At halftime of Myers Park High’s home football game Friday, the Mustangs’ unbeaten team from the 1965 season will take a long-awaited bow in Gus Purcell Stadium.
“This is going to be incredible for us,” said Nick Karres, a senior defensive tackle on the team who still lives in Charlotte. “When that season ended, everything just ended for us. That was it. We’ve never really been together or celebrated or culminated that season.”
The 1965 Mustangs will be honored Friday during the Mustangs’ home game with Sun Valley on the 50th anniversary of their perfect season – one that oddly didn’t include winning a state championship (there was no state title game for 4A schools that year). Instead, Myers Park was crowned the Western Regional champion.
But football wasn’t the only reason those Mustangs were newsworthy that year. Playing during an era of civil rights unrest, an off-the-field drama also unfolded involving star running back Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick. It set Charlotte on edge, drew national attention and eventually gave black players opportunities to play in the Shrine Bowl, the most prestigious high school all-star game in the Carolinas.
Charlotte schools had started to integrate eight years earlier. Kirkpatrick, a student who lived in the predominantly black neighborhood of Grier Heights, chose to attend Myers Park over all-black Second Ward High.
Kirkpatrick was one of about 100 black students at Myers Park. He was popular on campus, and his skills on the football field set him apart. Kirkpatrick, who was called racist names and spit on by opponents, was on his way to becoming one of the greatest running backs to ever play high school football in Charlotte. He still holds the Myers Park all-time record for touchdowns scored with 19.
But when nominations came out to play in December’s Shrine Bowl in Charlotte’s Memorial Stadium, Kirkpatrick was excluded. Coaches said the decision not to invite Kirkpatrick wasn’t based on his race, although in the 28 years of the Shrine Bowl, there had never been a black player. Two other Mustangs – both white – were chosen to play in the game.
Kirkpatrick handled the situation with an uncommon grace, never complaining publicly and supporting the selection of his teammates – quarterback Neb Hayden and fullback Mack Tharpe.
A young Charlotte lawyer named Julius Chambers, though, sued to have the game halted. The game was allowed to be played, but Judge Braxton Craven ordered the Shrine Bowl to come up with a new player-selection policy.
The next season, two black players were chosen to play for North Carolina in the Shrine Bowl.
The homes of four civil rights leaders, including Chambers, were bombed just days after Craven’s decision. Chambers, who died in August 2013, said he always believed the bombings were because of the Shrine Bowl lawsuit.
Kirkpatrick’s story was the subject of a 2013 Observer series called “Breaking Through.” About 20 members of the 1965 Mustangs returned to Charlotte for a brief reunion and to talk about what that season meant to them. Friday, they’ll gather again in the stadium named after the man who coached that team and many others at Myers Park.
“Everybody is so excited to come back; a lot of us haven’t seen each other in 50 years,” said Karres. “This is long awaited, long overdue.”