Before the state championship, the 53-game winning streak and the legend materialized, there was the storm.
With more than 10,000 in attendance — more than 3,000 of those from Charlottesville — at Richmond’s Parker Field on November 1, 1963, undefeated Lane clashed with fellow unbeaten Douglas Freeman in a game functioning as the de facto Group 1A state championship in conditions The Daily Progress’ Bob Brown described as “not fit for ducks, geese or any other so-called water fowl.” Horizontal rain whipped across the players’ torsos, while swirling winds lifted sand from the converted baseball diamond and bore into their skin.
“We knew the marbles were on the table then,” Gene Arnette, the team’s senior quarterback that year, said. “That was huge. The whole city turned out.”
Coach Tommy Theodose’s Lane players, it appeared, needed the effort of their lives in trying circumstances with the hopes of an entire community in the balance.
In other words, they were in their comfort zone.
Even now, Brock Strickler can’t help it.
“If I see Coach Theodose or [Joe] Bingler or [Ralph] Harrison today,” Strickler said, “My first immediate thought is, ‘oh God, don’t piss them off. They’re going to make me run a wind sprint.’”
After winning nine straight games to finish 1962, Lane dominated the seven opponents that preceded Douglas Freeman, never yielding more than 200 yards and torching defenses thanks largely to Arnette, Strickler, junior tailbacks Mickey Bickers and Chip Robinson, tight end George Foussekis and sturdy line play. But on the practice field, the players were at the mercy of Theodose, Bingler and Harrison. All three coaches valued preparation and physical fitness above all else.
“We won a lot of ball games because we were probably in better shape than anybody,” Theodose said. “We just believed in it. We emphasized it.”
In enduring the agonizing practices and verbal recrimination together, though, the Black Knights forged bonds that will last forever.
“Something happened back then that congealed us, to make us feel bonded,” senior right guard George King said. “It wasn’t just winning the championship. It was kind of thumping each other around and resolving those kind of issues on the field, physically.”
Theodose’s offensive playbook, according to Arnette, consisted of 12 plays built around a triple belly option that he made his players drill until they could run the plays comatose. Bingler supervised line play on both sides, while Harrison served as a catchall where he could.
All the while, the players grew to venerate, rather than respect, their authoritative coaches. The coaches were tough, they agreed, but fair; demanding, but always supportive. As much as anything, Strickler and company gave maximum effort to avoid disappointing the good men they played for.
“I think we demanded that respect on the field,” Strickler said. “But on the practice field, we were trying to earn that respect. Because they were men that deserved [that effort].”
It had been four years since Lane High School admitted African-Americans when King, juniors Ronald and Roland Woodfolk and sophomore Paul Scott suited up for the 1963 season to become the first black players on an integrated team in Virginia. While white players said they hardly considered their teammates’ ethnicities, King could not ignore the undercurrent of tension.
“In my mind, those were things that were going on at the time,” King said. “They might not have been going for anyone else, but they were going on for me.”
Four of 42 African-Americans in Lane’s 1,458 student population, they had all arrived from all-black Burley High School, a football powerhouse in its own right. The transition wore on King and the Woodfolks, who had grown up with their Burley classmates and envisioned starring as athletes there before enrolling at Lane to meet with stares and murmurs.
Theodose proved a saving grace, promising King, the Woodfolks and Scott playing time if they made the football roster.
“That made it a lot of easier,” Ronald Woodfolk said. “There was still a lot of tension on the academic side of it. But the sports made it more tolerable.”
After six mostly tranquil weeks, the Black Knights traveled to play George Washington in Danville October 25. Months of rioting and racial turmoil had attracted national scrutiny to the Southern Virginia town.
The pregame buildup portended disaster. Coaches and players ate on the side of the team bus when a Danville restaurant refused to serve the black players before the game. And the George Washington players greeted the Lane team in stony, menacing silence, many of them watching King, the Woodfolks and Scott.
The Black Knights, as they had all year, bulldozed away any drama, walloping GW-Danville 27-0 and outgaining them 439-138. For the Woodfolks, the sweetest moment arrived after the clock had expired.
“The thing I took away from the game other than winning,” Roland Woodfolk said, “was the fact that the opposing team members came up to me and said they’d never played with blacks before, but they’d be happy to play with us anytime.
“I thought that was the ultimate compliment.”
Motown and Greyhounds
On the day of the Freeman game, some of Lane’s highest profile fans had to play a concert. Larry Shifflett and Ronnie Pugh, however, weren’t going to miss this.
“We put the game on the PA system,” Shifflett said, chuckling.
That Saturday, he and Pugh were playing a gig with the Detours, the high school band which played in the gym after every home game. They had become ingrained in the 1963 football ritual for Lane High School: watch the Black Knights win, dance to some Motown and rhythm and blues, and have a ball.
Soon enough, the high school-wide fervor surrounding Lane football bloomed into area-wide hysteria.
“It was a magical time,” Foussekis said. “It was the talk of the community. The whole community was behind us. Friday night, Lane High School football, that was the talk of the town.”
Betty Thompson, a senior cheerleader at the time, remembers how what started as a football season morphed into something preternatural for her classmates — as if destiny had ordained their childhood years conclude with something they would cherish forever.
“All the stars were lined up for Lane that year,” Thompson said. “It was a special year, especially since we were seniors.”
In Theodose’s eyes, all the success and resultant hoopla relaxed some of the local disquiet lingering over Virginia’s first integrated high school team.
“It didn’t make any difference if anybody was black or white,” Theodose said. “They just wanted to keep the streak alive. They would all get together. The only thing that mattered was winning.”
Not even a biblical downpour could damper Charlottesville’s zeal for Lane football, as Foussekis realized when he peered back at the parking lot while departing to play Freeman.
“I could see all the buses line up from the local people coming to the game,” Foussekis said. “There must have been 30 Greyhound trailways buses lined up there in the parking lot.”
Lane 13, Douglas Freeman 0
Once again, Lane made it look easy. The defense stonewalled Freeman, surrendering only 111 yards and never allowing the Rebels to cross their own 40. Arnette, meanwhile, all but sealed his state “Best Player of the Year” award with two touchdowns and impeccable stewardship of a sturdy ball-control attack. The game still lives in Virginia high school lore.
“A lot of people I ran into in my later life were at that game; this was such a big game,” Rich Severin, a senior halfback and safety in 1963, said. “And they said ‘boy, you guys were really good.’”
Lane trounced its final two opponents to clinch the championship, extend its winning streak to 19 games, outscored its 1963 opponents 274-38 with five shutouts, and never beat a team by less than 13 points. The facts and figures highlight one of the most dominant teams in Charlottesville area history, one that sailed smoothly through a dreamlike season.
But the numbers say nothing of the storms the Black Knights weathered.
They tell little about the three men who inspired their players to pour their heart and sinew into every last wind sprint; or the four black boys who shrugged off the condescending stares and insults; or the thousands of fans who weathered biblical downpours to watch a team they knew would never forget, and maybe boogie to some swingin’ tunes after the game.
It’s those tales of riding out the rain to reach the clear skies that grant the 1963 Lane football season its immortality.
“That ephemeral something that brought together a lot of elements from a lot of different angles and a lot of different attitudes and places all came together, and it made a nice meal,” King said.
“Everything that was in it made it taste better.”