fit in at Myers Park, had accomplished his goal: Get noticed, earn a scholarship and play college football. He had never wanted a fight. Now he was free of the rancor and ready for a new athletic challenge.

He’s lived 47 more years and better understands how his experiences in Charlotte and his family shaped his values and his choices, his successes and his mistakes.

In addition to the burden he carried on the football field, Kirkpatrick had a secret: His Myers Park teammates didn’t know Kirkpatrick had a baby with a former classmate at Second Ward High in October 1965. He says his mother, aunt and great-grandmother helped the mother raise their son.

Kirkpatrick was also struggling academically at Myers Park. He was being recruited by several major colleges to play football, and he hoped to attend Wake Forest. His SAT score didn’t meet the minimum requirements of the Atlantic Coast Conference, so he went to Purdue, which had one of the country’s top football programs. He spent his freshman year on academic probation, but raised his grades and joined the football team in 1967.

As a sophomore that year, he led the Big 10 in kickoff returns. The next season he teamed with Heisman Trophy runner-up Leroy Keyes in the starting backfield and averaged more than 5 yards per carry.

Then in a November game against Michigan State, Kirkpatrick suffered a serious knee injury, tearing his anterior and medial cruciate ligaments and cartilage. He was in a full leg cast for three months. He considered his college football career over.

And by then, his interests on campus had broadened. He was lead singer in a band, Jimmie K and the Souls, performing songs like James Brown’s “I Feel Good” at bars and fraternity parties.

The civil rights movement also drew him in. Growing up, Kirkpatrick had never wanted to offend anyone. But he was becoming more aware of inequity, partly because of his Myers Park experience, and less concerned about pleasing others. Many of his Purdue teammates and coaches didn’t approve.

“Of about 25,000 students at Purdue, only about a hundred were black and most of us were athletes, “ he says now. “Black players had to live in dorms and eat dorm food while white players had fraternities. ... Black players were not allowed to wear Afro-style haircuts or facial hair. We protested for more students of color.”

The protests worked. Black players got a fraternity. They were allowed to wear their hair as they pleased. And the number of black students increased slightly.

Unrest turns personal

Sports began to matter less, justice more. Kirkpatrick began protesting against the Vietnam War at Purdue and other campuses. In the civil rights events that surrounded him at Myers Park, he had watched activists risk their lives for a cause. He knew people who died in the war.

In the summer of 1969, he dropped out of school, turning his back on the scholarship.

“I knew this decision would disappoint many people including my family, “ he says.

His knee injury would keep him out of the Vietnam War. He joined protesters in California, where he lived in a commune in Berkeley for several months. Still restless, he moved up the coast to Oregon, first Portland and then the coastal town of Tillamook, where he worked on shrimp boats, in lumber mills and as a logger.

He also volunteered to coach Little League baseball. A parent of kids on his team learned of Kirkpatrick’s time at Purdue. That encounter led to a job in a private school, teaching and coaching. He began to understand what he wanted to do with his life.

He returned to college at Portland State and earned a bachelor’s in physical education at Oregon State in 1980. He married his wife, Vicki, in the summer of 1982. He continued his education, eventually earning a master’s degree from Oregon State.

Kirkpatrick’s son, Tony Covington, came to live with him in Oregon in the fall of 1982 for his final two high school years. He had been reared by his mother, Lillian Covington, who had married and moved to California. Kirkpatrick had stayed in touch with her, but was absent from his son’s life. After Covington divorced, she and Kirkpatrick decided their son needed a male influence.

“When I needed him, the opportunity was there for me, “ says Tony Covington, 47. “It’s been a blessing in my life that I’ve had him for guidance.”

Kirkpatrick says of his son: “I learned that it’s never too late to take care of your responsibilities.”

Kirkpatrick still lives in Portland, where he has shared his civil rights stories in high school classes, at church and summer camps.

He has always wanted to fill in some gaps. He’s wondered whether his 1964 Second Ward teammates understood why he left for Myers Park, and whether his Myers Park teammates understood the price he paid. So in January he came home to find out.

“I live in two different worlds when I come back to Charlotte, “ he says. “My black community, and then I see my white friends.”

Once rivals, now allies

The Second Ward-West Charlotte Breakfast Club meets Thursday mornings at the United House of Prayer in north Charlotte. Their history makes them unlikely allies.

As the largest black high schools in Charlotte, their rivalry raged for decades. They played a football game each year for bragging rights: the Queen City Classic in Memorial Stadium. Charlotte’s black community turned out by the thousands for a McDowell Street parade and a halftime “battle of the bands, “ which often overshadowed the game.

Now, alumni of the schools - many of them former athletes a few years older than Kirkpatrick - gather at the Breakfast Club and swap stories. But the club’s main goals are fellowship, fundraising and the opportunity to work with young people and the less fortunate. They also want to help Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

“We want to give the schools a look at how things were when we were growing up, “ says George Wallace, a club founder and a Second Ward quarterback. “With all the odds against us, we still made it. ... And we want to make sure that what happened to Second Ward doesn’t happen to West Charlotte.”

Second Ward closed in 1969 and was torn down.

Legacies of segregation linger. Charlotte’s westside is still predominantly African-American and most of its schools still struggle. Just more than half of the African-American students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools are on grade level in reading and math, compared with 89 percent of white students. At West Charlotte, students are suspended almost four times as often as the CMS average.

In 2010, leading philanthropists in Charlotte began what became Project LIFT, a public-private partnership with $55 million in pledges, targeting West Charlotte and its feeder schools. The goal: Work with families and children from prekindergarten to graduation to break cycles of academic failure in impoverished neighborhoods.

Grier Heights, where Kirkpatrick grew up, has a crime rate among the city’s worst. Residents there earn less than a third of the Charlotte average. The neighborhood association wants to reclaim its sense of security and community. “We think Grier Heights is going to make a turn for the better, “ Wallace says. “There are still some strong roots there and some people trying to make a difference.”

Community always has been especially important in the traditional African-American neighborhoods. When Kirkpatrick left Second Ward in 1965 to play football for Myers Park, he broke an unwritten code of loyalty. Some of his neighbors and teammates called him a sellout.

He attended the 10th reunion of Second Ward’s class of ’66. He wasn’t sure whether he should because he graduated from Myers Park, but he was welcomed. When the class photo was taken, he recalls principal Dr. E.E. Waddell saying, “Kirkpatrick, you’d better get up here with your classmates.”

Some of his Second Ward teammates are at the Breakfast Club in January when Kirkpatrick visits, but there are also hugs from West Charlotte alumni.

Kirkpatrick speaks briefly: “There were so many layers around growing up as a black kid in Charlotte, “ he says. “I grew up with a feeling of curiosity and challenge, and that came from my community. I’m indebted to you, my older brothers.”

Second Ward teammate Willie Spencer says he hated hearing Kirkpatrick was leaving because of new school boundaries in 1965. He heard Myers Park paid him to come play. Now, he appreciates what his former teammate went through.

“We all want our kids to do better than ourselves, and our grandchildren to do better than our children, “ Spencer says.

It was only later that he understood Kirkpatrick opened doors for others.

“Most white people then thought the worst if they saw black people coming, “ says former teammate Alton Ford. “With Kirkpatrick, they saw the best.”

Shrine Bowl nominees

On his visit to Charlotte in January, Kirkpatrick and 20 members of the 1965 Myers Park team gather for an Observer photo at their old stadium, now named for their coach, Gus Purcell. It’s changed little in 47 years. But they have. It takes awhile for some to recognize one another.

The Mustangs were 11-0 that season and Western Regional champions. Some went on to play college football. Others never played again. Some stayed in Charlotte. Others, like Mack Tharpe, left.

Like Kirkpatrick, Tharpe was an outsider then. A powerful fullback and linebacker, he was ineligible to play for his school in Greenwood, S.C., because he had married in December 1964. He transferred to Myers Park, played a championship season of football and then returned to his Greenwood home for spring classes and graduation.

Quarterback Neb Hayden, the team’s leader, drove from Georgia and picked up Tharpe along the way. Harris Woodside, a three-time Charlotte Observer all-county end, came up from Columbia.

Those three and Kirkpatrick were nominated for the Shrine Bowl in 1965. Hayden and Tharpe made the team. No black player had ever made the bowl, and Kirkpatrick’s omission was cause for a discrimination lawsuit and the strife that came with it.

The men who gathered for the photo don’t remember much about that lawsuit or the bombings of four civil rights leaders’ homes in Charlotte. They were focused on football, and on their team, which had a chemistry they all agree was distinctive in their lives. The Mustangs were rare. Few other football teams were integrated then, and even fewer had played with their camaraderie and confidence.

Nick Karres, a defensive tackle, helped organized the team photo and invited the team back to his business, the Double Door Inn, one of the longest-standing tavern and music clubs in Charlotte. The Double Door is just blocks from Memorial Stadium, where the Mustangs beat Garinger to win the regional championship.

They eat fried chicken from South 21 Drive-In - one of the few restaurants from the 1960s still operating today. They joke about Purcell’s famous temper and how he dodged profanity (”Doggone it, boys!”).

Kirkpatrick, Hayden and end David Stanley, who loved to harmonize on the team bus, reprise the ad jingle from Stanley’s Drug Store, another onetime Charlotte institution owned by Stanley’s family.

The 1965 season can’t mean to all of them what it meant to Kirkpatrick. But they do confirm the lessons they learned: Work as a team to drive toward a goal. Leadership matters. Familiarity can overcome differences.

‘The simplest thing’

Kirkpatrick was the first black person Hayden got to know well. Hayden remembers they came to his home between two-a-day practices and sometimes fell asleep on his bed.

Hayden would later play quarterback at Alabama. After that, he was involved in racial reconciliation efforts in Selma, Ala. He also met in Washington with activists Dick Gregory, Rosie Grier and Coretta Scott King.

“We talked about this whole issue and they said the simplest thing, “ Hayden recalls, standing with Kirkpatrick, Tharpe and Woodside. “They said if you want to make an impact in the lives across racial issues, you’ve got to become friends socially. ... You’ve got to have me over to your house. ... We need to hear each other’s story and that will make the difference.”

Tears roll down Kirkpatrick’s face. “My mom always said that the best way to change things was to let people know who you were, and I agree with Neb on that.

“I’ve always believed that, if they got to know me ... that people could move forward, and that has always been my experience. And so I’m emotional just to hear. It kind of validates a lot for me.”

What that year meant

The gathering is nearly over when someone asks Kirkpatrick about 1965.

It was hard to leave Second Ward and his neighborhood, he says. People were angry. Some called him names, just as some white opponents and fans called him names.

“There are still a lot of people who say I was a sellout or a traitor, “ he says. “There was a real split about integration. Was it good or bad?

“I was thinking: Should I go there because I really want to? Or is it because I’m a good athlete? It was all those things.

“What people think of you is important as a teenager. How you’ll be treated when you go back to Grier Town. ... But because you were so supportive and we were so successful, it made it more than worth it.”

The room is quiet, then Bill Farthing, a senior receiver in 1965 and now a Charlotte lawyer, says the team owes Kirkpatrick a response. I won’t be as eloquent as you, he says.

“Our first exposure in race relations of any significance was Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick, “ Farthing says. “He was one of the most extraordinary examples of grace, humility, courage, a desire to work together, a simple commitment of working together that had nothing to do with race.

“That is our experience. It positioned each of us to be better people when confronted with race issues of today. That started with Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick, and we thank you for that. ... You enabled us to grow.

“What you went through, we were blind to appreciate.”

47 years of reflection

Weeks later, Kirkpatrick is still trying to put his visit in perspective.

“People can overcome a lot if they have a strong foundation of beliefs and they don’t limit themselves based on differences, “ he says.

Kirkpatrick worked for about 20 years in Portland as a teacher, coach and assistant principal. At times, he was the first or only African-American in his position or among a leadership team. Other times, he was picked to help with diversity issues.

As an assistant principal until 2002 at Parkrose High in Portland, he helped manage an influx of gangs - African-American, white supremacists, Asian and Latino. “Jimmie brought a perspective that others didn’t, “ says former Parkrose principal Peter Nordbye. “Jimmie was always there for you. He never backed down from a difficult situation.”

Kirkpatrick also made decisions that cost him. In 2002, he left Parkrose for an assistant principal job in the Portland city schools. He tested positive for marijuana, left Portland schools and voluntarily received counseling. Struggling with his marriage, he left Portland. He came back to Charlotte, where he worked as an assistant principal at Myers Park in 2003. Only a few longstanding employees knew of his days as a Mustang football star. After one year, he missed his wife and their two sons and returned to Portland.

“My road has never been smooth, “ he says. “I tried to make sure I came out of it better than I came into it as a person. ... I don’t like to let people down. ... I don’t make excuses for what has happened to me. I deal with it.”

Now, he teaches physical education at Portland Community College. He also works in a juvenile detention center, where he’s known as someone especially good at handling serious conflict. At 64, he hopes he has yet another chapter in his career.

This trip to Charlotte has enhanced the story he’s told kids during Black History Month. He has had his own interpretation of what the 1965 season meant, when football became a civil rights issue. Now he knows that season mattered to others, too.

He’s also learned how much Charlotte affected his life choices and how he has dealt with both accomplishments and setbacks.

Let them get to know you, his mother Irma would say, and then they will like you and you can open a door for others. His Myers Park teammates validated her words.

Grier Heights was a tough neighborhood and it taught him how to handle confrontations. That’s helped in tense school situations and at the detention facility.

“At Myers Park, I learned about being the only person in a situation where everyone else knows each other and about being less prepared, “ he says. “I know I have the ability to learn, grow and adapt.”

Charlotte raised me, Kirkpatrick says.

“I’ve always wondered, “ he says. “Now I know.”

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